Food & Drink

Foreign pair bring energy and fresh ideas to the table in Japan's traditional sake industry

by Yuka Nakao

Kyodo

When two foreign nationals dipped their toe into the traditional sake brewing industry as sales staff, they not only discovered the intricacies of the beverage, but they also came to understand the unique aspects of working in one of the country’s most traditional industries.

The two women — American Kelley Kaminsky, 28, and Chen Hsiao-jou, 26, from Taiwan — are now working as apprentices to learn the ins and outs of sake brewing from a producer with a more than 160-year history in Hyogo Prefecture.

Nishiyama Shuzojo Co., known worldwide by sake connoisseurs for its award-winning Kotsuzumi brands, has tried to modernize its company practices to respond to the decline in the consumption of alcohol in Japan, including by hiring women and foreign nationals at its kura (brewery) from around 2013.

“I wanted my kura to be a model in a declining industry by showing that we could change so much if we question tradition,” said Shuzo Nishiyama, 45, the sixth-generation chief of Nishiyama Shuzojo.

Currently, four out of seven Nishiyama Shuzojo brewers are women and the president said female “attentiveness” helps in keeping accurate records of each brewing process, among other benefits.

Kaminsky, a former bartender and English teacher, joined the firm in August 2017, while Chen started working there in April after leaving a mushroom farm in Taiwan.

Sake is produced by mixing processed rice with water, kōji mold and sake yeast. The two foreign nationals, both fluent in Japanese, take part in almost every step of the process, including preparing kōji, mixing the ingredients and recording the temperature of the sake at each step.

Reflecting Nishiyama’s motto — “Good products are made in a good atmosphere” — the company encourages its workplace to be joyful.

The employees’ cheery voices, combined with the rich aroma generated by the fermentation process, seem to bring happiness to visitors even before they get a taste of the product, which is now exported to more than 30 countries and regions. The company has also developed other products such as yogurt and cake using sake-brewing techniques.

Nishiyama Shuzojo staff begin their day by cleaning their main workspace. At 8:30 a.m. all staff members gather outside to take part in calisthenics exercises, instructed by a rotating cast of employees.

Both Kaminsky and Chen said they were “surprised” by the cleaning and exercise programs at first.

“I think some people would leave the company for this in Taiwan,” said a laughing Chen. “I thought ‘this has nothing to do with the work’ but I got used to it. That’s what culture is. … By doing it, you feel that you are actually in the culture.”

“I’m still not sure if I fully understand it,” Kaminsky said. Despite feeling rather awkward at first, she says she went with the flow and tried to “experience working in a Japanese company, being a part of a team.”

“I think the sense of teamwork is pretty good in Japanese companies for sure. It’s not as individual. … I think everyone cares about the company and coworkers,” she said.

Akane Haze, the brewery’s 36-year-old spokeswoman, said the morning activities originate from a Japanese tendency to want to “start your work with a clean and fresh mind.”

“The purpose of the exercise is to develop a shared feeling that we are making the product, collectively,” Haze said. “It also has the dual purpose of showing the week’s (exercise) instructor how to work (so) that others will follow.”

Frank assessments like those from Kaminsky and Chen, which would be rarely offered by Japanese employees who are generally keen to not openly question the status quo, show the relationship of trust built among staff and executives on their common passion for sake.

Chen, who took classes about Japanese artisan culture at university, said she was thrilled to find a real artisan in Nishiyama Shuzojo.

When she began working for the company a brewer who was in charge of the final step of sake-making at the time wrote “quality first” on a card introducing himself, the motto he treasures most.

“Quality first — it’s really simple and the most important thing, but people tend to forget about it. In Taiwan, I think sales come before quality,” Chen said.

Kaminsky, who has just finished her first year of brewing sake, said there are still many things she has yet to learn. “Fermentation is fascinating. You could make the same sake, but each time there’s going to be something that’s a little bit different, so that’s always interesting,” she said.

The best part of this job is hearing people say that the product is delicious when they taste the sake, Kaminsky said, adding she does not want to leave the brewing team even after she starts working in overseas sales so that she can remain in touch with the process of making the sake.

“I believe in this place and I love everyone who works in the brewery — they are all good people. If you have happy warm people making something I think that will show in your final product,” Kaminsky said.

Other members of the company feel that the two foreign nationals have made a real impact, too.

“I would be happy if Kelley and Chen-san become sub-master brewers or sales staff with the skills to convey the brewers’ feelings to the world,” said master brewer Korei Yashima, 46.

Their eagerness to learn and their inquisitive nature is reflected in their involvement in the brewing process, Yashima said, noting that their Japanese colleagues, in contrast, tend to hesitate to ask questions and generally take a back seat while he works.

“We have high expectations for the two” as they can “provide positive criticism” and improve the company’s culture, Nishiyama said.

“For example, Kelley sometimes writes in her daily reports or tells me, ‘I think it’s more efficient to do it this way,’ or ‘How about putting this and that process together?'” he said.

Although not all Kaminsky’s ideas are adopted, some of her proposals end up working out once they try them. He also said that the two can cultivate overseas markets that only foreign nationals have access to.

“We are both learning together. … It depends on if we, as a company or an organization, can welcome different opinions from different genders or nationalities with an open mind,” Nishiyama said.