Kanpai! Sake through the ages

'Soothing liquor, smiling liquor' has been much favored in these islands since long before records began

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Come, reader, let us quaff.

“A civilization stands or falls by the degree to which drink has entered the lives of its people, and from that point of view Japan must rank very high among the civilizations of the world,” observed essayist Kenichi Yoshida in “Japan is a Circle” (1975).

So it must.

The first foreigners ever to record observations of the Japanese — Chinese envoys of the third century A.D. — noted, “They are much given to strong drink.” Traces on prehistoric pottery suggest fruit-brewing as early as the Jomon Period (c. 12,000 B.C. — c. 300 B.C.). The history we’re embarked on is therefore a very long one — with no end of parties to crash!

Chronological order is for the birds, for the sober — not for us. The 14th century beckons — a whimsical choice of beginnings, admittedly.

The notable event of that time was the Kenmu Restoration, a doomed attempt by Emperor Go-Daigo in Kyoto, the ancient capital, to wrest real, as opposed to merely ceremonial, power from the Shogunate — the regime of military “eastern barbarians” in Kamakura.

Drink and conspiracy went hand in hand — a very old story, of which more in a moment. The “Taiheiki,” a contemporary narrative, describes attempts by one Lord Suketomo, high in the ranks of the Imperial loyalists, to sound out two men “renowned for their valor” but of uncertain allegiance. Whose side were they on — the Emperor’s or the Kamakura Shogun’s?

“In diverse ways Lord Suketomo drew near to these,” the “Taiheiki” reports, “until the bonds of his friendship with them waxed strong. And it came to pass that Suketomo made a group, called by the name of the Band of Roisterers, thinking thereby to search their hearts to the bottom …

“Most amazing were the aspects of these men’s parties and meetings! In offering wine, they made no distinction of degree between the high and the low. Likewise, men cast off their caps and loosened their top hair, while monks showed their persons in white undergarments without their gowns. The wine was served by more than 20 maidens of 16 or 17 years, clear-skinned and superior in face and figure, through whose unlined robes of raw silk the snowy skin gleamed fresh as lotus blossoms.”

Would that we had been there!

“The guests sported and danced and recited verses. Yet all the while they took counsel together, how they might strike down the eastern barbarians.” And so Suketomo had his answer.

Drink and conspiracy — the threads of that tale take us all the way back to the mythological age of the gods.

Susano’o, the storm god, best known for his atrocious behavior toward his sister the sun goddess, turns out to be not all bad — he rescues a maiden from a fearful dragon about to consume her.

How does he do it? With sake, which he had prepared in advance. The dragon “had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail,” says the “Nihon Shoki,” an eighth-century official chronicle. “As it crawled it extended over a space of eight hills and eight valleys. Now when it came and found the sake, each head drank up one tub, and it became drunken and fell asleep.”

The maiden’s rescue was assured. Long, long afterward, the comic haiku poet Karai Senryu (1718-90) drew a moral from the story: “Even in the time of the gods/ they needed wine/ to deceive others.”

‘There came over (to Japan) … a man who knew how to distil liquor,” another eighth-century chronicle, the “Kojiki,” tells us. The man was a Korean, Susukori by name.

“So this Susukori distilled some great august liquor, and presented it to the heavenly sovereign” — the Emperor Ojin, roughly datable to the fourth century A.D. — “who, excited with the great august liquor that had been presented to him, sang, ‘I have become intoxicated with the august liquor distilled by Susukori. I have become intoxicated with the soothing liquor, with the smiling liquor.’ ”

Not much is known of Emperor Ojin (he is vaguely associated with an invasion of Korea), but evidently he knew how to enjoy himself. The “Nihon Shoki” records a subject people known as the Kuzu, mountain folk of the remote Kii Peninsula, coming to Ojin’s court to present “thick sake” and singing, “We have brewed the fine great liquor:/ See how good it is — / Come, partake, down it with joy,/ Our father.”

