The Formation of a New National Government Policy: Changing Sake into Kokushu

The very recent character of the promotion of ‘kokushu and the related unfamiliarity of the Japanese people with this term are evident from the fact that a search conducted in August 2015 resulted in zero hits. It is rather ironic that the first close hits actually lead one to China, because adding the character Ф turns ‘kokushu into ‘chugokushu , which translates as ‘Chinese alcoholic beverages’, a term that thus seems much more familiar in the Japanese language than ‘(Japanese/our) national alcoholic beverage’. Although a pure sake activist used the slogan ‘Sake wa kokushu de aru in his writings as early as the 1990s, the sake industry and the government hardly took notice. This is not that strange considering that at the time more than 90% of the annual output comprised sake with added alcohol, and the industry looks upon advocates of pure sake with no added alcohol as troublemakers, who are best ignored. However, in the new government-led policy to increase the production and consumption of sake the promotion of sake as Japan’s national drink is central, as is evident in both the English name (‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’) and the Japanese name (‘Kokushu wo tanoshimo) used in the related project and campaign.[1]

The government definition of sake rather derives from the definition by the Sake Samurai project of the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council, although in the former case the term ‘kokushu , written with the archaic character И, is used in related writings whenever possible. Both the Cabinet Secretariat’s website on the state strategy to promote kokushu and the final report of the Advisory Committee for the Promotion of ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ start out with this definition of kokushu:

Japanese sake and shochu (including awamori), Japan’s national alcoholic beverages (kokushu), are made of the ingredients rice and water etc., which are representative of Japan. Moreover, they symbolize Japan’s climate and landscape, and the perseverance, politeness and delicateness of the Japanese. In other words, they are ‘the crystallization of Japaneseness’.[2]

The above definition is from the final report of the advisory committee. The almost identical definition on the Cabinet Secretariat’s website omits awamori, which is a fairer representation of the fact that in all the related discussions and documents awamori is completely absent. However, although shochu is mentioned in both definitions, it should not conceal the fact that in most cases it is rendered invisible by using the term kokushu-to (national alcoholic drink, etc.). In the practical deliberations there is hardly any mention of shochu and no specific strategy for the promotion of this distilled drink is seriously contemplated. On the advisory committee, there was only one member with vested interests in the shochu industry who accordingly focused his contribution on this drink, but all the other members remained mostly silent about this ‘second kokushu 2 Moreover, Prime Minister Abe has not been seen promoting bottles of shochu in his encounters with foreign statesmen.

The above is hardly different from the stance of the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council. Its mother organization, the Nihon Shuzo Kumiai Chuokai, nowadays goes under a new English title, namely the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, and accordingly the abbreviation and logo of the association also changed from JSBA to JSS. However, there is no sign whatsoever that the organization's Junior Council is ready to include the promotion of the sister product into its activities and also award Shochu Samurai titles. Another similarity with the Sake Samurai project is that within the framework of the ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ project, the cause for the crisis in the sake industry is also found in the diversification of tastes of the Japanese consumers, together with the decrease in, and the ageing of Japan’s population.[3] [4]

Classified as a state strategy (kokka senryaku), the ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ project started out in 2012 and, judging by the information provided by the Cabinet's Secretariat, considerable government attention and activity were concentrated in this area in a year that was to be the last in the reign of the cabinets led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). On 11 May 2012, the launch of the government campaign was proclaimed by Furukawa Motohisa, the Special Minister in Charge of State Strategies. From 28 May 2012 onwards, the government-instated Advisory Committee on the Promotion of ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ (‘Kokushu wo tanoshimo’,

Suishin Kyogikai) was convened four times.[5] Concomitantly, on 31 July 2012, the government campaign was positioned as a model project to stimulate internal and external demand within the ‘Revitalization of Japan Strategy’ of the Japanese Cabinet. The meetings of the advisory committee resulted in the ‘Programme for the Export Promotion of Kokushu Etc’, which was officially presented on 4 September 2012, the day of the committee’s last meeting. Two weeks later, the committee’s activities and recommendations were inherited by the Inter-Ministerial Meeting on the Export Promotion of Kokushu Etc (Kokushu-to no Yushutsu Sokushin Renraku Kaigi).[6] Whereas the advisory committee consisted of industry representatives and other informed specialists, the combined meeting was an internal government affair, manned by five officials from the Cabinet Office and one official from each of the ministries involved.[7] After the ousting of the DPJ-led cabinet and the second rise of a Liberal Democratic Party-led cabinet by Abe Shinzo at the end of2012, the name of the inter-ministerial meeting was minimally changed to Inter-Ministerial Meeting on the Export Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks Made in Japan (Nihon-san Shurui no Yushutsu Sokushin Renraku Kaigi) on 11 January 2013. Apart from this name change deleting the keyword of kokushu, it is also interesting to see that the government activities were no longer within the framework of‘state strategies’ but part of ‘the promotion of Cool Japan’ and fell under the jurisdiction of the Special Minister in Charge of the Cool Japan Strategy.[8] For the sake of brevity, I will limit myself in this chapter to the opinions vented within the Advisory Committee on the Promotion of ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’. An analysis of the discussions within and the activities by the still existent ‘Inter-Ministerial Meeting on the Export Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks Made in Japan’ will be the focus of a separate publication.

