Sake, a Japanese exception

Sake bottles. (© 2011 / N. Baumert)

As a cultural product, sake is as important in Japan as wine in Europe. However, this beverage is not very well known outside the Far-East regions. Contrary to popular belief, sake is not a strong distilled beverage; instead, it is a “rice wine”, produced by the fermentation of rice in water and its alcohol degrees usually range between 12 and 17. Sake, also called nihonshu in Japanese (that means “Japanese wine”), belongs to the categories of beverages made by rice, but the exclusive appropriation by Japanese culture is an interrogation.

All similar drinks could have been representative of every rice civilization, but only Japan made its sake an identity product.

Sake production: preparing the rice grains. Obata Shuzo, Ile de Sado, Niigata.
(© 2011 / Manotsuru - Obata Shuzo)

The Japanese rice-wine

In the Far-East regions rice-wines are old civilization products. They can be found in a large area, from East-China to Nepal, including Philippines and Korea. As an example, the haungjiu, also called “yellow wine” is a rice wine produced in several provinces of eastern China; in South-east Asia, a few ethnic minorities still produce in their village fermented rice beverages made by heavy mixture of rice.

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

The kôji ferment was discovered in China. Its utilization is attested during the Han period (-221; 207), but it is possible that the technique has been discovered before. Cereals-wine and particularly rice-wines has been spread, like the Chinese civilization, in all the East Asia area. The arrival of the sake brewing method in Japan is estimated around the 4th century.

Sake production: cooking the rice before fermentation. Obata Shuzo, Sado Island, Niigata.
(© 2011 / Manotsuru - Obata Shuzo)

Despite its cultural implications and the strong relation with religions, rice-wines have been slowly replaced by distilled brewages. Japan is the only exception in a curious inversion between nowadays and the golden age of rice-wine in the 13th century. The history of Japan is one of the major reasons. The Japanese archipelago was not invaded before the middle of the 20th century and contacts with the rest of Asia were restricted as during the Edo period (1603-1868). Considering the use of alcoholic drinks, Japan had, with a same heritage, another trajectory.

Japan made this beverage a national product and ameliorated the fabrication process from the 16th century. The Japanese makers invented rice grain polishing techniques, ameliorated the fermentations methods and elaborated a process similar to pasteurization. These new techniques permitted to increase the alcohol range and then permitted transportation and commercialization. This cultural appropriation of rice-wine by Japan has been so successful that other rice-wines appear now as less developed than sake.

Sake offerings at the entrance of the Oomiwa sanctuary, Nara.
(© 2011 / N. Baumert)

An identity product

The importance of sake in Japan has to be linked with its relation with the shintô. Shintô is a polytheism that associates multiple deities, dominated by the sun goddess Amaterasu. Shintô's representations are strongly influenced by rice cultivation, its spaces and temporalities. Shintô has a major influence on Japanese identity, at all scales, national or local. In shintô, sake has a central place. It is the drink of rites and gifts during ritual ceremonies. Sake is regarded as sacred product because it is a melt of rice and water, two major sources of deities. Life appears as a result of their marriage, occurring during the fermentation which makes the mash inflates and produces heat. This symbolic explains that sake has become the drink of rites of passage, beginnings and starts. It is drunk in spring during the feast of cherry blossoms and during wedding ceremonies where sake symbolizes the couple union.

As a consequence, sake's fabrication is still considered as a religious thing. 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's duty is to be the first priest. During the year following the enthronement, the new emperor makes a ritual called daijôsai. During this ceremony, the emperor is united to his Imperial Ancestress Amaterasu and shares with her two meals and two cups of sake.

Considering the consumption, sake has been the alcoholic drink of Japanese during the major part of their history. This situation explains the importance of the imaginary related. As an example, sake has an important place in the Manyôshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled around 760 AD during the Nara period. In time, the number of the drinkers slowly widened from a festive drink of the elite to a daily popular beverage. However it is the emergence of an urban society in the modern period and the development of industry and transportation at the end of the 19th century that makes sake a national beverage. In the absence of other drinks which could compete with sake, those economic and social changes directed the increase of consumption to 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, it is possible to estimate that sake was representing about 80% of the alcoholic beverages consumed in Japan.

Sake and food offerings to a Shinto deity.
Shinjuku Jûnisha Kumano Jinja Matsuri.
(© 2010 / S. Shimohirao)

An anachronistic drink?

Despite of its cultural role and its special place in the imagination of the Japanese, sake is a drink which adapted itself with difficulty to the modernity. Between 1945 and the beginning of the 21st century, the behavior of the Japanese consumers radically changed. During this period, considering the total of alcoholic drinks consumption, sake moved from the most consumed drinks to about 10%, while beer and other beverages all increased their consumption. This evolution changes the position of sake in Japan and also the geography of productive regions.

As sake have difficulties in its national market, the situation is much better overseas because of the high curiosity of western consumers concerning this product. If the real Japanese rice-wine is not very well known, sake enjoys a very good brand image associating “made in Japan” quality and exoticisms. At the moment, only 1% of the annual production is exported but the demand is increasing, especially in North America and in the UK. Like sushi, sake becomes representative of a certain way of urban food globalization.

Production of high-quality sake in 2005
(© 2011 / N. Baumert)

As a reaction, Japanese consumers find more interest in their traditional drink. This situation is similar to many traditional foods products in Japan. Japanese adapts the use of sake to their new meal structures and on this point sake is really becoming the Japanese wine with a similar use as wine in the western structure of meals. Sake is at present served during international summits and this situation obliges the producers to modify their way of making with a special attention on quality. Overall quality is increasing and, with the recent creation of geographically specific labels, the territorial dimension of quality is emerging to be an important factor for sake consumers.

Sake categories are mostly designated by the level of polishing the rice grains used in the fabrication. Best sake only conserves the central part of the grain. The main categories are:daiginjô (less than 50% is left), ginjô (between 50 and 60% is left) and junmai (sake is “pure rice”). Regarding the regions, famous sake are (1) sake from the North-west of Honshû, mainly because of their rice production and their pure water (2) sake from central Japan, mainly in Hyôgo and Kyôto prefectures, because of their long history. At local scale water sources also explain breweries locations.

Thus, sake is absolutely not an anachronistic drink. Nowadays, the Japanese rice-wine competes with and other western beverages. Its taste shows the expression of water sources, rice special varieties and terroir. This is eventually its best opportunity to seduce again Japanese and overseas consumers, and to carry on the exception that the Japanese rice-wine constitutes in identity beverages geography.

Nicolas Baumert
Geographer, Associate Professor, Nagoya University
Member of the Espaces Nature et Culture laboratory (ENEC - CNRS UMR 8185)
Associated researcher with the Maison Franco-Japonaise (UMIFRE 19 CNRS - MAEE / )

Nicolas Baumert, Le saké, une exception japonaise, Rennes, PUR, Collection «Tables des hommes» (to be published by the end of November 2011).

September 2015
Constance Sereni
Maître-assistante, unité de japonais, Université de Genève