Sake brewed with a feminine touch

by Rob Gilhooly

SHIBATA, Niigata Pref. — Orderly chaos might be a good way to describe the Ichishima Sake Brewery on this bone-chilling January morning.

There’s only a dozen or so staff members, but bodies seem to be everywhere, scuttling down stairs or through the rabbit warren of rooms in the four-story building, parts of which date back to the brewery’s inception more than 200 years ago.

Clad in overalls and rubber boots, two employees stand ankle-deep in cold water, frantically cleaning out a dozen demijohns.

In another room, workers tend to giant steel vats in which a milky-colored concoction bubbles gently, filling the room with its powerful, sweet aroma.

The toji, or head brewer, skips down the narrow stairway, small white linen sacks draped over his arm, skillfully avoiding a pair of thick plastic tubes that snake their way through the brewery.

“We’re a little on edge today,” he says, before disappearing down the stairs.

There’s good reason for the tension. By early afternoon, those pipes are pumping out the company’s prize brew, the daiginjo, some of which, several months down the line, will be entered in sake contests around the country.

Yet, in the midst of all this frenzied activity, there is one staff member who remains the picture of composure: Kazuko Shiiya.

Experience is undoubtedly the key. Shiiya — , who, as an ikkyu ginoshi (first-class licensed brewer) has the same qualifications as a toji — has been employed here for almost four decades and, when still in her 20s, became Japan’s first licensed female brew master.

“From an early age, I had decided there is no job done by a man that can’t be done by a woman,” says Shiiya, 60, who hails from a local rice-farming family.

Credit for encouraging her to take the brewer’s path goes to Chomatsu Ichishima. Influenced by years of study in Europe in the 1950s, Ichishima was determined to shake up his family’s 18th-century brewery. So, during his presidency, not only did he change the company’s brand name from one that honored a local shrine, Suwazakari, to the more chic and bold Aumont (King’s Crest), he encouraged the hiring of women, something unheard of in the industry’s 2,000-year history.

That tradition, or rather, the break from it, has been inherited by his grandson, Kenji, who took over the reins of president last month — from his mother.

Today, almost half of the employees at Ichishima are women. Shiiya is the longest serving of the lot.

As a teenager, Shiiya would supplement her family’s income during the winter months through a variety of work, such as basket weaving. As Japan moved to rebuild itself after World War II, however, demand for such labor plummeted, and Shiiya sought employment as a housekeeper for the Ichishima family.

A year later, she had reason to drop by the brewery and was enchanted by the purpose and harmony in which the brewery staff worked. Already there were two women who occasionally worked as bottlers at the plant, and she immediately approached Ichishima about a job. Fortunately, they were a person short, and she was taken on as a brewer’s assistant.

“There is no manual to learn this craft by, and when I started, no one would teach me,” Shiiya recalls of her early days as a kurabito (brewery employee). “So I decided to learn by myself — I kept my mouth shut and surreptitiously watched the male brewers work.

“It was tough, physically, but that was the main reason I was hired — I have always been fit and healthy,” Shiiya says, adding that in her 38 years of employment, she has never missed a day’s work due to sickness.

Although Shiiya was doing work no other woman had done before, she insists she experienced no prejudice, at least, not at first.

The first sign of trouble came when, after more than a decade on the job, Shiiya and the two other women at the plant were encouraged to take the brew master’s exam. This involves, among other things, being able to distinguish between an extensive range of different sake. Shiiya passed with flying colors.

Her success was not taken well. Ironically, it was not the male employees who opposed Shiiya’s advancement, it was her fellow female workers, who, unfortunately did not pass the licensing exam.

It was the beginning of a difficult time for Shiiya. “Inside, I felt immensely pleased,” she says of passing the exam, “but it was impossible to express that. I was bullied, physically and mentally, and work became difficult.”

The arrival of TV and other media from all over the country fascinated by her achievement made the situation even worse. “I should have been proud with all the attention,” she says, “but I hated it.”

With time, the hubbub and the bullying died down, but Shiiya faced fresh challenges. New machinery made the process of brewing sake less labor-intensive, but it also allowed for the brewery to have a more diverse output — everything from the traditional jumai-grade sake to a soon-to-be-marketed organic variety. Naturally, the work became more complex.

“In the old days, it was just a question of brewing vast quantities of the same sake, but now we have so many different kinds that require more manual work and attention,” she explains.

With her average workday stretching from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., often in the subzero temperatures characteristic of Niigata’s winters, and the pressure of proving herself each day, does Shiiya have any regrets?

“I have often thought that if only I had been a man, I could have become a toji one day. But ask me if I envy housewives stuck in the kitchen, and I’d have to say, ‘Absolutely not.’ “