Perhaps what sake needs for a rebound is a woman’s touch.
Even as sake makes inroads abroad, sales of the iconic alcoholic beverage have suffered a steady decline in its home market over the past 50 years.
Sales of nihonshu, as it’s known in Japanese, currently make up less than 7% of alcohol sales in Japan, compared to a 30% share for beer. That’s a long way down from the dominant position sake held after World War II when its market share peaked at around 80%.
Since the turn of the century, however, the industry has tried to bounce back, with small breweries turning their focus to producing premium sake in an effort to make a name for themselves and gain a competitive edge over mass producers.
But their numbers have dwindled.
Around 30,000 breweries were in operation in the 1800s, but only about 1,200 active breweries remain.
To adapt to a changing industry, breweries have also altered the way they make sake, which has meant, among other things, opening their doors to women.
In the past 30 years, women have gained ground in all areas of sake production, with an ever increasing number even taking on the revered role of tōji (master brewer).
“Becoming a tōji requires a great deal of knowledge and physical power. Anyone who makes it, man or woman, is a force of nature, and, if you add the myriad issues faced by women in Japanese society, then that makes female brewers even more remarkable,” says Brian Ashcraft, author of “The Japanese Sake Bible.”
Offering a variety of innovative approaches to production, female brewers are strengthening the industry and bringing exciting new batches to the table.
Indeed, if the industry is to regain its lost foothold in the market, women may end up being an important part of the solution.
Rise of the female brewer
The emergence of female master brewers in Japan is a relatively new phenomenon.
“It isn’t until the 1980s that we really start to see the rise of female brewers,” Ashcraft says.
While official figures are lacking, the Japan Sake Brewing Toji Union believes that 16 of its 694 members are women, with around 50 of Japan’s breweries having either a female owner or master brewer.
Two decades ago, Miho Imada became the first female master brewer of Imada Shuzo Honten brewery, Hiroshima Prefecture, which has been producing sake since the late 1800s. Imada is regarded as one of the most accomplished tōji in all of Hiroshima and her sake is widely respected.
“We’ve shown that having women in breweries is no impediment to making good sake,” says Imada, who recently earned international recognition for her role in changing popular perceptions of the sake industry when she was included in the BBC 100 Women 2020 list. “Women can and should have the freedom to choose if they want to work at a brewery.”
At the turn of the century, a generational shift occurred within the sake industry. Historically, a kuramoto (brewery owner) generally took a hands-off approach and hired a tōji to take care of production. In turn, the master brewer would put together a team of seasonal workers who would live at the brewery during the key months of sake production.
Yet with falling sales, fewer seasonal workers willing to engage in the hard manual labor involved in sake production and a desire to have more control over the brewing process, many owners chose to become more involved, take on the duties of a master brewer and produce sake in new styles.
The generational shift and weakening of the traditional tōji system provided more women with a unique opportunity to get involved in sake production.
“As societal resistance to women’s presence in production activities started to drop and, at the same time, the necessity to have women involved increased — due to fewer people wanting to work in sake production — you start to see the rise of the female brewer,” says John Gauntner, one of the world’s leading sake experts and a former sake columnist for The Japan Times.
The notion of female brewers also made its way into Japanese popular culture in 1988 with the launch of a successful manga series titled “Natsuko no Sake” (“Natsuko’s Sake”) by renowned artist Akira Oze. The manga recounts the story of a young girl, Natsuko Soeki, who takes over her family’s sake brewery after her brother passes away.
Oze’s manga not only helped introduce the notion that women could take a key role in sake production to the wider public, but also had a transformational effect on the life of a young woman called Rumiko Moriki.
Moriki came across the series when she took over her family’s ailing brewery — Moriki Shuzo in Mie Prefecture — after her father fell ill.
“At the time, no other women were active in the industry,” says Moriki, who found inspiration in Oze’s manga during the difficult times.
“I had the same birthday as the titular character and I felt that the manga carried a special message for me — namely, that if I made sake sincerely and honestly, then people would recognize it and our brewery could become successful,” says Moriki, who would eventually become the brewery’s toji and lead Moriki Shuzho to success by focusing on making junmai (literally, “pure rice”) sake using local produce.
“When I was learning to make sake I was helped by so many people that I felt I had to repay this debt and decided to form the Sake Brewery Women’s Summit as a way of supporting other women,” she says.
The Sake Brewery Women’s Summit has been an extremely helpful support network for women in the face of the challenges posed by working in a male-dominated industry.
“When I was pregnant, I didn’t know if it was possible to raise a family and make sake, and there was no one who could help me,” says Maiko Tsuji, who became the first female master brewer in Okayama Prefecture when she took over at Tsuji Honten brewery in 2007.
“When I joined the summit, I was surprised to see how many women were involved in making sake in Japan,” Tsuji says. “They showed me that it was possible to make sake and raise a family.”
Today, a new generation of women in the sake industry have already taken over the organization of the summit — something that makes Moriki hopeful about the future.
