SakeMasters Academy 6: Brief History of Sake (Development of Sake Making 4/5 - Meiji to Showa Period)

We will briefly explain modern times history of sake through Meiji (明治) (1868-1912), Taisho (大正) (1912-1926), Showa (昭和) (1926-1989), Heisei (平成) (1989-2019) to Reiwa (令和) (2019-).

During modern times at the turning point to the 20th century, a liberation of sake production rights led to creations of large numbers of sake breweries and in Japan. However, such a liberation was followed by sharp increase in taxes on sake (which represented c. 30% of the government revenue) and then resulted in significant decrease of sake breweries. At the end of 19th century, it is said that there were c. 30,000 sake breweries but such numbers declined to 11,000 by 1912 and 8,000 by the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945), respectively. We will take closer looks at each phase. 

During Meiji period, in 1904, the Ministry of Finance established "Kokuritsu Jozo Shikenjo" (国立醸造試験所), the National Research Institute of Brewing, which marked the beginning of new ear of sake brewing by widely transferring sake brewing technical knowledge. A standardization of sake products occurred by the promotion of certain production methods such as enameled steel tanks, selection of yeasts and new "Moro" (もろ) and "Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyokai" (全国新酒鑑評会), organizational national competitions since 1911. We believe that most of you heard Gold Award etc. from Japan sake competitions. It is interesting to know that such award and competition initially started under the government's initiatives (to promote sake due to tax reason....?).

During Showa period, the Second World War severely damaged the Japan sake industry and deteriorated a quality of sake products. Almost a half of sake breweries were turned into weapon factories due to the war supporting effort. Rice became scare and the restriction on rice usage made the sake producers to dilute sake by water, sugar, acids and distilled alcohol etc..  Such sake was called as "Sanbaizo Shu" (三倍増酒), literally triple increased volumes sake. Sanbaizo Shu had a very low quality with a very low cost. This high dilution practice could be justified during the war time, unfortunately, it continued after the war, because it generated good profits for producers. Some people view that Sanbaizo Shu is the sake industry's sin, which triggered the beginning of long term decline of sake consumptions in Japan.  Peak sake production of 1,766 billion litters reached in 1973 (then 109 million people in Japan) and since then Japanese domestic sake industry has experienced a long term declining trend.

Sake has not been taxed at the production but rather at the sale to end customers since 1994. This tax system incentivized small sake breweries to produce bulk of their sake and resell them to big, nationally well recognized, sake breweries. This resell business practice coupled with the old war time practice of diluted sake and strong demands to sake did not encourage some sake breweries to maintain and/or improve the sake quality. However, big sake breweries stopped buying bulk sake from small breweries when sake demands slowed down due to the changes in consumers' preferences from sake to beer etc. As a result, many local and small breweries had to shut down their businesses because Japanese domestic sake industry has faced a continued declining trend.

"As long as a life lasts, a man should have an ideal and climb up the hill to get closer even one more step toward the ideal"
-Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬) (1836-1867)

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