NAGAOKA, NIIGATA PREFECTURE – Norimichi Kusumi, 66, can finally heave a sigh of relief having turned over the management of a 180-year-old sake brewery in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, to his son, Yoshitaka, 42, after struggling to protect the business from a series of natural disasters.
The fourth son of a family in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Norimichi met his wife, Emiko, 67, when they were students at Toyo University.
As the oldest of three daughters of a family operating a sake brewery in Nagaoka, Emiko needed a husband to take over the family business. The brewery, called Kusumi Shuzo, was founded in 1833.
“A friend of mine told me that a sake brewery owner was wealthy and I wouldn’t have to work hard if I married into the family,” Norimichi said with a laugh, recalling his marriage in 1970.
Norimichi is known as the reviver of Kame no O, a rice strain for sake. Due to its delicacy, production of the rice stopped around 1952.
Eager to produce sake from the rice, Norimichi revived the strain in 1981, using 1,500 seeds kept by the farm ministry.
The success was depicted in a manga and aired as a TV drama in 1994, turning Norimichi into a focal figure overnight. Kusumi Shuzo produced a number of sake brands from the rice strain, which became so popular that they led the locally brewed sake boom in the 1990s. Retail prices of the brands soared more than 10 times during the boom.
Norimichi struggled with a series of natural disasters in the past decade after the Kame no O boom ended. Kusumi Shuzo lost 20 brewing tanks at its two plants as a result of two landslides caused by heavy rain on July 13, 2004, and a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that hit the Chuetsu region in Niigata on Oct. 23 the same year. The damage cost the company sake equivalent to ¥500 million in sales, or more than its annual sales.
Another strong quake, also with a magnitude reading of 6.8, occurred off Chuetsu on July 16, 2007, damaging Kusumi Shuzo’s brewing plants and office.
Although the company was not directly damaged by the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake that struck Tohoku on March 11, 2011, there was concern about radioactive contamination of groundwater used for sake production, and stored sake amid the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant in the neighboring prefecture.
Fortunately, inspections conducted by an authorized organ on behalf of Kusumi Shuzo in early April this year found no contamination.
Norimichi said he wanted to retire at age 60 but decided to keep working until the firm was back on its feet and the reconstruction from the disasters was complete.
“I feel settled at last now,” he added with a smile, noting that Yoshitaka succeeded him and became the seventh president of Kusumi Shuzo late last year.
With sake consumption peaking when Norimichi started working for Kusumi Shuzo, he found local brewers making no marketing and other efforts.
Concerned about the future market for sake, Norimichi and Emiko took sake samples to liquor shops and restaurants in Tokyo and its vicinity. The five-year marketing campaign by the young couple enabled Kusumi Shuzo to supply sake to a total of 75 liquor shops and restaurants in the metropolitan area.
Even when Kusumi Shuzo sharply boosted sales after Norimichi was made famous in the manga and TV drama, he remained calm, saying that the boom would end in four to five years. While various businesses approached him with proposals such as production of character goods, he concentrated on production of sake, adhering to his guiding principle of “no wisdom is better than sincerity.”
The consumption of sake in Japan has dropped to less than half of its peak in recent years due to an increase in demand for “shochu” distilled spirits and young people’s tendency to shun alcoholic beverages.
But Norimichi is hardly discouraged. “Sake production is the very combination of local rice, water and human nature,” he said. “We can contribute to local employment and cultural tradition in a nature-friendly manner.”
In fact, 11 local farmers grow rice of the Kame no O strain on 8 hectares of paddies in front of Kusumi Shuzo, while nine brewers are preparing for production of unrefined sake in the winter.
“I will continue doing what I have to do and carry on sake production that can contribute to society,” Norimichi said.