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Public and private sectors push to revive Okinawa’s struggling awamori industry

The Okinawa Times

With young people apparently finding Okinawa’s awamori liquor less appealing, the industry has been hit with a decline in shipments for 13 consecutive years.

To rev up the struggling business, people from the public and private sectors have joined hands to pitch the distilled spirit indigenous to the island prefecture to other Japanese and overseas consumers. The growing number of foreign tourists to Japan, including Okinawa, is also expected to give a boost to the flagging industry.

Awamori dates back around 600 years and mirrors the unique culture of Okinawa — formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom before it was annexed by Japan in 1879.
It is a type of shōchū, but differs in that it is made from long-grained Thai rice instead of short-grained japonica rice and uses black kōji (yeast) native to the prefecture.

The alcoholic beverage’s shipments had been brisk in the early 2000s, helped by the shōchū boom and the publicity the prefecture gained by hosting the Group of Eight summit in 2000.

But sales have declined after peaking in 2004.

“Footage showing people gulping down (awamori) has created an enduring image” that it is simply a drink that will get you drunk quickly, Gaku Sakumoto, who leads the Okinawa Awamori Distillers Association, said during a roundtable talk held in September at The Okinawa Times building. Manufacturers have not had time to properly promote how to drink the beverage while being busy making and delivering products, he said.

Katsunobu Shingaki of the Awamori Meister Association, who has promoted the use of the local liquor in cocktails, said, “It is becoming more important to come up with ideas of how to drink it at a time when consumers’ taste preferences are diversifying.”

The roundtable talk was joined by Takeo Koizumi, professor emeritus of the Tokyo University of Agriculture who also serves as the head of a public-private project to promote awamori exports that kicked off in January this year.

“Awamori, which uses black kōji (yeast) to mature, has just as much charm as any other alcohol has, but it may be difficult for young people to quickly get acquainted with it. We need to create a strategy that first lets them know how to enjoy it and then lure them to the ‘authentic’ world,” said Koizumi, one of the leading experts in the field of fermentation, adding that awamori needs to brush up its image. Reducing production cost is also a challenge.

The industry has been calling for the extension of a liquor tax relief measure beyond the current expiration date of May 2019. The measure was introduced in 1972, when Okinawa reverted to Japanese control after being under U.S. Occupation from the end of World War II, and has continued to be extended at the urging of the industry.

According to a study by the Okinawa Development Finance Corp., the operating margin for awamori-makers was 2.4 percent in fiscal 2016, far short of the 8.7 percent margin enjoyed by shōchū firms.

“As we seek to broaden the market outside the prefecture and overseas, we cannot help but see a rise in shipping costs,” Sakumoto said, but he also added that improvement in manufacturing skills is expected to support moves to sell the product internationally. Shingaki, meanwhile, said, many awamori-makers are interested in exporting their products, but the lack of manpower seems to make them hesitate.

With officials in the fields of finance and tourism also taking part in the awamori export project, the team has been putting forward new ideas to promote the liquor.

“People who are not in the awamori business are starting to feel that they should also support the awamori promotion activities,” Sakumoto said. Koizumi noted: “Awamori is a part of Okinawa’s unique culture and its promotion is something we should work on by bringing together all forces in Okinawa.”

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major daily in the prefecture. The original article was published on Sept. 23.