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Project lends helping hand to industry, small brewers

Government-backed 'Kokushu' initiative hopes to raise sake's international status

Sake, like Japanese fashion, anime or even sushi, can be an acquired taste. Just like those other cultural exports from Japan, sake comes in a wide variety of different styles and flavors, and while your first taste may not be precisely what you’re looking for, it can be rewarding for those who keep an open mind and are willing to explore.

Helping to spread the love for sake and gain new fans around the world are the ambitious goals of a new government-sponsored international effort called the Enjoy Japanese Kokushu Project. (“Kokushu” refers to sake and shochu, Japan’s distinctive “national drinks.”) In early September, The Japan Times spoke with Shigeyuki Shinohara, the chairman of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, about the background behind the project and Japan’s efforts to promote sake around the world.

“Because the population of Japan is gradually getting smaller, the sake industry must think about ways to expand beyond its borders,” Shinohara said in his office above the Sake Plaza information center in the Shinbashi district of Tokyo. “Right now, there is a booming interest in sushi and other Japanese foods all over the world, so there’s an opportunity to take advantage of that interest. Sake is the natural match for Japanese cuisine — it’s not an after-dinner drink, or a drink you have at a bar — it’s meant to accompany meals, especially fish and other Japanese foods.”

Within international gourmet circles there is a growing interest in locally made, artisanal products that reflect the regions where they are produced, and sake fits into this trend very well.

“The craft of sake-brewing intrinsically reflects the local environment and culture of the regions where it’s carried out. Sake is made from the same basic ingredients, so if you taste sake of two different breweries in the same district, you would think that it would all taste the same. However, indeed, sake brewed in each region has its own distinct character and identity that tends to reflect each culture of food,” Shinohara said. “Just as an example, in the northern part of Japan people eat a lot of fish from the cold local waters; the fish tends to be more oily and intensely flavored, which is more suited to a dry, pure-tasting sake. By contrast, fish coming from the Setonaikai (Seto Inland Sea) is simpler in flavor, so by contrast the local sake can be richer and more assertive.

“The skills and techniques of the sake-brewing toji (master brewers) are also constantly evolving and improving, which is one reason why sake today is on average better than it was, say, 20 years ago. For example, nowadays, parts to polish the rice to purify it for brewing sake to make it nutritions and flavourful when it is cooked, are more than it once was. Therefore, now we can enjoy much purer and higher-quality sake. Brewers of premium sake today are some of the most skilled artisans in the world, and compared with the past, they have far more control over the entire process of making sake, resulting in a better final product.”

Asked about the role of the Japanese government in this project, Shinohara explained, “Much of the sake industry is based around small businesses that are tied to traditional craftsmanship and culture within local communities. The Japanese government is seeking to work with the sake breweries to help revitalize these local communities and thus boost the economy all over Japan. Big corporations can work on their own to develop overseas markets, but small businesses aren’t set up to do this, and that is where the government can play a role — in assisting breweries and the industry as a whole to develop their export trade.”

Shinohara added, “In the past the world of sake, with its regular annual contests and tastings, was something of a closed world, limited to sake insiders. We want to open that up to wider community such as foreign residents, inviting those people to the events as well as sake tourism in many parts of Japan with brewery tours. And we would like to encourage more sake tastings in other countries around the world as well, so that more people can experience a wide variety of top-grade sake. In addition, this can also have a positive feedback effect on the domestic market, as Japanese sake, and traditional Japanese food, become more popular abroad. All this will have an influence on younger Japanese consumers, who are more in tune with international trends.”