Over its 850 plus years, sake maker Sudohonke Inc. has endured wars, famines, earthquakes, plagues, droughts, storms and everything in between. But the nuclear crisis that started last year at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant was an unparalleled catastrophe that pushed it to the brink.
“Water is key to our products,” Genuemon Sudo, president of Sudohonke, told The Japan Times in an interview earlier this month. “We were ready to close down if our sake was found to be contaminated by radiation.”
Sudo is the 55th in the line of proprietors running the brewery in Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture.
The origins of the brewery are lost in the depths of history, but a talisman kept by the company shows Sudo’s ancestors were making sake in 1141 at the brewery’s current location.
Sake was initially provided to the local noble clan as a form of paying taxes.
Sudo was initially unsure of succeeding his father as the brewery’s president, but that changed when he was in high school. Upon learning that serving whiskey at Japanese restaurants was becoming popular, he felt the urge to provide his family’s sake to those who hadn’t tasted it.
During a visit to a Japanese restaurant in the United States in the 1980s, he was also appalled by the poor quality of sake being served to the customers.
“I wanted to go back to the basics and make good sake, using the best available resources. I wanted to prove that a truly good sake goes well with any type of food,” he said.
Instead of focusing on expanding its business, the company today still sticks to this belief and prioritizes quality over quantity or profit.
During the brewing season that begins in November and ends in April, Sudohonke makes a mere 180 kiloliters annually, using only the water pumped from a local well and the finest rice.
However, the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, threatened to end the tradition, with the city of Kasama experiencing a level 6 quake on the Japanese intensity scale.
“I was driving my car when the quake struck and became afraid that it would flip over. That’s how strong the shaking was,” Sudo said.
The brewery experienced only minor problems, though, including some tilting of the sake tanks. Wisdom passed on from previous generations, acquired through decades and centuries of fighting natural disasters, played a role in minimizing the damage from March 11.
Sudohonke lived on a family precept not to cut down any trees on its land, which may have helped strengthen the ground it stands on, Sudo said.
Another principle handed down by his ancestors was to avoid moving near the seashore or the mouth of a river.
The Ibaraki shoreline, though not as severely hit as coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, experienced substantial damage from the tsunami. But the release of radioactive fallout from Fukushima No. 1, located approximately 130 km from the brewery, defied even centuries’ worth of knowledge.
Securing the safety of the water was key for Sudohonke. Sudo said that by March 20, the brewery had tested its wells for radiation, some of which had been dug hundreds of years ago.
The tests came back negative, but the brewery still submits water samples to research centers every two months to make sure contamination hasn’t taken place.
“If we lose the water, there is no way we can maintain the business,” Sudo said. Still, sales fell sharply following March 2011.
Sudohonke lost literally all of its overseas customers, which made up about 20 percent of its annual sales. The situation hasn’t improved much 17 months since the disaster.
“Once the restaurants take our product off their menus, it’s difficult to restart business with them. Our company began exporting sake in 1995, but we have to start everything from the beginning again,” he said.
Sudo explained that there is no shortcut to recovering his company’s sales.
Business, like the process of brewing sake, can only succeed if you take your time and work meticulously on the small details. The sake tanks have been reinforced to withstand another monster temblor.
If Sudo were to leave a note for future generations regarding the Great East Japan Earthquake and its consequences, it would be simple:
“Don’t ever think that men can control nature. Don’t cut down trees — just like our ancestors told us,” he said, adding that preserving the environment is also a key to success for a fine brewery.
“Focusing on preserving nature is crucial to making a truly fine sake, and that is what matters the most. (The key to longevity) isn’t about creating a popular brand or selling more products,” he said.
As for his own career, Sudo said he looks forward to passing on the family business to his three children to secure more time for himself.
“There are four giant boxes we have kept in the company for years that are filled with receipts, memos and other paperwork from the past. Most of it appears to be from the Edo Period,” he said. “It would be great if I can make the time to study them and organize the historic facts of our company and learn from it.”