Joining the Global Wine World: Japan's Winemaking Industry

Chuanfei Wang


Japan is not only a country of sake and tea but also a country of wine. This chapter traces Japan’s history of wine production as a process of state- led cultural globalization. In 2013, Yamanashi Prefecture was legally designated by Japan’s National Tax Agency as a wine-producing region according to Geographical Indication rules, and it was also registered as a wine-producing region by the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). The recognition was significant for Yamanashi. According to the local government’s official website, ‘wines with the Yamanashi label meet several strict Geographical Indication requirements guaranteeing place of origin and quality. As a result, the Yamanashi wine brand will be further improved’.[1] Yamanashi is now the only officially recognized wine-producing region in Japan. However, it is not the only wine-producing region in the country; now at least 36 of the country’s 47 prefectures produce wine.[2] [3]

Like Yamanashi, some of these other wine-producing regions are also actively trying to become officially recognized regional brands. Their local governments are trying to use the concept of ‘valley’, first used by newly established wine-producing regions in America and Australia, to brand their own winemaking regions. In 2015, the Nagano prefectural government provided a report for the development of a wine valley in the Shinshu area. It claimed clearly that Nagano would build a wine valley, which would produce ‘a culture of high quality wine and aroma in a beautiful terroir’ (Utsukushii fudo no naka de kohinshitsu na wain to kaori takai bunka)? The Shinshu wine valley project aimed to make Nagano wine a world brand. Now, like Nagano, similar wine valley projects are also being planned in Yamagata, Hokkaido and Niigata.[4] This boom of promoting winemaking culture around the country reveals that Japan is making a great effort to join the ranks of globally recognized wine-producing regions.

This raises two questions. Firstly, why is Japan trying to embrace wine production, in which it has few if any natural or cultural advantages? Secondly, who are the actors pushing to increase and promote wine production? By considering Japan’s winemaking culture in a longer historical context, this chapter aims to address these questions. The current process of Japan becoming a wine-producing country cannot be fully comprehended without referring to the history of modern winemaking in Japan. Winemaking in Japan started in the early Meiji period (1868-1912) and was an arduous task, as its natural conditions were only marginally suited to wine grape growing and wine production. However, it was still promoted by the government as part of a national project of agricultural and culinary modernization. After the war, Japan’s winemaking experienced a long, confusing period during which many unique winemaking Japanese methods were used. Not until the early 2000s did Japan come to approximate winemaking practices according to international standards and begin to gain a reputation outside the country.

One of the puzzles in the story of Japan’s wine industry is its relative lack of success in comparison to the beer and whisky industries that began under similar circumstances around the same time in the Meiji period. European beer and whisky were successfully localized, became hugely successful industries in Japan, then successfully globalized and have now attained a global reputation for quality.[5] In contrast, wine producers struggled to establish themselves in Japan despite the growing popularity of imported wines. The reasons for both the failures and more recent successes of Japanese wine producers go beyond the simple issues surrounding grape agriculture.

In the 1970s, new wine-producing regions, especially in the United States and Australia, initiated a new pattern of wine globalization characterized by scientific production of good quality wine for mass consumption.[6] However, the current boom in Japanese wine production is part of a more recent pattern of wine globalization employing artisanal production of specialized wines for more individualized consumption. While the emphasis is on the ‘local’ character of the product, the standards of taste and quality are increasingly those of the global wine world - a globalized network of producers, consumers and expert tasters. Thus, Japan’s winemaking culture shows a process of culinary glocaliza- tion,[7] which is an intensified localization of global standards.

In this chapter, we will see the history of Japan’s modern wine industry from the Meiji period to contemporary times. By connecting the past to the present, this chapter argues that national and regional governments have been the key actors in developing and promoting Japan’s winemaking culture. However, governments are not the only important actors. As this chapter will show, Japan’s wine culture is constructed by a collaborative network of actors including governments, private companies, individual winemakers, research institutes and consumers. However, among all these actors, national and regional governments play the key role in initiating and organizing the whole project of promoting Japanese wine culture inside and outside Japan. Wine culture is used as an important local resource for regional food culture promotion to ultimately facilitate local economic and agricultural revival. The state-industry collaboration in developing Japan’s winemaking culture thus represents another case of culinary politics in Japan.[8] In both the Meiji period and the present era, wine production has been a national project: first geared to modernization now to globalization.

  • [1] Yamanashi Kanko, ‘Chiri teki hyoji Yamanashi’. C. Wang (*) Sophia University, Tokyo, Japane-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 A. Niehaus, T. Walravens (eds.), Feeding Japan,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50553-4_9
  • [2] Johnson and Robinson, World Atlas of Wine, 377.
  • [3] Nagano Prefecture, ‘The Initiative of Shinshu’, 3-4.
  • [4] Takahashi, ‘Nihon wain no chiri’, 8.
  • [5] See Alexander, Brewed in Japan; Checkland, Japanese Whisky.
  • [6] Lukacs, Inventing Wine, 239-277.
  • [7] Robertson, ‘Glocalization: Time-Space’, 28.
  • [8] See Assmann, ‘Food Action Nippon’; Farrer, ‘Introduction: Traveling Cuisines’.
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