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Daimon Yasutaka Giving Speech to Japan Society, NYC, Oct. 1999

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Japan Society 2000
JETRO 2000

New York City, October 1999

GUEST SPEAKER: Daimon Yasutaka, sixth-generation Japanese sake brewer, on behalf of the Japanese Sake Export Association (SEA), where he currently acts as director.

TOPIC: Japan's Sake Industry, History and Culture. Includes interesting insights into this traditional Japanese craft, and briefly mentions the dangers facing the industry as young people turn to other pursuits.


Thank you. I would like to first take the opportunity to thank everyone involved in allowing us to be here tonight. And, on behalf of all the members of SEA, my fellow sake brewers , I would like to say that we consider it a great opportunity to be able to be here to present to you not only our sake, which you hopefully have plenty of later, but also the history and culture and world that surrounds sake brewing in Japan. And of course, I am also personally happy to have this chance to speak to you. So thanks, first of all, to the Japan Society, to JETRO, and to all of you for being here tonight.

I would like to begin today by first describing how a typical sake brewery in Japan is run, and what role the toji plays, as well as what role the kuramoto like myself play. Kuramoto is a slightly vague word that refers to the president or owner of a sake brewery . At present, there are about 1700 sake breweries in Japan. As recently as 20 years ago, however, there were as many as 3500. The largest of these brew about 50,000 kiloliters a year. This would amount to about 100 million wine bottle-size bottles of sake. They have large, computer controlled factories that mass produce sake all year round. However, these kind of very large scale breweries are few in number; there are only about 20 or so. The remaining 98% of the "kura," or sake breweries, brew only in the winter, and for the most part brew sake by hand. For that reason, they can only brew about 200 to 1000 kiloliters per year. There are some kura that produce even less than that. All of the kuramoto and sake represented here today come from that kind of small-scale kura (brewery).

Top of PageSake itself is brewed from rice, which is the staple food of the Japanese people. Until about 50 years ago, rice was always in short supply, there was not enough to meet the demands of people throughout the country. So, the rice available for sake brewing was understandably limited as well, as therefore so was the length of the brewing season. Brewing was limited to the colder months since the lower temperatures and cleaner air allowed better sake to be brewed, and also since brewing grain-based beverages like sake requires refrigeration if it is going to be kept for any length of time. This does not make large-scale brewing feasible. Also, the breweries in each region brewed sake with the local people in mind, and naturally enough sake flavor profiles developed that went well with the local climate, cuisine, customs, and way of life. This all lead to fairly distinct regional styles.

One exception to this, however, was that from the 17th century, Edo, modern-day Tokyo, was where the Shogun resided, which made it a significantly large and active city. The demand for sake there increased dramatically due to the presence of many thirsty military personnel. So many sake brewers began to produce sake especially for that market, most notably the Nada brewing region, located between Kobe and Osaka. Nada began to produce sake with a very refined flavor that appealed to the upper class consumers of Edo. Although this style of sake had no overwhelmingly strong characteristics, it appealed to most and there was not much for anyone to dislike about it. Interestingly enough, this impression continues today, 300 years later.

So, sake is brewed by we kuramoto and by toji. To put it in economic terms, creating the product calls for land, finances and raw materials. The kuramoto is responsible for procuring these, and the toji is responsible for creating the final product from the raw materials. Another way to put it would be to say that the kuramoto functions as the financier, director of operations, and employer, and the toji functions as the employee. However, since sake is only brewed in the winter, the toji is more of a "contract employee."

Top of PageHowever, the relationship between the kuramoto and toji is not nearly as simple as employer and employee. As director of operations, the kuramoto must decide what kind of sake and what grade of sake, as well as how much to brew. After that, the rest is up to the toji. The kuramoto has no input about how things are run in the kura, or what processes are used in brewing. The toji, on the other hand, knows he must live up to the expectations of the kuramoto, and does his utmost to meet those expectations. The sake cannot of course all be brewed by the toji alone, so other sake brewing craftsmen must help. The toji, therefore, is in charge of hiring and firing and managing these other craftsmen. When the approximately five-month sake brewing season ends, the toji effectively hands over the brewed sake to the kuramoto and heads back to his family and his home.

Toji for the most part are, in the off-season, farmers and fishermen. During the spring, summer and fall, the grow rice or ride fishing boats in their home regions. When the fall harvest is over, or the fishing season ends, there is no longer any work in their villages. This is the season when they head off to sake breweries to work. In Japanese, this traveling for seasonal employment is called "dekasegi."

The fact that sake is only brewed in the winter is advantageous to both the kuramoto as an employer and the others as employees. This kind of labor system came about in the 17th century, after the Shogunate decreed that sake brewing only take place in the winter. As this system developed, the regions from which the toji were chosen slowly gained some notoriety, and schools, or loose unions of toji came into being. There are perhaps 20 of these schools of toji in existence now. So the brewing styles of toji from various regions has been around for over 200 years.  However, it is important to note that these days, there is little difference between the brewing styles of the various schools of toji, and really no one can tell the difference on a regular basis anyway. Each individual toji has his own style, to be sure, and that style is evident in the sake he brews. But the differences between various schools of toji is not what it was long ago.

