Obituary: Keizo Saji

James Kirkup@jameskirkup
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:11

ONE OF Japan's national festival days is "Culture Day", 3 November. It was this year greeted as a particularly significant date because it marked the death of one of Japan's greatest businessmen, the leader of the Suntory whisky empire, Keizo Saji, who was also celebrated as an artist, photographer, haiku poet and generous patron of the arts.

Saji was an out-and-out Osaka businessman type, shrewd, intent on profit at any cost, and sometimes brutally outspoken. For example, when the government was considering a wise plan (now, alas, defunct) to redistribute its various departments to regions less prone to earthquakes than the Tokyo area, and favouring the northern Tohoku provinces, Keizo Saji made no bones about expressing his contempt for "barbarian" northerners.

The Osaka business sense prevailed over Osaka native pride, however, when Saji realised his sales were falling in Tohoku, so he went on a tour of the north apologising to all for his intemperate opinions. Such is the good nature of the Tohoku people, they readily forgave him and started drinking his whisky again.

Keizo Saji was an adopted son. The second son of Shinjiro Torii, Keizo was brought into his mother, Kuni Saji's family, as there was no male Saji heir, a practice that is quite common in Japan. However, Keizo's elder brother died young and Saji, though retaining his mother's family's name, became his father's successor. Torii had been the founder in 1899 of Kotobukiya, the liquor-maker whose trade name was changed after the Second World War to Suntory.

Young Keizo joined the firm after graduating from Osaka University, and eventually took over the business, to become president from 1961 to 1990. He also served as head of the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Imported alcohols were heavily taxed, so Suntory developed a high-class brand of local whisky which became extremely popular.

Tastes in alcoholic beverages were changing in Japan, where sake was slowly supplanted by whisky as a drink with meals, even with traditional Japanese cuisine. American movies also influenced the trend, with the discovery of highballs, mizuwari (whisky and water), "on the rocks" and whisky-based cocktails. Bars selling Suntory liquor sprang up all over Japan, and the introduction of the "bottle keep" system allowed customers to deposit their private bottle for future visits. In 1963, Saji started selling beer; it sold in thousands of gallons in the hot, humid summers in "beer gardens" set up on the rooftops of tall buildings.

Today, Suntory whisky is world-renowned and expensive in the West: in my local Andorran cut-price liquor marts, it costs three or four times as much for the special "Hibiki" bottle as for tax-free Scotch. Saji took deep pride in his Osaka roots, but often criticised his fellow Osakans for being interested only in money. He himself took a very lively and active interest in all the arts, and was one of the leading spirits of the world-famous Osaka Festival.

He was a remarkable photographer, and an artist of professional calibre. One of his most beautiful paintings, showing Osaka Castle embowered in cherry blossom, was presented by him to the American consul in Kobe. He published two excellent volumes of haiku, wrote commendable essays and an autobiography. He started an arts foundation to help young artists, and created the Suntory Art Museum in Osaka. In Tokyo, he commissioned architects and artists to design his great Suntory Music Hall, noted by musicians from all over the world for its perfect acoustic qualities.

Keizo Saji was naturally one of the first businessmen to see the artistic possibilities (and publicity value) of industrial tourism. When I was commissioned to write "artistic interpretations" of Japanese industry for my two-volume Japan Industrial, I eagerly seized the chance to kill several birds with one stone by taking a guided tour by Hato Bus. We visited the Sony Transistor Radio Company, the Canon Camera Company and - wisely left to the last for reasons that will become apparent - Suntory whisky's plant on the Tama River.

We were welcomed by two pretty young girls. They gave us a brief outline of Keizo Saji's life, then showed a gorgeous colour documentary of the factory at work in the four seasons. Then we were invited into a sumptuously decorated salon to sample Suntory's many products - the fine Danish-type lager, whisky sours, port wine, as well as egg brandy, absinthe, rum, vodka, cherry brandy, creme de moka, creme de cacao, Chiyoda rice wine and Akadama table wine. I also sampled green tea liqueur and cherry blossom liqueur.

Then the Suntory girls produced from under lock and key Royal Suntory's "Rare Old Whisky" and "Extra Special Old Suntory" which we clamoured to be given just a sip of, but the girls regretted we could not "test" these holy-of-holies in the Suntory range. We returned to the tour bus in a very mellow mood of international goodwill, and carried away in our memories the beaming photograph of the "father" of Suntory who had silently presided over our revels.

Keizo Torii (Keizo Saji), distiller: born Osaka, Japan 1919; married (two children); died Osaka 3 November 1999.

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