Need a reason to feel good about drinking? Japanese sake makers could use your help. Hit hard by the twin natural disasters of earthquake and tsunami, what's really impacting these often small, family-run enterprises is that fact that since the earthquake, sake consumption in Japan has plummeted. “It is like all of the people in Japan went into mourning,” explains Kenji Ichishima, president of Niigata's Ichishima Sake Brewery and an executive with the Japan Sake Brewers Association. Per Ichishima, the situation is so bad that the prime minister recently implored people to return to normalcy.
Pre-eminent sake expert John Gauntner, non-official Japanese sake ambassador to the world, says the Japanese tradition of self-restraint (jishuku) means that “people won't party when others are suffering.” As 98% of Japanese sake stays in Japan and is consumed locally per Gauntner, that's a serious setback for sake makers.
Brewers of premium sake (the kind you want to drink), particularly those in Japan's northern region (Tohoku) are facing major difficulties due to the earthquake and tsunami. As reported in the Japan Times and elsewhere, not only was there loss of life as breweries (called kura) were destroyed, many brewers also saw inventory wiped out as brewing tanks and bottles toppled. Gasoline shortages have since delayed deliveries, power outages have impacted production and the possibility of contamination from nuclear radiation has quarantined some breweries in the hot zone close to the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.
In March, sake exports were delayed for several weeks but as Beau Timken owner of San Francisco's sake-only store True Sake finds, imports have returned to 90% of normal. Most importantly, shipping containers are being screened in both Japan and the U.S. by the FDA for radiation. While there is a “ton of inventory, perception is now the battle,” finds Timken. Sake found on store shelves was most likely brewed and bottled before the earthquake; check the label for a date stamp. In Japan, farmers have already begun planting rice for next fall's harvest and subsequent sake production although they are not planting in Fukushima, Timken says.
“There's an image of Japan as clean and pristine. A negative public image, could be the biggest detriment to the industry,” says Kris Elliot, in-house sake specialist for distributor Young's Market Company. Sake brewer Ichishima reminds that if products are out there, they have been tested safe. In the long run, the current situation may just be a blip on the radar. The Japanese sake tradition dates back more than 1,000 years, reminds Timken, who adds, “From a consumer standpoint, drink away without fear and drink with pride, supporting a damaged industry and economy.”