Feb 17, 2010

Why Sake Is Suffering Low Consumption?

The sake industry in Japan is now suffering low consumption of sake, and the sake market in Japan is shrinking year after year. Why this is happening? I give a consideration to this issue.

Goshu-no-Nikki (sake diary), the existing Japan's first technical book concerning sake making written by a private party, makes mention of danjikomi (staged fermenting mash preparation), morohaku-zukuri (sake-making method using milled rice for both rice malt and additional steamed rice), hiire (pasteurization), etc. Some people assert that this document was established in 1355, and others say it was established in 1489 (now, the latter argument seems to gain more support).

The mention of such technical terms of sake making found in this book proves that they had already begun using such sake-making techniques as staged fermenting mash preparation, rice milling, pasteurization, etc. at least 500 years ago. These methods are also used widely in modern sake making. So, it can be said the history of sake making is longer than 500 years.

I think Japanese people can be proud of Japanese sake, and also consider it our obligation to preserve the tradition and techniques of sake making and hand them down to posterity.

Unfortunately, the sake industry in Japan is currently not very brisk. The amount of sake shipment is decreasing year after year. Japanese people drink beer, shochu, whiskey, and many of the youth seem enjoying shochu and soda. Whiskey and soda is now in mode. And now, less and less people are drinking sake.

According to statistics of the National Tax Agency, the consumption of sake was about 1,370,000 kiloliters in fiscal year 1990, twenty years ago, and about 980,000 kiloliters in fiscal year 2000, ten years ago. The Japan Sake Brewers Association recently announced that the amount of sake shipment last year was about 630,000 kiloliters.

Well, what should the stagnant sake consumption be attributed to? In my opinion, I can list the following three points:

1. Widened choice of alcoholic beverages
2. Reduced opportunities for drinking sake
3. Insufficient advertisement and promotion of sake by the industry

Sake along with beer had been enjoying its expanding consumption until around 1974. Then, however, it began suffering a gradual downturn in consumption while beer continued increasing steadily in popularity. Around 1984, the consumption of shochu started growing.

Before, sake and beer shared most of the Japan's alcoholic beverage market, where shochu later took part in the competition and became a choice as an alcohol drink. Due to this widened choice of alcoholic beverages of consumers, it must have become difficult for both sake and beer to recover the loss of their market shares.

Secondly, as to reduced opportunities for drinking sake, I mean the following: Before, sake played an important role in a shrine festival or Shinto event and there was the practice of drinking sake in many types of gatherings related to Japan's traditional or religious events such as a wedding ceremony, Buddhist service, etc. However, people have become less regardful of holding shrine festivals or Shinto events strictly and observing the old practice. This trend may be caused by depreciation of tradition in the wake of diversification of values among the Japanese people. In the meantime, there are lately fewer scenes than before in which employees old and young in the same workplace of a company together enjoy drinking in a drinking session after work. As a result, the young generation has fewer chances to learn "how to drink" sake from the older generation. I even hear of Japanese guys in their 20's who have never drunk sake.

Last but not least, the stagnant sake consumption should also be attributed to insufficient efforts in advertising and promoting sake by the sake industry including sake makers, sake brewers' associations, and other related bodies. Many of sake breweries are small businesses with several to several ten employees, and do not have very great capability of advertisement and technology development compared with companies from other liquor making industries in Japan such as major beer or whiskey companies. For example, I obtained the following information from the Web sites of two major sake breweries in Japan:

Ozeki Co., Ltd.
Capital: 828,750,000 yen
Number of employees: 477

Gekkeikan Sake Co., Ltd.
Capital: 496,800,000 yen
Number of employees: 549

In contrast with the above, the corresponding data of Suntory, Japan's major beer and whiskey brewing company, is as follows:

Suntory Holdings Limited
Capital: 70 billion yen
Number of employees: 21,845 (in Suntory group)

There may be some faults in simple comparison of these numbers, but it can be said that sake breweries are far smaller than this whiskey and beer company in terms of business scale. I guess, being small in business size, sake brewers have many difficulties in advertising and promoting their products.

So, should they become big companies? No, the issue is not so simple. Making sake breweries too big probably involves abolishment and mergers of many of the existing breweries, which may damage provinciality of sake and other sake characteristics of each brewery that represent the natural features of each production area, and reduce diversity of the sake world. This issue may be difficult to approach, but I hope that the sake industry will develop soundly while protecting the tradition and culture of sake brewing and maintaining characteristics of local sake (jizake). It is desired that each of breweries and sake brewers' associations further make continuous efforts in collaboration with each other.

As described above, I pointed out and discussed the three points as reasons for stagnant sake consumption in Japan: widened choice of alcoholic beverages, reduced opportunities for drinking sake, and insufficient advertisement and promotion of sake by the industry.

Of those three, as to the first "widened choice of alcoholic beverages," there seem to be no measures to be taken. The state of people's having the widened choice is not a bad thing, and, also, it is difficult to convince people to be satisfied with a narrower choice. However, as to the second and thirds points, I think more efforts must be made.

Personally, I am determined to continue drinking sake in the future, off course. And, also, I will try to induce more and more people to enter the wonderful world of sake and convey the delight of sake drinking.

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