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The Asian side of the world - II

Jean-François Sabouret

Part Two. National challenges and strategies

Sake, a Japanese exception

Nicolas Baumert

Texte intégral

1November 2011

2Sake has as important a cultural connotation in Japan as wine in Europe. However, this beverage is not well known outside the Far East. Contrary to popular belief, sake is not a strong distilled beverage; it is in fact “rice wine”, produced by fermentation of rice in water, and the alcohol content is usually between 12 and 17 degrees. Sake, also called nihonshu in Japanese (meaning “Japanese wine”), is one of a number of beverages made from rice, but the exclusive appropriation by Japanese culture is an interrogation.

3Sake is one of a number of similar drinks found throughout East Asia and could represent any rice civilization, but only in Japan has it been almost exclusively appropriated as an identity product.

Japanese rice wine

4In the Far East, rice wines are ancient products and are found almost everywhere, from China to Nepal, including the Indochinese peninsula, Indonesia, the Philippines and Korea. For example, haungjiu (“yellow wine”) is a rice wine produced in several provinces of eastern China, and a few ethnic minorities in South-East Asia still produce fermented rice beverages made from rice porridge.

5What distinguishes sake from other cereal fermentations is a process known as “multiple parallel fermentation”. To produce sake, brewers use a mould called kôji, which transforms rice starch into simple sugars, and yeast, which transforms the sugar into alcohol, instead of the malt used in beer. As cereals do not contain the amylase necessary for converting starch to sugar, the rice must undergo a process in which starch is converted into sugar by kôji and the sugar is converted into alcohol by yeast. In sake production, these two processes take place at the same time rather than in separate steps as in beer production, so that sake is said to be made by “multiple parallel fermentation”.

6The kôji ferment was discovered in China, and its use has been dated to the Han period (206 BCE-220), although the technique may have been discovered before. Cereal wines and particularly rice wines spread, like Chinese civilization, throughout East Asia. Sake brewing is estimated to have been introduced in Japan around the 4th century.

7Despite its cultural role and a strong relation with the divine, rice wines have slowly been replaced in East Asia by distilled beverages. Japan is the only exception, in a curious inversion between the present and the golden age of rice wine in the 13th century, mainly due to the history of the country. The Japanese archipelago was first invaded only in the middle of the 20th century, and contacts with the rest of Asia were restricted, such as during the Edo period (1603-1868). Japan therefore had specific practices with regard to the use of alcoholic drinks.

8Japan made this beverage a national product and improved the fabrication process from the 16th century. Japanese manufacturers invented rice grain polishing techniques, improved the fermentations methods and used a process similar to pasteurization. These new techniques made it possible to increase the alcoholic content, which allowed transport and commercialization. This cultural appropriation of rice wine by Japan was so successful that other rice wines now seem less developed than sake.

An identity product

9The importance of sake in Japan is strongly linked to the Shintô religion, a polytheistic cult with multiple deities dominated by the sun goddess Amaterasu. The practices of Shintô are strongly influenced by rice cultivation in space and time. Shintô has a major influence on Japanese identity at all levels, national and local. Sake has a central place, being drunk during rites and given as a gift during ceremonies. Sake is regarded as sacred because it is a mixture of rice and water, two major sources of deities. Life is born from their marriage, which occurs during fermentation, which inflates the mash and produces heat. Sake has therefore become the drink of rites of passage, beginnings and endings. It is drunk in spring during the feast of cherry blossoms and during wedding ceremonies, where it symbolizes the couple’s union.

10As a consequence, the fabrication of sake is still considered to be almost religious; shrines still have their own paddy fields and breweries. Sake is also important in Imperial symbolism. As the symbol of the State and the unity of the people, the Emperor is the high priest. During the year after his enthronement, the new Emperor takes part in a ritual called daijôsai, during which he is united with his Imperial ancestress Amaterasu and shares two meals and two cups of sake with her.

11Sake has therefore been the main alcoholic drink consumed by the Japanese during most of their history, which explains the importance of the imagery with which it is associated. For example, sake has an important role in the Man’yôshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled around 760 during the Nara period. With time, the number of the drinkers increased, as sake changed from a festive drink of the elite to a popular daily beverage. It was, however, the emergence of an urban society in the modern period and the development of industry and transport at the end of the 19th century that made sake a national beverage. In the absence of other drinks that could compete with sake, these economic and social changes led to an increase in the consumption of the only rice-wine category until the middle of the 20th century. At the end of the 1930s, before the beginning of the Pacific war, sake represented about 80% of all alcoholic beverages consumed in Japan.

An anachronistic drink?

12Despite its cultural role and its special place in the imagination of the Japanese, sake adapted to modern life only with difficulty. Between 1945 and the beginning of the 21st century, the behaviour of Japanese consumers changed radically, sake having fallen from the most widely consumed drink to represent about 10% of total consumption, while that of beer and other beverages increased. This evolution changed the position of sake in Japan and also the geography of the productive regions.

13Although the national market for sake is in difficulty, the situation is much better overseas because of curiosity of western consumers about this product. Real Japanese rice wine is not well known, but sake has a good brand image, combining “made in Japan”, quality and exoticism. At present, only 1% of the annual production is exported, but the demand is increasing, especially in North America and the United Kingdom. Like sushi, sake has come to represent a certain urban food globalisation.

14In consequence, Japanese consumers have become more interested in their traditional drink, as for many traditional Japanese foods products. The Japanese adapt drinking sake to their new meal structures, and in this way sake is becoming the Japanese wine, as in western meals. Sake is now served during international summits, obliging producers to ensure its quality. The overall quality is therefore increasing, and, with the recent creation of geographically specific labels, the territorial dimension of quality is emerging as an important factor for sake consumers.

15The categories of sake are based mainly on the degree of polishing of the rice grains used. The best sake conserves only the central part of the grain. The main categories are: daiginjô (less than 50% left), ginjô (50-60% left) and junmai (“pure rice”). The most famous sake are from the northwest Honshû, mainly because of its rice production and pure water; and from central Japan, mainly in Hyôgo and Kyôto prefectures, because of their long history. Local water sources explain the locations of breweries.

16Thus, sake is absolutely not an anachronistic drink. Nowadays, Japanese rice wine competes with other western beverages. Its taste reflects the water source, special varieties of rice and the earth. Now is the best time to seduce Japanese and overseas consumers again and to perpetuate the exception that Japanese rice wine represents in the geography of beverages.


Bibliographical indications

Baumert, Nicolas, Le saké, une exception japonaise, Rennes, PUR, coll. « Tables des hommes », 2011.

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