Why “thick” sake? The answer may disgust a modern drinker. The earliest sake was termed kuchikami no sake — literally, “chewing-in-the-mouth sake.” “This sake,” writes agricultural scientist Hiroshi Kondo in “Sake: A Drinker’s Guide” (1984), “was made by chewing rice, chestnuts or millet and then spitting the wad into a large wooden tub where it was allowed to brew for several days.” Enzymes in saliva convert starch into glucose; airborne yeast turns glucose into alcohol — and everybody’s happy.

Ritualized, the chewing and spitting became (along with drinking) part of Shinto religious festivals. As a rule, says Kondo, “only young virgins were allowed to chew the rice. These virgins were considered mediums of the gods, and the sake they produced was called bijinshu, or ‘beautiful woman sake.’ ”

It was more solid than liquid, and was eaten rather than drunk — with “chopsticks joined at the top,” writes Kondo, “like pincers.”

Refinement proceeded slowly, over centuries. Thick sake grew thinner, ultimately turning liquid. Black sake grew white and finally transparent — “a jeweled broom that sweeps away all care,” as the proverb has it. The holiest of men, and others of course not so holy, have sung its praises.

Examples? With pleasure, dear reader, with pleasure! That’s what I’m here for.

“If I could but be happy in this life,/ What should I care if in the next/ I became a bird or a worm!” — one of “13 poems in praise of sake” by Otomo no Tabito (665-731), as quoted in the eighth-century “Manyoshu,” Japan’s first poetry anthology.

“Today, gloriously drunk, we no longer know the meaning of unhappiness” — Zen hermit-monk-poet Ryokan (1758-1831).

“Living only for the moment … singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting … ” — Asai Ryoi (1612-91), satirical novelist and Buddhist priest.

“The sky at sunset — / a cup of sake/ would taste so good!” — Taneda Santoka, Zen monk, haiku poet and itinerant beggar (1882-1940).

“The complexity of qualities that go to make good sake suffices to give one the illusion that a universe of good things surrounds one while doing nothing but tasting from a cup.” — essayist Kenichi Yoshida (1912-77), whom we’ve already met.

Civilized society is a precarious arrangement, beneficial perhaps but not natural. It goes against the grain. Deep down we’d rather be savage.

Few premodern civilizations are without some form of ritual return to savagery. The Ancient Greeks had their drunken Dionysian revels, the Romans their Saturnalia, medieval Europe its Feasts of Fools, and so on.

Japan had its local matsuri (festivals); has them still, in fact: “The noise and confusion, expressions of hostility, and orgiastic behavior we can still observe today in many matsuri, would be unthinkable in ordinary time,” wrote historian Herbert Plutschow in “Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan” (1996).

Sexual license is one characteristic feature, violence another, and drunkenness, of course, a third — it’s hard to lose your senses without being drunk. Plutschow quotes a description from the 1950s of Kyoto’s Kurama Fire Festival: “People were shouting, singing, quarreling; bare shoulders, bare chests bare buttocks, ecstatic faces, intoxicated faces, faces in pain …”

That’s us; and civilization has long known the wisdom of allowing those bottled-up energies some channeled release.

Imagine life without alcohol. Civilization would drive us mad. We’re only human, after all.

The Mesopotamians and Egyptians 5,000 years ago had beer; the Ancient Greeks had wine; East Asians, fortunately, stumbled upon sake. It seems to have been a fortuitous discovery. Kondo cites an eighth-century Japanese document relating “how a cask of steamed rice was accidentally left uncovered. The owner found to his horror that the rice had molded. … Several days later he discovered that the cask of spoiled rice had been transformed into a cask of delicious sake.”

What else would a primitive mind see in that but the work of the gods? The link between intoxication and religious elevation seems natural and inevitable.

