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MIYAZAKI (Kyodo) The image of Japan’s iconic drink has taken a knock following revelations of a scam operated by one of the country’s major sake breweries.

Bishonen Shuzoh Co. of Jonan, Kumamoto Prefecture, reportedly sent out high-grade rice for polishing and received back lower-grade rice that it used to make sake. It is further alleged that the firm received cash to make up the difference in rice quality.

Bishonen President Naoaki Ogata has said publicly that he could not resist the temptation to make off-the-books money because his company was in dire straits. He added that the practice existed even before he joined Bishonen in 1982.

That disclosure followed an announcement by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry last year that Osaka-based rice miller Mikasa Foods and group firm Tatsunomi and others were allegedly involved in taking imported rice designated for industrial use and illegally reselling it as edible. Tatsunomi is the firm named in the allegation concerning Bishonen.

Bishonen filed for rehabilitation in April with estimated liabilities of about ¥1.9 billion.

Earlier this month, the Kumamoto District Court decided to start rehabilitation procedures for the firm. The court said Bishonen has until Aug. 28 to submit a rehabilitation plan amid reports that four firms, including Shigemitsu Industry Co., known for its global ramen business, have come forward to support the troubled brewery.

While sake drinkers may feel betrayed by these developments, what has happened may spur the fashioning of a law of the kind found in the United States and European countries to regulate liquor quality.

Japan enacted a liquor tax law in 1953. While primarily a means to secure government revenue through taxation, it also touched on the definition of alcoholic beverages — including sake, beer and distilled liquors, particularly “shochu.”

However, it carried no stipulations concerning quality.

European countries have a history of crafting laws against the illicit production and sale of alcohol. France especially has strict laws on winemaking, and European Union laws have been modeled on these. Similar regulations exist in the U.S.

Until the Edo Period (1603-1867), brewers in Japan used rice, water and a “koji” mold spore to produce sake. They added alcohol during the war to make up for the shortage of rice. But the practice has continued, even during a postwar rice glut.

Some sake makers have been inclined to distance themselves from turning out “jummai” (pure rice) sake because they found it harder to make than sake to which distilled alcohol has been added.

It has also been pointed out that consumers have grown accustomed to drinking non-jummai sake.

In Miyazaki Prefecture, there were nearly 20 sake brewing companies until the early 1970s. Now there is only one in the prefecture, which is more famous for shochu.

One industry analyst said shochu has triumphed over sake because sake brewers did not try hard enough to make good sake.

If Japan follows European countries and the U.S. in the enactment of a liquor law, sake brewers would be required to disclose the names of raw materials used in the production process. A label displayed on a bottle, thus, would be changed from “rice, koji and distilled alcohol ” to “rice, koji and sato kibi (sugar cane).”

There is no doubt some brewers would lament that such a law would damage the reputation of sake as a drink “made from rice.” On the other hand, the scandal involving Bishonen may be symptomatic of the lax attitude of at least some sake brewers toward their craft.

In the future, sake makers may have to rely increasingly on exports.

If their products are to stand up to scrutiny in markets overseas, then sake makers must accept the need for a liquor law that truly regulates the quality of their products and restores faith in Japan’s traditional tipple.

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