Long ago, it was all quite secretive, and methods held and used by one group were never disclosed to other groups. But, over the past several decades, toji and brewers from all over the country readily share information in their shared desire to make overall better sake. The various toji schools or unions are usually centered in the snowy regions of Japan, like the northern Tohoku region and the Hokuriku region near the Sea of Japan. The dekasegi system of travelling far from your home for seasonal work was not limited to the sake brewing industry. But the pay and status that came with being a sake-brewing laborer were relatively Top of Pagehigh compared to that of other seasonal labor jobs, so in general there were very talented people competing for such positions.

There are three things that go into brewing sake: water, rice and technical skill. More than anything else, sake is a result of a brewing process that uses rice and lots and lots of water. In fact, water comprises as much as 80% of the final product, so naturally fine water and fine rice are a prerequisite to brewing great sake. But beyond that, the technical skill needed to pull this all off lies with the toji.

Sake is brewed by employing the functions of microorganisms supplied by the koji mold and yeast cells. But that is not to say that we can just let these microorganisms do all the work on their own, unguided. Humans must come into the equation to directly and indirectly control these microorganisms. This is not easy, since the things the brewers are trying to control and guide are too small to be seen by the human eye. In light of this fact, it is difficult to explain how anyone was able to brew sake before the 19th century, when the microscope was invented. Sake brewers learned by experience, and the accumulated results of that experience are what has become the unique method of brewing sake that exists today.

A general description of sake brewing looks something like this. Rice is washed, and steam-cooked. From this, koji mold rice and a yeast starter are created, and the whole thing is then fermented. This fermentation in the tank is called "shikomi." The quality of the rice, the degree to which the koji mold has propagated, the temperature variations, and other factors are different for each shikomi. Brewing sake in the midst of all this requires skill that is honed from experience and intuition. For this reason, the technical skill of the brewer is also a paramount factor in the brewing of good sake.

Top of PageA toji basically learns his skill through on the job training. There are really no texts, and the only way to learn is by watching. Especially in the old days, no one taught anyone else by direct instruction; one was expected to watch and learn. This allowed one to develop a very deeply embedded and strong sense about what to do in each situation. Amongst 100 toji, there will be 100 different brewing styles. There is an saying in Japanese that expresses this, Sakaya Banryu. However, it is interesting to note that recently this system of learning only by watching has changed somewhat in that the government and toji unions are now directing those that want to become toji to formally study fermentation and chemistry.

Great toji are not only great technically and sensibility-wise. They also must treat the craftsmen that work under them properly and carefully. Sake brewing calls for teamwork, and harmony is very important. At the same time, the toji must have the respect of all the others. Still, great toji are modest individuals, knowing that sake is something that they make for God, and that they make with grace from God. God here implies a respect of nature, and not really an absolute presence as might be implied by the Christian notion of God, or Allah. Japanese people have long had a tolerance for the existence of multiple gods, and have always been a people that sense a oneness between humans and nature. This has been described as one of the sources of the Japanese sense of aesthetics. This is why a toji feels that he cannot brew beautiful sake without modesty and with prayers to God. So, a toji begins each day with a prayer to God, and to nature.

Well, just precisely does a toji do? Let's look at one day in the busiest brewing month at my kura, which by the way we have nicknamed "Sakahan."The toji, along with the other brewing craftsmen, which by the way are called "kurabito," gets up about five in the morning. The first thing to be done in the morning is checking up on state of the koji, and on the various tanks of fermenting sake mash. Koji development, by the way, is an extremely important step of the brewing process, in which the starch in the rice is converted into sugars. Koji is created by propagating koji mold spores, called Aspergillus Oryzae in English, onto rice. To do this properly, the koji must be mixed regularly and have the temperature checked constantly. This is the first thing done each morning.

Top of PageNext, they check on the status of the various tanks of fermenting sake mash. This mash, called moromi in Japanese, is a mixture of koji, rice, water, and yeast, which combine to ferment and give alcohol. Usually this fermentation period lasts two to three weeks, however, premium sake like what we will be tasting later today, called ginjo-shu, takes longer, usually about a month to ferment. During this period the toji will daily check the status of each tank of moromi. This is often done by taking a chemical analysis of the moromi to determine the amount present of various compounds. However, the toji also determines a great deal of information by looking at the foam on the surface of the moromi, how much carbon dioxide is emanating from it, the amount and appearance of the foam, and even the sound of the foam as it churns and as the bubbles pop. The toji call this "talking to the moromi" to determine its state. In a sense, without saying a word he "talks to the moromi" and assesses how far along it has come. It's exactly like judging how healthy a baby is by its crying. Then, based on this information, adjustments will be made.

