Japan hopes to turn sake into new economic growth tonic

By Kaori Kaneko  /  Reuters,TOKYO

Sat, Jul 07, 2012 - Page 9

Move over, cars and high-tech. Japan, long renowned for its innovative autos and gadgets, now hopes to turn sake and other local spirits into export hits as well.

Tokyo looks to make its traditional rice wine part of its national growth strategy, aiming at an overseas marketing push to help bring tourism and investment to struggling rural areas. The plan is a brainchild of Economics Minister Motohisa Furukawa, who had a eureka moment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he witnessed sake’s popularity among the attendees.

This led him to set up the “Enjoy Japanese Kokushu (national alcohol)” project, whose six-member advisory council met in late May for the first time.

Its brief: To enhance international recognition of sake and shochu, distilled spirit made from grains such as barley or potatoes, and promote their export.

Sake experts gave the idea a cautious thumbs up.

“Things that are really valuable to countries are ones that are clearly unique to that particular country, which is certainly true for sake,” said Philip Harper, a master sake brewer from the UK. “I think it makes a lot of sense as a national strategy to promote sake in that way,” he said.

With a history of over 2,000 years, sake is as much a part of Japan as sumo wrestling and sushi. However, a loss of popularity at home in recent years, as more drinkers opt for wine, beer and cocktails, has led many brewers to turn their eyes to overseas markets.

They hope to show Japanese consumers the popularity of their national drink in places like the US, hoping to reinvigorate the demand for sake in its homeland. Harper himself provides a good example of sake winning prominence among non-Japanese. A sake that he produced was presented to British Prime Minister David Cameron when he visited Japan in April.

However, sake has a long way to go before gaining the export clout of French wine or Scottish whisky, and government participation is essential since many breweries are too small to market their products overseas by themselves, Harper said.

Still, even without government efforts sake exports have doubled over the past decade to hit a record of roughly 14 million liters last year, bringing in about US$110 million, according to Finance Ministry data.

Still, that’s just a fraction of domestic consumption that totaled just over 600 million liters in the past fiscal year, according to industry data.

Export revenues are also nowhere near what, for example, Britain brings in from whisky sales. Overseas scotch sales hit a record US$6.6 billion last year, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.

SAKE SOMMELIERS

Sake has a number of other hurdles to clear, including educating drinkers. Many people overseas still believe it must only be served hot, though brewers say it can be served cold or lukewarm, depending on the sake and the food it is served with.

“[Wine] sommeliers have authority at restaurants overseas,” said Kosuke Kuji, whose Nambu Bijin sake is exported to more than 20 countries.

“It is important that a sake sommelier system is established by a government-endorsed third party so they can explain about sake with credibility,” he said.

The Sake Service Institute, a private entity, organizes tasting events, holds seminars and provides certifications to sake and shochu sommeliers, but it has no overseas branches.

Other sake experts urge the establishment of a government-affiliated or private institution with overseas branches like Sopexa, partially backed by the French state and a global marketer of French food and wine. Sopexa has agencies in over 30 countries.

Such an organization could develop websites in foreign languages and allocate trained local staff members at branch offices so that people know where to get information about the drink.

However, not everyone agrees with the government’s idea.

John Gauntner, a Japan-based sake expert who has published five books on sake, argues Japan should focus on the domestic sake market first, since the export market is so small there won’t be much gain even if it doubles or triples.

“The problem of sake is image. No consumers here think it’s fashionable, they don’t think it’s trendy, they don’t think it’s sexy,” said Gauntner, who holds sake expert assessor and master of sake testing certifications. “The best would be marketing efforts and changing the image of sake among consumers, probably using traditional PR efforts.”

One recent issue for the industry — fears about whether sake suffered radiation contamination in the wake of last year’s disaster — appears to be easing, though.

With many brewers located in northern Japan, including areas hit hard by both the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis, sake — along with shochu and Japanese whisky — were subject to European import controls until April. Wine and beer are currently still subjected to controls.

As a result, a global sake competition, part of the London-based International Wine Challenge, was held in Tokyo in May.

“I think the world lives in such a fast place now and people don’t even really dwell on the issue,” said Sam Harrop, who co-chaired a panel at the contest.