Japan is a culture of rules, etiquette, decorum, control, self-control. “If you live on an island you can’t be one,” the Australian art critic Robert Hughes observed of the Japanese in the American weekly news magazine Time in 1983. No Japanese is an island. What, then? A cog in a machine? A note in a symphony? A cell in a body politic? Anyway, a small part of an immense whole. “The entire country was a vast chain of those who were bowed to and those who did the bowing,” wrote historian Hiroshi Watanabe in “A History of Political Thought, 1600-1901″ (2010).

Thank the myriad gods for sake. In drink is liberation; in drunkenness, absolution. Short of murder, you can get away with anything when drunk. When drunk — and only then — you can be an island.

“When inebriated, society dictates, men are not accountable for their actions,” wrote journalist Samantha Culp in a feature titled “Poor Man’s Geisha” in the Hong Kong newspaper The Standard (2006) — following a brief stint as a hostess in central Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district — “whether those (actions) entail attempting to squeeze a hostess’ thigh or puking and then passing out on a subway platform.”

“A man who creates a ruckus on a late-night binge,” wrote Kondo in the “Drinker’s Guide,” “may, when apprehended and cooled off, be asked to write a formal letter of apology. He will begin, ‘I was drinking sake …’ Few people in Japan would need to hear more.”

True now, true 1,000 years ago. Here, in court lady Murasaki Shikibu’s classic 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji,” is a highly dignified courtier assiduously wooing a young lady: “He was now quite open in his suit. Pretending to be hopelessly drunk, he was very amusing indeed as he gamboled about all willow-like with a spray of wisteria in his cap.”

Interesting that he was only pretending. The literature of the Heian Period (794-1185) records much drinking but surprisingly little “hopeless” drunkenness. Decorum was stretched, not shattered. A characteristic entertainment of the day was the “winding water banquet.” Wine cups were set afloat on the artificial streams that typically adorned the grounds of nobles’ mansions, each guest in turn taking a cup as it floated by, sipping from it, and reciting a verse. One imagines the verses growing freer and more ribald as the night wore on — but decorum was stretched, not shattered.

If we want to see Japan with its hair down, it’s to the Edo Period (1603-1867) we must go — specifically to that fleeting, mad, plebeian cultural romp known as the Genroku Era (1688-1703).

Culturally, the term is elastic and stretches a few decades backward and forward. The point was: Down with aristocratic propriety!

The masses awakened at last. Fortunately they were not revolutionary. It wasn’t power they wanted but fun. They’d never had much; now they seized on it and made up for lost time. What did they think life was, a never-ending matsuri? Some did think so, often living to regret it.

Evoker par excellence of the Genroku mood is the Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93). His “Five Women Who Loved Love” (1686) features a drunken orgy to end all drunken orgies.

Seijuro, the rake-protagonist, “gathered fools to amuse his party with imitations of bats crying or of watchmen clacking their wooden clappers. Procuresses chanted Buddhist prayers (in a mock funeral) for the repose of Kyugoro, one of the company who was very much alive. … Finally, under the pretext of playing ‘naked islanders’ … the courtesans were made to disrobe in spite of their unwillingness.

“Just then Seijuro’s father, bursting into the house in a great rage, caught the company unprepared.” Well, that was the end of the party. Who cares? Genroku was party after party. True, they rarely end happily (often, in fact, they end in suicide). Who cares — as long as they begin happily. Right?

“And the thankfulness you feel just to hear the sound of her voice!” writes Ryoi Asai in “Tales of the Floating World” (1666). “What great priest could bestow words of enlightenment equal to this? … As she plays the samisen … you think, ‘If I were to die tomorrow what would I regret?’ Ah, this is the life! Pass the sake cup! … Thus do many men go to their ruin.”

Sake-brewing was Japan’s first commercial enterprise. Associated both in Heian times and before exclusively with shrine and court, it passed into entrepreneurial hands in the early years of the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333).

That period is known mainly for inaugurating Japan’s stern military tradition, but it has another claim to fame: Its stable currency fostered a commercial spirit.

