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Sake's comeback symbolises Japan's recovery

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

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."