Japan Affairs Forum: Exploring Sake

After the devastating aftermath of the March 11th tsunami, organisations affiliated with Japan were quick to act and get up and running with donations to send to the stricken Tohoku region. JAF, the Japan Affairs Forum, chose to illustrate its support in a different, unique and rather creative way.

September 2011 saw a group of students and sake enthusiasts head to Japan on a two-week trip which would see them work in sake breweries heavily affected by the earthquake and tsunami. JAF co-founder Alex Parsons and member Satoko Kuribayashi tell us of the organisation’s efforts to keep Japan in the public consciousness with their sake inspired trip, which took place six months after the disaster.

“Most people’s reaction when you say you want to do voluntary work in breweries is to think that you’re pulling their leg. The sales pitch was simply if you want to help, it doesn’t require that much technical skill. What’s more it’s synonymous with Japan so it’s great for raising awareness, and because it’s alcohol and quite interesting it’s very easy to get a young volunteer group”, Alex tells us.

What started out as a trip for three however, soon, as Alex puts it, “spiraled out of control” with the final tally of participants at eighteen. The trip was completely self-funded by the volunteers and although predominantly British university students, the diverse group also included Italians, Russians, Chinese, Malaysians, Japanese and Americans. Timothy Sullivan, who readers may know from his blog, urbansake, was also a volunteer. With the help of Natsuki Kikuya, HYPER JAPAN’s Sake Awards’ Executive Sommelier, JAF was able to get in contact with the Niizawa Jozoten Brewery in Osaki, Miyagi prefecture, the first stop on a packed itinerary. “We spent a whole week in Niizawa brewery and we got involved in the process”, says Alex. “Niizawa had been hit and they had to move premises but no one was killed, it wasn’t catastrophic, but actually if anything it was more educational for the volunteers. In the second-half, which was independently organized essentially, we were going to different breweries and that was more about hearing the stories”. On the reactions of the sake staff towards the arrival of this group of foreign helpers, Satoko says: “They didn’t really know how we got there! They thought we all knew each other. As I speak Japanese, I got to talk to them a bit more and hear their stories about March 11th, and find out what happened”. The staff seemed to adapt to these enthusiastic volunteers, despite perhaps not knowing exactly where to put them all, as Alex mentions: “It was very hard to get direct contact with any of these people, and Suisen (a brewery in Rikuzen Takata, Iwate prefecture) weren’t expecting us, but the good thing was that once we came they made a big effort. The workers were very jokey and jovial, and most of our volunteers had a smattering of Japanese and it helped with bonding. They weren’t used to any foreign volunteers not because they weren’t open, but you could tell they didn’t know how to put lots of hands to use! It was quite nice because it wasn’t meant to be intensive, and it wasn’t about the direct impact of the process but about getting the volunteers involved, and one of the other objectives was hopefully stoke up interest in sake in Britain”.

With any organisation there is a working language, a way that things are done according to tradition or perhaps innovation, and it can be surprising how quickly one can come to understand the nuances of any given workplace. And so it is that in just two weeks, this intrepid group of volunteers came to understand what made these breweries tick, as Alex explains: “They were completely different breweries. Niizawa was run by a young guy who took it over from his father I believe, but, and I emphasise this as a positive in my eyes, it was all about business; he produced a quality product. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he knew exactly what he had to do, and it was important because he was protecting the livelihood of his workers. On the other hand you had someone like Konno San who ran Suisen, and you could tell he was of a different generation. He was about the tradition of his drink and of course he suffered a much more grievous blow. He had lost his entire brewery and also lost lots of his staff members and didn’t know if he was going to make it, and it was very visible. That impression of ‘What am I going to do?’ of being stranded perhaps, was more prevalent in Suisen than in Niizawa”.

The jobs undertaken by the group seem typical of the early stages of sakeproduction, and included the mixing of the all-important koji, washing rice and labeling bottles. But as Alex mentions, the aim of JAF’s trip wasn’t only to help with the physical aspect of the everyday running of a sake brewery: “At times our direct impact, and I don’t feel ashamed to say it, was fairly minimal, you now if we produce half a metric tonne of sake then so what? It’s simply the fact that I think it was a good thing for these people to tell foreigners their story, I mean who asks a sake brewer what it was like to lose half their staff and all their buildings? But it also gave them publicity. Whether it was down to us or not, the breweries we visited did get more publicity”.

Indeed, the two-week trip saw coverage appear in Japanese newspapers as well as mentioned on NHK radio. A video made by the group was also aptly shown at a sake tasting event at the Japanese Embassy in London, which helped cement JAF’s objective of targeting sake drinkers in the UK. But whilst sake may be on the up in the UK, with events like the Sake Awards at this year’s HYPER JAPAN, in Japan the situation is more critical, at least in regards to the top premium sake producers. Through his experience, Alex tell us: “The Japanese aren’t drinking it, and there seems to be this widespread reluctance of adapting sake, they don’t want to lose the tradition. They feel nervous about endorsing it as something to drink, as you would beer, as opposed to something you should pair with food. The other problem is that the sake companies who have the potential to market it are not artisans or producers…their sake is not particularly refined [the biggest selling sake is of the futsushu, or regular variety]. You’re always going to sale sake in Japan, so it’s not in their interest to open up new demographics, and it’s a pity because if you look at say Britain, you’ve got a situation where you’ve got the big beer companies doing good business but then there’re lots of initiatives to promote ale too”.

Perhaps for as many varieties of sake to survive as possible, paradoxically, it’s the foreign market which needs to be opened up to the taste of what is still considered Japan’s national drink. Alex seems convinced with his answer: “What we need are people like Timothy Sullivan who are very enthusiastic, they get to love it, and they set up private businesses where they make money from it. There’s no disguising that Timothy’s a businessman but what’s nice is that he’s absolutely dedicated to his job, his enthusiasm is infectious and that’s what you need, because if you have people who’s self interest is to plug it, then they’ll go for it”. There’s no doubt that the US is ahead of the UK when it comes to sake education and promoting the drink, but perhaps with more people like Alex and Satoko on the case, and along with events such as the Sake Awards, breweries will see an increase in demand for premium sake surge in Europe too, and a more secure future for their livelihoods emerge. Thanks must also go out to the brewers who opened their doors to JAF and who continue to strive, under harsh conditions, to produce this exquisite drink for the enjoyment of many a sake enthusiast worldwide.