NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – A campaign is underway in Okinawa to get awamori liquor added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Awamori, a distilled spirit indigenous and unique to the prefecture, was on the brink of disappearing amid the turmoil of World War II. A campaign is now afoot to ensure it not only survives but is also globally recognized as a symbol of peace.
There were dozens of distillers in the Shuri district of Naha alone before the war, but their storehouses were reduced to rubble by the “iron storm” U.S. bombardment in the last few months of the war.
After the war, Okinawans soon began work to rebuild the awamori industry.
The late Seiryo Sakumoto, second-generation owner of the Sakimoto Shuzo distillery, was one of them.
He returned to the distillation plant from a U.S. prison camp six months after the war ended and found in the charred rubble a woven straw mat used to produce awamori.
When Sakumoto loosened the mat and rubbed it with both hands, its color turned to greenish black — a sign that black rice malt, an essential ingredient to make the liquor, was still alive.
“I heard that my grandfather shed tears of joy,” said Kei Sakumoto, the fourth-generation owner of Sakimoto. “Production of awamori resumed as he provided the malt to distillers nearby.”
Although Seiryo died in 1987, the production of awamori has continued, despite some ups and downs.
“Awamori is a 600-year-old Okinawan cultural tradition,” Seiko Nakamura once wrote in a newspaper article.
Saneyuki Tsuchiya opened the pub Urizun in Naha in 1972, the year Okinawa returned to Japanese rule, to serve awamori from all 57 distillers in the prefecture.
The war destroyed all kinds of awamori, including batches maturing for 300 years.
Nakamura and Tsuchiya have now died, but their devotion to preserving the liquor has been handed down.
Toru Miyasato, 57, produces awamori under the brand Harusame (Spring Rain) at a distillery in Naha. The name was adopted by Miyasato’s father, who wanted to restore the idyllic life of Okinawa, he said.
Miyasato voiced hope that the campaign to have awamori inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage will be successful. This would represent “the fruit of our elders’ efforts to pursue peace,” he said.
But some Okinawans have bitter memories linked to the war and awamori.
Shoken Yoza, 86, was only 16 when mobilized to join a fighting unit of junior high school students called the Tekketsu Kinnotai (Blood and Iron Corps to Serve the Emperor).
In April 1945, after U.S. forces landed in Okinawa, Yoza was ordered by an Imperial Japanese Army officer at an underground command post to bring awamori from a distiller.
Yoza and other Tekketsu members went to a distiller and filled empty oil cans with liquor. But when they were returning to the bunker, a U.S. bomb exploded — and most of the cans toppled over as the students ran for their lives.
“I felt angry because we were forced to risk our lives for alcohol,” Yoza recalled.
He was discharged from the unit shortly after this incident due to the shortage of food and rejoined his family. The family surrendered to U.S. troops after weeks of fleeing heavy U.S. naval and aerial bombardment.
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