Judging by the very marked difference in the frequency of the use of the term kokushu and the invocation of the concept of (traditional and/or national) culture in publications and minutes of meetings by the government on the one hand and the sake industry on the other, there is a clear ondosa (difference in temperature) between the two parties. Nonetheless, policies are identical, although the industry seems more pragmatic and down-to- earth. Moreover, irrespective of the vocabulary and ideology, it all ultimately comes down to export promotion rather than gastro-diplomacy: the government-instated Advisory Committee on the Promotion of ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ has finally evolved into the Inter-Ministerial Meeting on the Export Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks Made in Japan, and the industry has established its Committee for the Export Promotion of Sake and has produced its ‘Fundamental Strategy for the Export of Sake’. There is no room for culture in the names of the committees in charge of policies on the international promotion of sake, and in 2013 even the government seems to have let go of its erstwhile insistence on having the term kokushu/national alcoholic drink in the name of all its sake-related committees and reports.

However, there is a strong, shared tendency in the reports, minutes, and programmes on both sides, which from the point of view of long-term observers of the sake industry may easily look like mere wishful thinking. Sake, the product of an industry that has been in crisis for almost half a century and that was one of the industries in which banks were least willing to invest, has all of a sudden turned into a panacea. It will be beneficial to stimulating Japan’s exports, increasing demand for Japanese rice, invigorating the countryside, increasing tourism within and to Japan, gaining a renewed appreciation of Japanese culture and identity (albeit via the West), and generally re-vitalizing Japan.

As a long-term observer of the Japanese sake industry and the Japanese and Western sake markets, I would like in conclusion to offer some critical but well-meant observations with the mere intention of making people in the industry and others aware of what may happen if one does not take heed of the lessons history can teach us. Why did the Japanese sake industry end in a crisis that decimated it, and what can this tell us about policies to be followed in the future, both with regard to the internal and external markets? How should sake be positioned in relation to other fermented alcoholic beverages, especially wine? How should sake be positioned on a market that is increasingly becoming environment- and health-conscious? Will stressing the inherent unique Japanese character of sake not merely limit its spread and eventually be counter-productive? These fundamental questions are seldom asked in the relevant reports and programmes, such that the basis of the various policies seems weak.

These may be unconscious omissions, but there are also omissions of a different category. In all the sake or kokushu-related documents compiled both by the government and the industry, the word junmaishu is nowhere to be found, whereas the division between pure sake and sake with added alcohol has become one of the most crucial issues in the sake world, and among an increasing number of brewers, retailers, importers, shops, restaurants, and bars implementing a strictly 100% pure sake policy. This is nothing but a conscious cover-up of the awkward fact that a ‘pure rice sake’ label is needed in the sake industry and, moreover, that the vast majority of sake on the market would not even qualify for this label. The only exception to this ‘don’t-use-the-junmaishu-word taboo’ on the various committees is Hasegawa Koichi, director of the big and successful sake retail chain Hasegawa Saketen, who has also had a less successful experience expanding into the foreign sake market. He starts his contribution as a member of the Advisory Committee on the Promotion of ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ with the painful observation that most of the sake available on the Japanese market contains all sorts of added ingredients and will thus be counterproductive to the promotion of sake, especially in terms of Japan’s national alcoholic drink.[1] In relation, the focus of the Japan Sake and Shochu Brewers Association and others on national branding by means of stickers with the text ‘Japanese sake’ seems out of place. Would a carton-pack of sake with added alcohol and sugar, etc. made in a Japanese factory be better promotion for sake than a traditional pure sake made in a brewery in Norway? One may also wonder whether it is a good idea to export sake with added alcohol to Western markets, where apart from a steady demand for organic sake there are now even increasing calls for sake without added yeast. Suffice to say that the various committees’ stress on the importance of increasing a correct understanding of sake in the outside world is a farce, considering there is no consensus whatsoever in the Japanese sake industry itself as to what ‘correct sake’ actually is.

And one may also wonder whether the basic stance that the promotion of sake is best carried out by stimulating exports is correct. Is this not merely motivated by the government’s need for yet another string to its bow in its general export promotion policy? And as far as the industry is concerned, is it not merely opting for a very costly detour to stimulate demand on the internal market, in a situation where it does not know how to deal directly on the home market with the half-century long crisis in the sake industry, the long-term trend of a decreasing Japanese population, and the continual decrease in alcohol consumption? The Japanese market is still by far the largest market and the breweries stand far more to gain on the Japanese market than on foreign markets, something which is clearly proven by the recent sharp increase in demand and media attention for quality sake (mainly junmaishu). There are not many foreign success stories such as Dassai’s, whereas in the last decade there have been more and more internal success stories of rejuvenated breweries expanding on the Japanese market. Sake brewers with no experience in foreign markets may easily oversee the fact that the relatively high price of sake overseas is a huge obstacle to the further spread of sake, and that they are far more competitive on their own market. The present sake boom in Japan may very well provide new options and alternatives, especially when one considers that many of the new consumers on the sake market are young and/or female, a completely new phenomenon. However, the almost complete lack of young and/or female perspectives in the all-senior-and-male government and industry committees does not give high hopes that the present group of people in charge of formulating policy to promote sake will be able to use these new opportunities and lead the overall sake industry successfully to better times.

  • [1] See the hand-out of his presentation at the advisory’s committee meeting on 28 May 2012 at:
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