The Establishment of Japan's Winemaking

The Japanese islands have a long history of grape growing. However, only in the mid-nineteenth century was the idea to make it into wine explored. In 1859, when Yokohama harbour opened, Japan started international trade with foreign countries. For the first time, Japanese people outside the elite class did business with foreigners and gained a new social status as businessmen. This group had more opportunities than ordinary people to taste wine, and became the first non-aristocratic wine drinkers. Their access to wine prompted some of them to attempt industrial wine production in Japan. Although none of them could make a bottle of wine as a final product, the Yokohama businessmen were the pioneers of growing wine grapes in Japan, paving the road for later wine production.[1]

On the initiative of the Japanese government, the industrial production of wine in Japan started in the early Meiji period.[2] It was motivated by two goals. The first aim was to reduce rice consumption for other reasons than food. The new government kept using the old tax system by which taxes were still received in the form of rice. Grape winemaking could help to reduce the amount (of rice) used for rice winemaking and thus help guarantee sufficient tax revenue for the government by ensuring a healthy reserve of rice especially in years of a bad harvest.11 Another, more important goal was articulated in the new policy of industrial modernization (shokusan kogyo) aiming to build a strong country. Under this policy, the Meiji government encouraged its people to learn from the West and initiated new industries that are considered to be able to strengthen the country and military in order to avoid being colonized by Western countries. While winemaking technologies and facilities were regarded as difficult to import from the West, its grape varieties could easily be imported to Japan. As such, Japan’s winemaking industry started by growing Western grapes. Winemaking as a new industry was designated as part of this policy to modernize Japan’s agriculture in a historical period during which a local wine market did not exist.[3] [4]

Government-owned facilities for wine grape growing were opened in Tokyo (Uchifuji Shinjuku Shikenjo, Mita Ikushu Jo), Hokkaido (Hokkaido Kaitaku Shikan En), Hyogo (Hashu Vineyard), Niigata and Kanagawa during the early Meiji period.[5] The first winemaking company, Great Japan Yamanashi Wine Company (Dainippon Yamanashi Budoshu Kaisha), was established in 1877 by rich local farmers in cooperation with the local government in Yamanashi, an area with a long history of indigenous grape growing in Japan. Right after its establishment, the company sent two young men to France to learn grape growing and winemaking skills.[6] In 1879, they returned to Japan and attempted to make genuine European-style wines by applying the knowledge they had learned in France at Yamanashi’s wine company. It is particularly worth noting that they made wine with a local variety, the Koshu (koshu) grape, which - as we will see later in this chapter - now represents the Japanese taste of wine.

At the time, wine made with local grapes was very rare. Grape growing facilities in other regions put great effort in growing Western wine grapes as the shokusan kogyo policy aimed to replicate the Western winemaking industry in Japan. Furthermore, facilities in the regions without a history of growing local grapes had little interest in growing Japanese varieties.[2] Thus, the first genuine Japanese wine from Japanese grapes was made by this Yamanashi company, producing about 5 kl of wine made with Koshu grapes in 1879 and about 33 kl in the following year.[8] However, the company started to fall on hard times in 1884. Due to the opposition of some local government officials, financial support to the company ceased and wine production halted. Eventually in 1886, the Great Japan Yamanashi Wine Company closed, marking the failure of the first government-initiated wine-producing company. Around the same period, winemaking in other government-owned facilities also gradually stopped. Eventually, the privatization of the Hashu vineyard in 1888 marked the complete end of the first government-owned winemaking project.[4]

Privately owned wineries became major wine producers in Japan as of the 1890s. Not all of these wineries produced the same wine. There were two different types: one aimed to be close to the taste of European wines, the other one was rather sweet, and suited for popular taste. An example of the first type was the Daikuro Budoshu (Daikuro grape wine) produced by the Kaisan Grape Winemaking Company, reformed from the former Great Japan Yamanashi Wine Company. However, the Europeanized flavour was not welcomed by Japanese consumers at the time and Daikuro Budoshu did not sell well in the market.[10] The first wine of the second type, a sweet wine which proved to be popular, was Hachijirushi Kozan Grape Wine made by Kamiya’s winery[11] in 1881. In the early years, sweet wine was made from bulk wines imported from France, Spain and Italy, and additive sweeteners. However, with the passing of the Blended Alcohol Tax Law in 1895, restrictions were placed on wine importation.[12] In order to have sufficient base wine, some wineries such as Kamiya’s commenced local wine production. Starting in 1898, Kamiya’s owner spent six years building a vineyard. However, the wine made with grapes from his vineyard was not the final product, but rather the base for sweet wine. Among all the sweet wines, the most famous one in Japan was Akadama port wine, produced in 1907 by Torii Shinjiro, the founder of Suntory Beer Company. Its popularity was reflected in the fact that Japanese people referred to all the sweet wines as port wine from then on right until the 1970s. Like Kamiya, Torii also tried to acquire domestic vineyards for producing base wines to blend sweet wine. The production of wine as an ingredient for blending sweet wine transformed Japan’s wine industry during this period, so that much production was not for direct consumption.[13]

In the early twentieth century, the number of wineries in Japan and its related production increased rapidly. Rich farmers and landowners as well as merchants who had gained wealth in other businesses became the major investors in wineries. In 1939, the number of wineries in Japan reached 3,694.[14] During the Second World War, wine production continued to be encouraged by the national government and largely increased. By 1940, Japan’s annual grape wine production was 6,000 kl. It sprung to 32,000 kl in 1943. During this period, however, wine was not produced for drinking, but rather for providing tartaric acid, a raw material for making radiowave weapons.[15]

  • [1] Asai, Nihon no wain tanjd, 7—8.
  • [2] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 523.
  • [3] Asai, Nihon no wain tanjo, 153—154.
  • [4] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 524.
  • [5] Shikatori, Nihon wain, 3; Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 524.
  • [6] Asai, Nihon no wain tanjo, 87—94.
  • [7] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 523.
  • [8] Asai, Nihon no wain tanjo, 100.
  • [9] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 524.
  • [10] Asai, Nihon no wain tanjo, 159.
  • [11] The winery still exists today. It is called Chateau Kamiya.
  • [12] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 525.
  • [13] Ibid, 524.
  • [14] Shikatori, Nihon wain, 4.
  • [15] Asai, ‘Wain gyOkai’, 526.
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