The Yomiuri ShimbunAs Japanese cuisine becomes increasingly popular around the world, sake is also getting its turn in the spotlight. However, it's still far from an everyday beverage overseas.
"Sake is attractive as a kind of fermented food, but I think it has yet to surpass wine as something you would see on the dining table every day," said Jean Beguin, 34, who runs a wholesale company for imported Japanese foods in Paris.
Food buyers and gourmets gather from all over the world in the gastronomic mecca that is Paris. The city also disseminates information about food around the world, and whether a food product is accepted in Paris serves as a barometer of whether it can be successful in other European markets.
In 2012, the Japan External Trade Organization surveyed 400 French people, and about 80 percent of the respondents said they consumed sake "inside Japanese restaurants located in France." This indicated that sake is a beverage for nondaily occasions, meaning there is still a long way to go until sake can become an everyday item.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
France’s wine exports are valued at more than ¥1 trillion, but Japan’s sake exports amounted to only ¥15.5 billion in 2016.
Against the current
There are misperceptions about sake in European countries.
"There have been cases where Chinese or South Korean alcoholic drinks are served as Japanese sake at Asian cuisine restaurants," said Haruo Matsuzaki, 57, chair of the Sake Export Association. "Also, some people see sake as a digestive drink with its high alcohol percentage."
Shigeo Omori, a sales official of Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co. — a Kobe-based sake maker and the nation’s largest exporter of sake — said: "I believe Japan’s sake is the best alcohol drink in the world. Yet how can we get more overseas consumers to try their first sip of sake? That’s the challenge, and we can’t survive if we stay timid."
Kenji Kano, chief executive officer of the company, said: "We export sake not merely as an item, but also as a package of sake and its history. We add our own value."
In its sales promotions, the company always explains sake’s history and traditions, which have been passed down through many generations. They go beyond simply describing the flavors of the maker’s products.
Many major sake brewers can be found in areas of Hyogo Prefecture known as "Nada Gogo," and the brewers there lead the sake export industry. One brewer has held promotional events and seminars on sake more than 20 times per year in locations all around the world, including East Asia, Europe, the United States, South America, the Middle East and Australia. That was unimaginable 40 years ago, when domestic consumption of sake was brisk. Sake brewers in the Nada region, who are proud of their long-held traditions, are fighting the current of the times.
Their present moves particularly reflect their mixed feelings of hope and urgency.
Know old to create new
A trip through time shows sake brewing in the Nada region grew dynamically mainly because they "exported" sake to the city of Edo — today’s Tokyo — which is hundreds of kilometers away.
In the Edo period (1603-1867), sake was called "kudarizake" (sake that traveled down) because it was transported from Kamigata — today’s Kansai region, where the then capital of Kyoto was located — to the city of Edo. People in those years called trips from Kamigata to Edo "kudaru" (to go down).
Because low-quality sake was not allowed to be sent to the city of Edo, one theory suggests this rule became the origin of the Japanese word, "kudaranai." Kudaranai literally means "to not go down" but is used to mean something is silly or stupid.
In the city of Edo in those years, there was a brand of sake so popular it was used as a benchmark to decide the prices of other sake brands. The brewer of that famous brand is Kenbishi in the Nada region, now based in Kobe.
One of the Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi series of ukiyo-e pictures shows men carrying a sake barrel bearing the brand logo. Kenbishi was loved in Edo by members of Ako Roshi — the 47 samurai who took revenge for their fallen lord. Another fan was Yamanouchi Toyoshige, also known as Yamanouchi Yodo, a sake-loving feudal lord of the Tosa clan in the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate.
President Masataka Shirakashi of Kenbishi Sake Brewing Co., which is today’s brewer of the Kenbishi brand, spends 80 days overseas on business a year.
With sales agents based in the importer countries, he visits not only Japanese restaurants, but also French restaurants and others. During those visits, he gives detailed explanations about the company’s history, how to better drink sake and how well sake goes with many types of cuisine. He also talks about the fact that the flavors of sake differ among the regions where it is brewed.
"The Nada region developed primarily because it has targeted a large market outside" Japan, said Shirakashi, 40. "Taking on challenges is our tradition. The only thing that never changes is the flavor of our sake."
What kind of future do sake brewers want? The answer lies in history.
Record export volume, value
The export volume of sake in 2016 was 19.73 million liters, and the value was ¥15.5 billion, according to the Finance Ministry’s trade statistics. Both figures have reached record highs for seven consecutive years.
The top exporter is Hakutsuru Sake Brewing based in Kobe. The company’s export volume increased 5 percent from the previous year to 2.65 million liters. Gekkeikan Sake Co., based in Kyoto, also showed a remarkable rise in exports, up 16 percent, from the previous year.
Sake products are being distributed to more and more Japanese restaurants in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asian countries, driving up exports.
The number of Japanese restaurants overseas as of July 2015 was 89,000, or more than triple the level in 2006, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
Exports via business agents are common, but the use of cross-border e-commerce systems has been spreading recently. Kanematsu Corp., a long-established trading company, opened a cross-border e-commerce website specializing in Japanese sake in 2017. It was the nation’s first website of this kind, and about 200 kinds of sake from 80 sake brewers nationwide are available.
While demand for sake overseas has been on the rise, the Finance Ministry has officially determined that only products made from domestically produced rice and brewed inside the nation are allowed to be labeled as Japanese sake. This is intended to raise brand values of sake products and encourage exports.