Sake's comeback symbolises Japan's recovery

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

One year on, the drink is the spirit of a nation's recovery from the tsunami

Tohoku, Japan

Sake, the national drink of Japan which for years has been in steep decline, has become the very spirit of the country's recovery from the devastation of last March's tsunami.

Twelve months ago, the earthquake and resulting deluge hit Tohoku, one of the main sake-producing regions, destroying no fewer than 250 sake breweries and sweeping to their deaths a number of workers. To an industry already in long-term decline, the disaster could have been terminal.

But the Japanese people have instead rallied round the national drink as it was seen as a symbol of recovery from a cataclysm which killed more than 20,000 people. Over the past year, for the first time since the 1970s, the annual sales decline of 3 to 5 per cent has halted. Sake is undergoing a renaissance.

Koichi Saura, whose family has owned the Urakasumi Sake Brewery in Shiogama, Miyagi, in the heart of the Tohoku region, for 280 years, says: 'Experiencing the disaster has changed something in Japan. In March, people stayed calm and consumed less but from April, they started to drink more sake from the Tohoko region in order to help this area. Many sake consumers held sake parties and fundraising events.'

His brewery was flooded in the March 11 disaster with the loss of 30,000 bottles of sake just ready to be shipped off including special Royal Wedding sake to celebrate the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton due for London. Expensive tanks, machines and equipment were destroyed, and production - which normally runs from September to June - halted in March. Fortunately, all workers were safe including several who spent the night on the roof in fear for their lives as the waves lashed below. In the months that followed, sake brewers also had to contend with export restrictions due to fears of contamination from the Fukushima radiation leak.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of sake to Japanese culture. Many breweries, such as Urakasumi, were created hundreds of years ago in order to supply sake to the local shrine and it is integral to all religious rituals and celebrations. Sake is sipped at New Year as families gather together and it is sake rather than vows that seals the bond at a Shinto wedding ceremony.

The art of making sake from rice – a highly skilled profession and, even today, mostly done by hand - is passed down from generation to generation and breweries remain always in the same families, passed from father to son. But sales have been falling since a peak in 1975, and had dropped by almost two thirds by 2009, according to the Sake Samurai Association, which was set up to promote the industry within Japan.

Younger generations tend to prefer more fashionable drinks such as Umeshu (plum wine), beer and cocktails and alcohol consumption has fallen overall in recent years as economic woes within Japan continue. Mr Saura adds: "In general, young people drink less and less sake and other alcoholic beverages every year and the older generation have also cut back as they are concerned for their health. Sake has an image problem as it is a traditional alcoholic beverage so it is seen as old fashioned. For those in their 30s and 40s, who were forced to drink low quality sake as young company recruits, they associate it with hangovers and headaches."

In 1950, there were 3700 sake breweries in Japan but this figure had dropped to 1760 by 2009 although it is thought the number actually brewing their own sake is closer to 1300. However, as Rie Yoshitake, a sake promoter based in London, says: "Since the tsunami many Japanese people have questioned what it means to be Japanese – and as sake is such a symbol for Japan, the Japanese people have found a new determination to protect the industry as by doing so they are protecting their very identity."

In a trendy izakaya – a drinking establishment that serves food – in central Tokyo, married couple Masa and Kae Miyahita are enjoying atsukan (hot sake) with their dinner. Masa, 36, who owns another izakaya nearby says: 'Young people are drinking less and less in general because of the economy. Nobody has any money and we are really seeing this in izakayas. But since the tsunami, we have been selling sake from the Tohoku region and donating a percentage of profits to the recovery. Everybody wants to do something to help."

Masato Hayashi, 41, a marketing manager from Yokohama who commutes into Tokyo and is a keen sake drinker, adds: "After the tsunami, sake certainly became a symbol for Japan. Sake making is a real craft. Wine is hard to make but sake is so much harder. For me, sake is a miracle.'

Mr Saura, 49, says he does not have concerns for the future of the industry or fears about attracting younger workers. Already his brewery is back on its feet and production this season is expected to be at almost pre-tsunami levels. 'If we can communicate the importance and wonder of sake we can attract newcomers,' he says.

As the father of a four-year-old daughter his goal is to pass on the brewery although it he admits this will take 20 to 25 years. "It is my obligation to keep the culture and traditions of the industry and pass to the next generation,' he says, adding: 'Sake is starting to boom overseas. Currently exports are only around 3 per cent of the market so there is lots of room for growth, particularly in Europe where wine culture is very strong. Sake has a huge history, and highly skilled workforce and we are working hard to reestablish its good image among consumers."

News
i100
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sales - Trainee Recruitment Co...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices