Self-styled rice seller defends sake sales

A 61-year-old rice retailer claimed in court June 16 that his sales of “doburoku” unrefined sake are not in violation of the Liquor Tax Law, which bans the unlicensed production of alcoholic drinks.

In the first hearing of his trial before the Tokyo District Court, Isonobu Kawasaki pleaded innocent, saying, “What the prosecutors say is all nonsense.” Kawasaki, who lives in Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, has long defied Japan’s rigid farming policy by openly engaging in illegal but widespread sales of rice through unofficial channels. Sake is made from rice.

He argues that because doburoku is a traditional beverage of farmers and is made for their consumption, it should not be controlled by the Liquor Tax Law. The trial that began June 16 is the second in Kawasaki’s continuing battle with authorities. In 1993, he was indicted for violating the Liquor Tax Law and the now-defunct Staple Food Control Law by selling 11 liters of doburoku and 1,800 tons of rice through unofficial channels.

In the first case, he was ordered by the court to pay 3 million yen in fines. However, he continued with the illegal business, while calling for the removal of state control over the distribution of liquor and rice. According to prosecution documents, Kawasaki operates the Castle of Illegal Rice shop in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, where he sells an unlicensed doburoku under the label Bureaucrat Killer. Upon opening the shop, he repeatedly sent letters of invitation to the National Tax Agency, they said.

Every week he brews some 80 liters of doburoku, which promptly sells out. Last October, the tax bureaus in Tokyo and Kanazawa took action, raiding Kawasaki’s Tokyo shop and Toyama home. In March, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office indicted Kawasaki without taking him into custody.

The Liquor Tax Law requires liquor producers to obtain licenses from the regional tax bureau chief. In 1989, the Supreme Court, upholding a lower court decision against a writer in Fukuoka Prefecture, ruled that the unlicensed production of doburoku is illegal even for personal consumption.

However, as Kawasaki continued his legal battle with authorities, the government was obliged to ease control of rice distribution, in line with the Uruguay Round trade liberalization accord. Under the new Food Control Law that went into effect in 1995, Kawasaki’s black market rice sales are no longer illegal. Regulations over liquor distribution have also been eased substantially, prompting small-lot beer production by a number of microbreweries and widespread sales of kits allowing consumers to brew low-alcohol beer at home.