For example, if the yeast is particularly active and the fermentation is proceeding too quickly, he may cool the tank down a bit to slow the progress of the fermenting moromi. Just how many degrees it needs to be chilled would be a decision based on the toji's experience. Before there were any major technological developments, sake was brewed exclusively by these kinds of methods, but even today in the age of chemical analysis and modern technology, these skills are just as important as the analysis and modern equipment.

After checking up on the moromi and koji, they have breakfast. Following that, preparations are made for the sake that will be brewed that day. This includes washing rice, steaming large amounts of rice, cooling the rice after steaming, adding it to the correct fermenting tanks, and making koji. There are usually several types of sake being brewed at one time, and several types of sake rice will be used. They must be very careful not to mix up the varieties of rice. Also, sake that has completed its fermentation period and is ready will be pressed, separating the clear sake from the remaining rice solids to give what is called "genshu," or pure undiluted sake. This process can take all day and last into the evening. After dinner, they all get a break while they wait for the late-evening's check and mixing of the koji. They all go to sleep about ten o'clock, with the same work awaiting them the next morning.

Top of PageNow, in the era where science has caught up to the point where the theories and activities behind fermentation can be explained, we no longer see fermentation as mysterious. And a toji's work is not longer considered "holy." However, we still hold a great admiration for sake brewing, since fermentation is accomplished by tiny microorganisms that we cannot see. There are, floating around in the air, not only microorganisms that are beneficial to sake, but also those that are very detrimental to sake. Just how to balance the effects of these organisms is something the toji does not with his eyes, but based on his experience and intuition, and in the end creates something that you and I think tastes wonderful. It is indeed very deep and complicated work. It may seem that a toji's work is one of simple repetition, but each day he works with nature, not against it, to seemingly control organisms he cannot see, based on what could be called "the eyes of his heart."

Earlier I mentioned that over the last 20 years, the number of sake breweries has dropped to a half of what it was. The number of toji, too, is dropping due to things like advanced age and the lack of successors. The average age of toji is about 65. The lack of successors is a result of young people leaving smaller farming and fishing villages since there is no entertainment, and flocking to the big cities. Although toji do indeed take great pride in their work, it is not stable and it is very difficult, and as such they do not in general force their children to take on the same work.

So we can expect the number of toji to decrease rather quickly in the future. Toji are very much sake-brewing craftsmen, or artisans. In the same way, other craftsmen in Japan such as kimono makers or furniture makers, and traditional craftsmen that build temples and shrines and tea houses, are also decreasing in number. However, the difference between sake artisans and these other artisans men is that the others are creating things that can be seen and reproduced. Sake craftsmanship is not like that, which makes the beauty of the craft perhaps a bit more difficult to convey.

So, what are we kuramoto doing about this to try and remedy the situation? One thing we are trying to do is to improve work conditions and create more of a situation in which the toji are regular employees, not contract employees, and avoid the dekasegi system. Also, we are trying to automate all the operations that we can, like moving bottles and other items, which do not call the "handmade touch." However, this alone is not sufficient . There are also efforts to introduce the latest technology and have computers simulate the experience and intuition of a toji through fuzzy logic. So, even we smaller brewers are sometimes making sake both by computer and by the hands of a toji. However, unlike large brewers, the objective of these tools is not to produce more volume, but rather to help us produce wonderful, hand-made sake.

Top of PageEarlier I mentioned that there is a shortage of young people that want to brew sake and become successors to toji. This is true, but one recent good omen is more young people studying fermentation and agricultural chemistry, while their numbers are still but a few, are showing an interest in sake brewing. In fact my brewery, Sakahan, is very fortunate in that we have recently had some very talented and young individuals join us. We kuramoto are holding great expectations for such young people. We are working with present toji to try an create some kind of feeder system for the future. This too, is one role of sake brewers.

Finally, I would like to finish by how we kuramoto, we breweries, feel about the future of sake. Presently, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is in decline worldwide, for health related reasons. Not only spirits, but wine and beer too are affected by this trend. Sake is no exception to this. Everyone is trying to drink less. At the same time, as we become exposed to various other cultures, more and more people everywhere are enjoying alcoholic beverages from all over the world, other than their home countries, and the atmosphere that goes with them. So naturally, Japanese people too are no longer drinking only sake. This, however, will undoubtedly add to the decrease in consumption of sake.

However, it is generally considered that the 21st Century will be one in which people try to find satisfaction in their hearts, an era in which people will put a lot of importance on the enjoyment of life. Rather than decrease in consumption, sake will become an important beverage that helps to enrich our lives. It is in this light that we kuramoto here today want to make sake that adds a bit of color to life.for example, you might find that one kura's sake has a wonderful fragrance, another has a great flavor, yet another would go anothe with food. In the 21st Century each kura's sake will compete for individuality. And overall there will be much more variety. Finally, I just want to say that in the future we will create many more chances for all of you to taste our sake, and at the same time to taste the new life and direction of growth for sake.

TTop of Pagehank you.

Daimon Yasutaka, Daimon Brewery Co. Ltd.

Daimon Yasutaka is at far right dressed in green jacket. This photo taken after the speech, and after all participants had tasted a number of sake samples from SEA members.





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