Painfully aware of the fact that the following will make for rather terse reading, I nonetheless consider it important to give an overview of the basic ideas shared by the Advisory Committee on the Promotion of ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ and the concrete policies it recommends, compiled in its 19-page final report entitled ‘Programme for the Promotion of Export of Kokushu Etc’.[9] The basic ideas are as follows:

1. On the bandwagon of the global popularity of Japanese food, there is increasing potential for the export of kokushu, etc.[10] Concomitantly, we can also expect increasing demand for traditional artefacts such as sake and food utensils. 2. Hopefully, the increasing overseas recognition of kokushu will encourage the Japanese to rediscover the value of kokushu. 3. Moreover, sake breweries have a central function in regional society. Together with other tourist attractions in the region, they can attract lovers of kokushu, etc. from both inside and outside Japan, and provide the stimulus for the revitalization of the countryside. Sake brewery tourism will result in a direct experience of Japanese culture.

The concrete policies recommended come in seven categories and are as follows:

A. Marketing Strategy: (1) Collecting and sharing market data. (2) Conceiving of different strategies for different markets. (3) Focusing on the major (wine) hubs of New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong;

B. Branding of kokushu: (1) Using diplomatic venues for the promotion of kokushu. (2) Making a special kokushu logo. (3) Organizing kokushu events aimed at foreign journalists and other opinion leaders. Promoting kokushu as Japanese culture. Government awards for foreigners contributing to the spread of kokushu. Further participation in international competitions. (4) Creating a uniform and easy to understand system of labelling;

C. Creating an export infrastructure: (1) Breaking down import restrictions in other countries (partly Fukushima-related). (2) Lowering alcohol taxes in other countries. (3) Protecting the sake trademark. (4) Streamlining inter-ministerial cooperation;

D. Expansion of sales channels on foreign markets: (1) Linking of sake producers and traders. (2) Development of products and ways of drinking aimed at foreign markets. Suggesting pairings with local cuisine. Co-operating with famous local chefs. (3) Using the JETRO network. Fairs, business matching. (4) Developing ways to use E-commerce to target foreign customers;

E. Promoting the correct understanding of kokushu: (1) Making textbooks. (2) Implementing education. Organizing seminars for foreign professionals. Establishing sake programmes at foreign wine and spirits education institutions. Guaranteeing the quality of education. Providing breweries with staff that can communicate with the outside world. Educating Japanese government officials. (3) Establishing a unified sake connoisseur/sommelier qualification;

F. Strengthening the industrial infrastructure supporting the export of kokushu. Linking sake exports to the increase in rice production, and the revitalization of agriculture;

G. Vitalization of the countryside through sake brewery tourism. Turning sake breweries into professional tourist attractions. Linking with other tourist facilities and creating tourist courses. Making sake breweries accessible to foreigners. Using resident foreigners as transmitters of information.

Notwithstanding the government’s new and very proactive stance towards the promotion of sake and the production of a related programme of recommendations within the relatively short time span of less than half a year, the sake industry has proven to be a slow player. It was more than 2 years after the presentation of the advisory committee’s programme of recommendations and the establishment of the combined meeting within the government for the export promotion of kokushu, etc. that the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association finally sprang into action. In September 2014, it formed a ‘Committee for the Export of Sake’ (Nihonshu Yushutsu Kyogikai), including representatives from the distribution industry, as a counterpart to the government institution of the inter-ministerial meeting. It was not until January 2015, almost 2.5 years after the recommendations by the government-instated advisory committee, that this committee for the sake industry presented its ‘Fundamental Strategy for the Export of Sake’.[11] One can only wonder what caused the delay in reacting to the government overtures, because the content of the industry’s report does little more than reiterate the policies and aims of the government committees. Apart from the global Japanese food boom, one of the few additions was a mention at this later moment in time of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics which is seen as a second golden marketing opportunity. In addition, compared to the government recommendations there is a stronger focus on the dissemination of the correct understanding of sake, on branding, and on the introduction of a unified JSS mark for all Japanese sake. Moreover, their marketing policies seem more realistic as they propose a more detailed and diversified strategy towards established sake markets such as the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea and potential sake markets such as Thailand, Singapore, France, UK, Brazil, and Russia. However, the report stands out most in its almost complete disregard of the term kokushu, so much endorsed by the sake promoters on the government side. And the concept of Japanese culture is also hardly mentioned. It strongly suggests that there is a considerable gap between government and industry in the enthusiasm to stress sake as part of the country’s national identity.