“Without the help of women, many breweries would go out of business,” she says. “The sake industry needs more women to survive and thrive.”
“Making a sake that is stable, has character and is unique to the brewery is extremely difficult,” Imada says.
Today, women are credited with producing some of the best sake in the country, partly for their ability to give their brews kosei (“individuality”).
“With wine, 70% of the flavor is provided by the grape, but with sake that same percentage comes from the people making it, their skills and decisions. That’s what makes the tōji so important,” says Ashcraft, who believes that the diversity and variety provided by female master brewers can help strengthen the industry.
Kuniko Mukai has been a master brewer at Mukai Shuzo in Kyoto Prefecture, founded in 1754, since she turned 22. After studying fermentation at Tokyo University of Agriculture, she spent a year working at the family brewery before taking on the role of master brewer.
Becoming tōji at such a young age and after such a brief apprenticeship — the first woman to do so in the brewery’s history — came with many challenges, but it also meant Mukai could express her own idea of what makes a good and interesting sake without having been overly influenced by another tōji.
“I wanted to make a sake that wasn’t only good to taste but also different and unique, so I started working with an ancient strain of red rice called Murasaki that is local to my hometown area of Ine,” Mukai says.
The result is a sake with a reddish color called Ine Mankai, or “Full Bloom Ine,” that when released caused a stir among critics and developed a dedicated fan base among drinkers. Since then, Mukai has continued to experiment in making unique batches of sake using ancient rice strains.
Using forgotten local rice strains to make sake has also contributed to the success of other brewers such as Imada. Over the past two decades, Imada has worked tirelessly to revive the heirloom Hattanso rice strain native to Hiroshima Prefecture.
“We decided to bring Hattanso back because we wanted to make a sake with a strong connection to Hiroshima. At first, it took us six years of planting and reseeding just to get enough rice to brew a single tank,” says Imada, who is now able to produce large quantities of sake using Hattanso rice and is the only sake producer using it.
“Initially, local farmers were hesitant because no one had grown it for more than 100 years,” Imada says. “Now, even though it is a hard rice to grow and has low yields, farmers are happy and proud to be part of this revival that has such deep roots in our region.”
For Imada, using Hattanso rice isn’t only about creating a unique and successful sake but about supporting local farmers and reviving their traditions and culture.
“Every year we get better and closer to my ideal sake and this gives me a lot of satisfaction,” she says.
Connecting sake to local communities and culture is also a key issue for brewers such as Tsuji.
“We have a responsibility to make sake, but also to nurture our local ties and culture,” says Tsuji, who has continued her brewery’s historic tradition of hosting artists, musicians and local craftsmen in an effort to act as a cultural hub for the community.
Troubled waters ahead?
COVID-19 has had a strong impact on Japan’s small breweries. Not only have they been unable to hold events and give tours, but sales have also suffered.
Breweries across Japan have had to cut back on production, which has had a particularly dire effect on sake rice farmers.
“People are still drinking, but not premium sake, which is typically consumed at good restaurants,” Gauntner says, although he also points out that premium sake has been making a comeback this year.
Tsuji explains that in March and April 2020, her brewery’s sales dipped by around half compared to the previous year. “However, we decided to keep going and look for new solutions. We did online tours, came up with new products and even started selling our sake rice as rice for consumption to help support local farmers,” she says.
Australia-based sake expert Simone Maynard has also taken an active role in helping connect sake breweries with a broader audience, shifting her focus to online events since the beginning of the pandemic.
Through the creation of a series of virtual brewery tours, Taste With the Toji, sake fans can tune in and visit different breweries across Japan via Zoom and Facebook on a weekly basis.
The Facebook group of the series now counts more than 600 members and has served as a platform for over 30 breweries to showcase their facilities and sake even in the midst of the pandemic.
“I wanted to help sake breweries in general, but I also wanted to feature a strong female presence in the Taste With the Toji project. Out of the first five tours, four were of breweries led by female tōji,” says Maynard, whose online events have featured renowned master brewers such as Imada, Moriki, Tsuji and Mukai.
“I think it’s important to show how the sake industry has progressed. For many years, women weren’t even allowed inside breweries and now we have women working, owning and running them,” she says.
Maynard also believes that the pandemic has helped breweries realize the potential of the internet for tapping into new audiences and sharing their incredible stories.
“Particularly abroad, sake is sold with a story. Building a story around the human element and the unique aspects of each sake can be extremely effective,” says Jim Rion, who works as a translator in Yamaguchi Prefecture with a focus on the sake industry and has seen a growth in demand for translations of brewery websites since the beginning of the pandemic.
As breweries try to bounce back from declining sales and COVID-19’s impact on their businesses, women’s roles will continue to be key. Their inspiring stories and unique approaches to brewing can help fuel interest in sake and inspire still more women to enter the industry.
In the meantime, the brewers are calling on sake fans to support their local producers.
“Drink local sake every day,” Imada says, breaking into a broad smile.
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