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The introduction of synthetic sake during the Second World War


In the Meiji era, the sale of sake was endorsed by the government because it gained tax revenue from liquor sales. The government even got involved in the development of the industry (no doubt because a thriving industry meant higher revenues).


The brewing industry experienced favorable conditions for a while, but the Second World War had a huge impact. During the war, rice was scarce and many liquor stores and breweries went out of business.


Sake and the War
In the Showa era (1926–1989), an improvement in the quality of sake resulted from a technological innovation: the vertical rice milling machine.


In making sake, to achieve the best flavor, the outer layer of the rice grain is removed. This procedure is called seimai (rice polishing). The taste of sake varies significantly depending on how much of the outer layer of the rice grain is polished off. The mechanization of rice polishing led to the production of higher quality sake.


However, the development of sake was set back considerably by the war. For example, beginning in 1937 with the Sino-Japanese War, priority was given to rice for the army over rice for sake brewing. There was no rice for making sake and there was no good quality sake available in stores.


Sake production slumped, and the development of ginjō-shu was delayed. (Ginjō-shu is a high-grade type of sake made from highly polished rice.)


In addition, a licensing system was introduced, so that it was now necessary to obtain a license to sell liquor. As a consequence, the number of liquor shops fell drastically. Liquor was rationed, with the government supervising distribution.


The shortage of rice continued beyond the end of the war. Insufficient rice for eating meant insufficient rice for brewing as well. But at any point in history, there are always people who want to drink. To make more sake available despite the rice shortage, a method was developed whereby sake was diluted and its alcohol content supplemented with distilled alcohol.


This form of sake is known as sanbai zōjō-shu (abbreviated to sanbai-shu or sanzō). Most of what was marketed at this time was this sake that was diluted to create three times the original quantity of sake.


However, when sake is diluted with water and alcohol is added, the flavor and aroma are diminished. So acids (such as lactic acid and succinic acid) and sugars were added during production. Sanbai zōjō-shu helped sustain Japan in the postwar period when there was no sake.


However, even after the rice shortage ended, production of sanbai zōjō-shu continued because it was inexpensive to produce and profitable. Also, it was possible to produce it efficiently in large quantity.


Because it is not genuine sake, it is easy to criticize sanbai zōjō-shu, but when one considers the economic situation of Japan during the war, it can be seen that it did perform a stopgap role.


Ginjō-shu arrives
Once the war and the privations of the postwar period ended, Japan made great strides in development. This was true in the field of sake brewing as well. Ginjō-shu appeared on the shelves of stores as a scarce, high-value type of sake.


Other varieties of sake appeared, including some made by the traditional kimoto method, and unpasteurized namazake and coarsely-filtered cloudy nigorizake also became popular.


Koshu (aged sake), which was produced as a highly valued type of sake hundreds of years ago, almost died out, but it is now experiencing a resurgence.


Furthermore, sake is being drunk in many countries other than Japan. The Japanese government is actively promoting sake and working to raise awareness of it and increase exports.


Sake is compatible not only with Japanese food, but with French, Italian, and Chinese cuisines as well, to mention just a few. There are so many varieties of sake that it is usually possible to find one that is well suited in terms of aroma, flavor, and body to go with any kind of food.

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