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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Russell

Sake dominance in Showa-era Japan

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. For sake enthusiasts, this one taken in Shizuoka in the early post-war period fitted that category and was too good not to share. The picture, brilliantly restored by Alex Sinclair, a curator of old Showa-era (1926 – 1989) 35mm photographs, may seem unremarkable at first glance, but it reveals a lot about consumer preferences during that time.

A lot of the advertisements you can see are for national brands that are still popular today, such as Asahi Beer, Suntory Whisky, and the amusingly named Calpis. If you have a keen eye, however, you might have noticed that there are also three sake brands, none of which are from Shizuoka. Instead, we have representation from three regions known collectively as the Big Three Brewing Regions of Japan (nihon sandai sake tokoro). From left to right they are Kamotsuru from Saijo in Hiroshima, Kinshi-Masamune from Fushimi in Kyoto, and the giant Ozeki from Nada in Kobe.

It is worth considering why local sake brands were not being advertised at the time. Today, Shizuoka produces a wide variety of excellent sake and boasts several popular brands of its own. To gain a better understanding of this, we need to delve deeper into the state of the sake industry during that period.

In 1953, when this photograph was taken, sake was the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan. At that time, large producers of national brands dominated the market and were highly respected. During the Edo period (1603-1868), sake from regions like Itami, Ikeda, and later Nada - all centred around modern-day Kobe and north Osaka - enjoyed the highest reputation. However, during the proceeding Meiji period (1868 – 1912), several scientific and technological advancements were introduced that diversified the regions that enjoyed national acclaim. In particular, the introduction of mechanical rice polishing equipment in Hiroshima and, later, improved hygiene in Fushimi put these two regions firmly on the map. Consequently, big brands from these regions equalled quality in the eyes of the consumer, and this dominance continued into the post-war period, as evident from the picture.

Following World War II, Japan's economy made a remarkable recovery, leading to a surge in demand for sake and the growth of a thriving market for sake brewers. However, the larger breweries struggled to keep up with the high demand, resulting in the industry's reliance on a system known as either tank buying (oke-bai) or tank-selling (oke-uri), depending on which side of the agreement one was situated. This symbiotic agreement between large, nationally recognised breweries and smaller, local ones involved the former commissioning the latter to make sake to their specification. The finished sake would then be sent to the commissioning brewery, bottled, labelled, and shipped. Although its history has its roots in the Edo period, it became more widespread during and immediately following World War II when the government imposed heavy restrictions on rice usage to make sake. With restrictions lifted, it then served the burgeoning post-war demand for sake.

It should be noted that these arrangements were often mutually beneficial, allowing large breweries to thrive when business was good and, as all the smaller breweries had to do was brew sake without worrying about sales, was very profitable for them at a time when demand was low for their brands. As a result, tank-selling continued to be widespread for several decades after the war, and even today hasn’t disappeared completely. However, back in the boom years before sales started to decline, the parties involved were surely unaware that it would later contribute to a drastically different landscape in the sake industry.

Sake consumption had been increasing steadily until it peaked in 1973, after which it has been in a well-publicised decline. While numerous factors have contributed to this decline, the practice of tank buying/selling has been a major contributor in two ways. Firstly, when consumers realised that the sake they were buying from big-name brands was being produced by smaller local breweries, their perceptions of these brands changed. This not only raised trust issues but also made it evident that smaller breweries could produce sake of the same quality, prompting many to simply cut out the middleman and buy locally. Secondly, and somewhat ironically, as sales declined, it was mostly the smaller breweries that paid the ultimate price. Many were relying on the stable contracts that tank-selling provided, and when these eventually dried up, many found it hard to adjust to the sudden loss in revenue. This has left an indelible mark on the industry, and shuttered breweries can still be found throughout Japan's rural regions.

In recent years, many smaller breweries that were once involved in tank selling have reinvented themselves under the banner of ‘’craft-sake’’. This has led to a significant shift in consumers' perception of these smaller, local producers. While the industry remains polarised, with only Nada and Fushimi accounting for over half of all sake made in Japan, the perceived superiority of these larger breweries over their smaller counterparts is no longer a given. Although you can still occasionally find advertisements like the ones shown in the picture throughout Japan, they now serve as relics of a bygone era, and a reminder of how different the sake industry is in today's craft-focused market.

Many thanks to Alex Sinclair for permitting me to use this fabulous image. For those with an interest in Showa-era Japan, please check out his Instagram page at the link below.

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