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The origins and history of sake, beginning in the Jōmon Period


In Japan the history of sake is considered to begin in the Jōmon Period (c. 14,000 BC – c. 300 BC). Before that, in the Paleolithic age (ending around 14,000 BC), people were hunters and gatherers, so it would seem unlikely that sake was part of the culture.


Beginning in the Jōmon Period, earthenware vessels began to be made. Jōmon pottery is famous as the style of pottery produced during that period. With the development of earthenware vessels, sake started to become part of the culture of the people of Japan.


Pots for storing food
Once people had pots, they were able to store food. That is, they could keep food in a container for future use. They could also put water in a pot, light a fire, and boil food. The development of such implements would have made it much easier to stave off hunger, compared to the way of life of previous times.


In addition, Jōmon pots unearthed from an archaeological site have been found to contain seeds of wild grapes.


Of course, an alcoholic drink made from grapes is wine. So it is believed that in Japan the earliest kind of alcoholic drink was not sake but wine. Grapes left in a pot would have fermented naturally, producing alcohol and turning into wine.


The primary ingredient of sake is rice. Naturally, before rice was cultivated, sake did not exist. So it was grapes that grew wild that were first used to make an alcoholic beverage.


Eventually, rice cultivation began, some time during the period 1,000 – 500 BC, and as rice cultivation spread to Japan from the Chinese mainland and the Korean peninsula, sake too began to be produced.


The Yayoi Period (c. 300 BC – c. 250 AD) was a period of rapid advancement in civilization.


In this period, the technologies of bronze, textiles, and ceramics developed. Introduced from the mainland, rice cultivation changed the migratory, hunting lifestyle of the people to a settled, farming lifestyle based on the use of tools and implements.


Because this form of civilization was introduced from the mainland of China, the development of sake in Japan began first in the parts of Japan closest to China and the Korean peninsula. Specifically, sake brewing is thought to have begun earliest in northern Kyushu (around present-day Fukuoka Prefecture), the San’in region (including Shimane Prefecture), and the Kinki region.


In the Gishi Tōiden, a Chinese text of the 3rd century, it is written that “the Japanese people were fond of alcohol.” On that basis, it is known that alcohol has been enjoyed by Japanese people since at least that time.


However, it is not known exactly what kind of “alcohol” it was that the Gishi Tōiden refers to. It could have been sake or it could have been wine.


It was to be another 500 years after the Gishi Tōiden before a text noting the use of rice to make sake would appear. In other words, we know that in that period, there was widespread rice cultivation, but we can not be sure whether sake was produced at that time.


Kuchikami-zake makes its appearance
Because grapes contain sugar, to make wine one only needs to allow yeasts to do their work of fermenting the sugary juice.


But rice contains no sugar. To ferment rice, it is first necessary to convert its starch to sugar. Sake is made using kōji-kin for this conversion. However, in the beginning, the technology of using kōji-kin did not yet exist.


Instead of kōji-kin they used saliva. They recognized that saliva breaks down starch and converts it to sugar. So they would chew rice, spit it into a pot, and repeat the procedure over and over. The mixture was left to ferment, creating a form of sake known as kuchikami-zake.


These days, sake brewing tends to be thought of as a mostly male activity because of the heavy labor it involves, but at this early stage, it was the women’s job to make sake.


It is believed that kuchikami-zake was made in Shinto rituals, and that it was shrine maidens who performed the chewing of the rice. This is the reason why it is thought that making sake was, at that time, the work of women.


The technique of using chewed food to make alcohol was used in other parts of the world such as the Amazon, but it was grains other than rice that were used.

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