For most of its thousand-year history, sake has been a man’s world. Even as recently as 30 years ago, women were forbidden to enter some breweries, but today’s pioneering lady brewers and brewery heads are teaching the industry to embrace its feminine side.

As a child, Miho Fujita, president of Mioya Shuzo in Ishikawa Prefecture, had never imagined that she’d be working at a sake brewery, much less running one. After a thoroughly urban upbringing in Tokyo, Fujita had gone into advertising, handling marketing for the American toy brand Hot Wheels. However, when her uncle, who had been the brewery’s executive director, passed away without leaving a successor, Fujita realized that there was no one in her family left to fill the role.

“At that time, I was equivocal about trying (to take over the job),” she admits, “and I went to Ishikawa without thinking deeply about it at all.”

Her father, who was the company manager, was delighted to work with his daughter, but he assumed her stay would be temporary.

“Both my mother and father thought that I’d tire of it after six months and go back to Tokyo,” she laughs.

Nearly eight years later, she’s still there — and more in charge than ever. As president of the company, she’s made significant changes, including courting a wider, international audience for her sake, and creating a new line of full-bodied sake called Yuho. In winter, she trades her pumps for a pair of plastic boots and works alongside her master brewer, getting her fingers in the rice and stirring the brew.

In the old days, this would have been unthinkable. While anecdotal evidence suggests that women have worked intermittently in breweries for hundreds of years, the “men only” rule was still widely accepted until 1976, when Ichishima Shuzo in Niigata Prefecture officially opened its doors to women. The reasons for the ban on women range from the quasi-scientific to the frankly superstitious. Some owners claimed that the alkaline composition of women’s sweat would skew the PH balance of the sake during fermentation, while others maintained that the presence of women would enrage the sake goddess.

Traditionally, sake production has been the domain of men, primarily due to the physical nature of the work, which involves long hours and a lot of heavy lifting. Workers often had to leave home for several months during the winter brewing season, making it difficult for women, who were responsible for child rearing, to become brewers. Although this system has changed, the job is as demanding today as it was then, and overnight stays at the brewery are still common.

“That may be the hardest thing for women who want to become brewers. You’re not free to do as you like, and the odd hours can be tough if you have a family,” observes Miho Imada, one of only a handful of female tōji (master brewers) in Japan.

Lack of time for a personal life is a problem familiar to many women in high-powered positions. Imada became the master brewer of Imada Shuzo in Hiroshima Prefecture seven years ago, after training at the National Research Institute of Brewing and apprenticing with the former tōji for a decade. When she’s not making sake at the brewery, she’s busy overseeing a project to revive the Hattan Sou rice strain used in her sake. Imada spends the rest of her time learning the ins and outs of managing the business and jetting around the globe to promote her Fukucho sake. At the moment, her career is her main priority.

“My father is in his 70s, so I’ll be taking over the business soon and I have to be prepared for that,” she says.

These days, more women are entering in the industry, but the number of female tōji remains very small — between 20 and 30 nationwide. Of the 193 people who passed the first certification test administered last year by the National Association of Toji Guilds, only three were women. Although there are events highlighting women in the sake business, such as the annual Kura Josei Summit and a biannual public tasting in Tokyo called Zenkoku Josei Kurabito no Bishu wo Ajiwau Yube, there is no official association of female tōji or brewery owners.

Despite the conservative, macho image of the sake world, Fujita and Imada say that they’ve never experienced any kind of discrimination. But Hiroko Yokosawa, master brewer at Tsukinowa Shuzo in Iwate Prefecture, points out that lady brewers may not be welcome everywhere.

“Most of my staff members are young, in their 20s, so women never feel out of place here. But at many breweries, the workers are older and less understanding,” she explains.

Yokosawa routinely participates in events featuring female brewers and has become one of the country’s leading voices in support of ladies in the industry. Women, she notes, have the ability to prioritize, and their attention to detail on the job is a further asset.

“Women can work through the kind of small problems that men have trouble letting go of,” she says. “Working with sake is a lot like raising a child, and women have a natural instinct for that.”

Fujita adds that women are more open to trying new things. They bring a different perspective and a refreshing lack of prejudice to the industry as a whole, which can be a great advantage when it comes to reaching female consumers. According to a 2009 survey by trend-monitoring company CScout of women between the ages of 20 and 30, 75 percent of them drink sake rarely, if at all. To be truly competitive, sake producers must engage this key demographic.

“Female brewers understand what women like and can make sake that’s more appealing to women. They know that women have different lifestyles and ways of enjoying sake,” says project coordinator and food industry liaison Shizuka Wakashita.

A career in sake, especially given the current state of the business, is bound to be an uphill battle, but Yokosawa hopes that lady brewers will become the norm, rather than the exception, in future.

“In order for the sake industry to grow and expand, the power of women is necessary,” Fujita concludes. “It’s essential.”

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. Her blog, Tokyo Through the Drinking Glass, can be found at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.

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