Although the leaders of the sake industry, probably also in contrast to their self-proclaimed Sake Samurai scions, seem more down-to-earth and evidently lack a strong inclination to think in terms of kokushu and treat their products first and foremost as a form of national identity and culture, they are sufficiently keen to make optimal use of the government’s new commitment to the product, and show no qualms in joining the ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ promotion campaign. As described in endnote 6, the term kokushu was introduced in the report on the Tokyo Sake Fair of 2013 and given an increasingly prominent position on the posters for this annual event. And whereas the 2005 brochure of the then Japan Sake Brewers Association was neutrally titled ‘Welcome to the World of Japanese Sake’ and the content was mainly factual, the new 2014 brochure by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association has the far more poignant title of ‘Sake and Japanese Culture’ and is markedly concluded by a chapter on ‘Sake as the National Alcoholic Drink of Japan’. It also gladly co-operated in the 2015 production of the anime ‘Kanpai! broadcast through NHK World, in which a Japanese woman living on Mars in the year 22xx rediscovers her Japanese roots at the sake brewery where she was born, through the genuine interest for sake culture by her Western friend Edward.[12] But it seems that the industry was most eager to act on the shared programme point of the branding of sake. Already in early 2014, it posted on its website stickers featuring the JSS logo in conjunction with ‘Japanese sake’, ‘Japanese shochu’, Japanese awamori’, and ‘Japanese mirin’. This national branding of these drinks did not have a cultural but a protectionist background. The conditions for adorning sake bottles with the JSS sticker are that the sake is made in Japan from Japanese rice, thus forbidding all sake made outside Japan from using the words ‘Japanese sake’ on their labels. Up until now, the association has been successful in bringing about a rule for the geographical indication of ‘Japanese sake’. In a very swift case of law enactment, the Japanese government quickly implemented this protectionist regulation on 25 December 2015.[13]

  • [1] See, for example, the document on the establishment of this ‘state strategy’ project of 11 May2012; ‘Nihonshu shochu no kokka senryaku suishin’.
  • [2] ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ [‘Kokushu wo tanoshimo’] Suishin Kyogikai, Kokushu-td noyushutsusokushin puroguramu.
  • [3] See the outline of the presentation on 22 May 2012 by committee member WatanabeShinichiro, Director of the Shochu Distillery Kyoya Shuzo. Watanabe, Shinichiro. ‘Watanabeiin teishutsu shiryo’.
  • [4] ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ [‘Kokushu wo tanoshimo’] Suishin Kyogikai, Kokushu-to noyushutsusokushin puroguramu.
  • [5] For the names and affiliations of the committee members, see ‘Nihonshu shochu no kokkasenryaku suishin: “Enjoy Japanese Kokushu” (Kokushu wo tanoshimo) purojekuto no tachiage nitsuite’. The agenda and the minutes of the four meetings and the contributions by the committeemembers can be found at:
  • [6] Only the minimal agenda of the first and only meeting of this Inter-Ministerial Meeting hasbeen made public on the Cabinet Secretariat’s website at:
  • [7] The ranks of the government officials supposed to attend the Inter-Ministerial Meeting arelisted at:
  • [8] The agendas and minutes of the five meetings of this new Inter-Ministerial Meeting up untilMarch 2016 can be found at:
  • [9] For the complete report Kokushu-td noyushutsu sokushin puroguramu, see:
  • [10] The Japanese policy makers, in their strategy to promote sake whilst being careful not to offendthe shdchu industry, constantly use the term kokushu, etc. {kokushu-td). Thus, in a somewhatcontradictory way, they play along with the politically correct game of window-dressing as ifkokushu should be seen as plural ‘national alcohol drinks’ while hardly mentioning shdchu andawamori.
  • [11] For the 17-page report and a handy outline, see Nihonshu Yushutsu Kyogikai, Nihonshu noyushutsu kihon senryaku, January 2015.
  • [12] The 26-minute anime can be viewed at It wasaired on 6 March 2015.
  • [13] ‘Shurui no chiriteki hyoji ni kansuru hyoji kijiun’ in Kokuzeicho Kazeibu Shuzeikyoku, Sake noshiori.
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