“Descendants of the families that had run the sake brewery of the court,” Kondo explains, “now sought permission from the new government to establish themselves as independent brewers, or formed guilds associating themselves with powerful temples and shrines and going into business under their protection.”

Fortunes were made. Warriors were not supposed to be drinkers, but they proved open to temptation after all. Kyoto culture, despised in the Kamakura Shogunate’s early years as effete, gradually took hold. Battle-hardened samurai became Kyotoized in spite of themselves.

By the 14th century, says Kondo, there were 342 sake brewers in Kyoto alone, Kamakura being a prime market. Fierce competition and increasingly sophisticated consumer tastes generated vast improvements in brewing techniques. Something like what came to be known as pasteurization (after the 19th-century French chemist and microbiologist, Louis Pasteur) seems to have been developed by sake brewers in Nara as early as 1599. The Kansai region of western Honshu produced the best sakes thanks to its fortuitous combination of pure water and high-quality rice.

The prime brewing season was during the cold months. It was a labor-intensive process. Seasonally idled farmers and fishermen flocked to the sake breweries, their muscles in acute demand.

Then, from the early 17th century, the construction and swelling population of Edo (present-day Tokyo) created a huge new market.

An indication of how rich the major brewers grew is the intensity of the hatred they inspired in times of famine and upheaval. Rioting peasants went for the rice brokers and sake brewers first. A record survives of the interrogation of a peasant leader named Tatsuzo following an 1836 uprising in Mikawa Province (present-day Aichi Prefecture). It is cited in a 1994 essay titled “Festivals and Fights: The Law and the People of Edo,” by Makoto Takeuchi:

“Interrogating officer: You break into the households of respected merchants; smash apart casks of sake. You call that a festival to rectify the world?

“Tatsuzo: To hoard rice; to take this rice that sustains us in this transient life and squander it on making sake — that is what causes suffering for so many people.”

The Japanese, it is said, are not good drinkers. The problem is genetic. Deficient in a certain enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol, some 50 percent of Japanese — and a similar proportion of north Asians generally — apparently suffer from what is informally known as Asian glow. The technical term is Alcohol Flush Reaction. The symptoms are flushed faces, dizziness, nausea and a tendency to get maybe a bit more obnoxious a bit more quickly than drinkers with more alcohol-friendly chromosomes.

The syndrome is well documented and seems authentic, but the essayist Yoshida, for one, has no time for it — or for drinkers who can’t hold their liquor. He acknowledges only those who can — quite rightly. Those who can’t are a disgrace in the bars, geisha houses or hostess establishments they frequent. They have no place in an urbane and witty writer’s essays.

“In the West,” Yoshida says, speaking of alcohol’s role in commerce circa 1975, “businessmen drink after the deal has been done. In Japan they indulge during and after the deal. Any restaurant of any size advertises rooms for ‘business talks’ — and first they mellow themselves before getting down to the sordid details, the ancient wisdom of the race having taught them that drinking really does make men mellow and, in moderation, stimulates the brain.

“If talks come to a satisfactory conclusion, they see no reason to stop drinking and go home. If they do not, they go on drinking in the hope that some way out of the difficulties will be found in their cups.”

Culp, the journalist who briefly turned bar hostess to research “Poor Man’s Geisha,” may be less witty, or less tolerant, or more realistic; or else her more acerbic view may reflect changes that occurred in the course of the 30 years that separate her from Yoshida.

She writes, “Drinking is a huge part of the hostess world, and of Japanese business culture itself. In a country where a staggering percentage of the male populace staggers home each night, ‘alcoholism’ is hard to define. Hostess bars have an important role to play in this culture that requires obligatory drinking with colleagues after work, and getting wasted with partners to seal a business deal. Drinking comes to signify trust, relaxation and a certain absolution from any adult responsibility.

“The fact that the female manager of such a club is called mama-san,” she adds tartly, “is no coincidence.”

The hostess bar is a modern offshoot of the old licensed pleasure quarters, to which a fleeting visit (a longer one being impossible) now seems in order. An early 20th-century English-language guidebook written by one T. Fujimoto, cited in “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo” by Stephen and Ethel Longstreet (1970), notes, “The hostess and maids of the house receive you very hospitably and lead you to a room upstairs. … Everything in the room makes you comfortable. A clever-looking maid comes up with a tea-set and serves tea and cakes, then asks you whether you want to take sake and some dishes, hire geisha and jesters. … In another room the samisen is heard. … Lots of sake and good food produce in the guest an amorous nature.”

Of course they do — but is that a good thing? “The romance of the Japanese tea house in these days is an absolute myth,” fumes Clement Scott, a Victorian-era British traveler and author whom the Longstreets also quote. “At the gate of a tea house … stood the funny but inevitable little Japanese girls, gaily bowing and smirking … asking the ‘honorable’ gentlemen to come in and rest and laugh and chaff with them and take just one cup of their ‘honorable’ tea. Tea in a modern Japanese tea house in these days of civilization means, I fear, whisky with or without water. … Peach blossoms may surround it (the tea house), but the almond-eyed maidens are employed here to tempt the traveler to drink and romp.”

That, the alert reader will have noticed, is our first reference to an alcoholic beverage other than sake. For 1,000 years and more, “drinking” in Japan meant, almost exclusively, but not quite, drinking sake. The exception was shōchū. A fragment of graffitti inscribed on a roof beam of the Koriyama Hachiman Shrine in Kagoshima is attributed to two carpenters working there in 1559: “The high priest was so stingy he never once gave us shōchū to drink. What a nuisance!”

Relatively refined nowadays, shōchū then, distilled mainly from sweet potatoes, was a rough tipple, scarcely better than a gargle, too coarse to enter even Genroku literature — no stickler for elegance, as we have seen — with any frequency.

And so in the popular imagination if not quite in actual fact, “drinking” and “sake” were synonymous — until Japan’s mid-19th century opening to the West. That threw the scene wide open, with results describable as invigorating or disastrous, depending on point of view.

What is indisputable is that the “soothing liquor, smiling liquor” celebrated all those misty ages ago by Emperor Ojin has been in sad popular decline ever since, though it’s said very lately to be on the cusp of a revival. Yoshida’s businessmen were as likely to be drinking beer, wine or whisky as sake; Culp’s clients much more so.

Tell me what you’re drinking and I’ll tell you who you are, though I may not be right.

Yoshida celebrates the democratic nature of sake: “In the West, people drink champagne in marble halls and gin in cheap bars. In Japan the same sake is drunk in palatial chambers … and in small stalls in streets frequented by draymen.”

True, indisputably true, and yet — as the novelist Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) grumbles in “Two Days in Chicago” (1910), a youthful short story based on a convivial and liberating personal experience — “Think of the way I was brought up at home, by a father whose warm human blood had been chilled by the Confucian classics and a mother restrained by treatises on womanly virtue and behavior. No room for music and laughter. My father would drink with his friends till past midnight and assail my mother, already exhausted from the day’s chores, for the way the sake was warmed or the food cooked …”

“Even dignified men (under the influence) suddenly turn into lunatics and behave idiotically,” complained the 14th-century Buddhist priest Kenko in his “Grasses of Idleness” (1330-32). “The victim’s head aches even the following day, and he lies abed, groaning, unable to eat, unable to recall what happened the day before, as if everything had taken place in a previous incarnation.”

We all know the feeling — but, adds Kenko, sacrificing consistency to higher truth: “On a moonlit night, a morning after a snowfall, or under the cherry blossoms, it adds to our pleasure if, while chatting at our ease, we bring forth the wine cups.”

It does, doesn’t it?

Michael Hoffman’s latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).

  • VeryOldB

    Kanpai! Fun read.