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Sake as described by missionaries; the emergence of the tōji (master brewer)


During the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), a great deal of sake came to be produced, particularly in Kyoto. As demand for sake rose, the businesses selling it prospered and wielded considerable economic might.


Outside of Kyoto, too, some famous sake varieties were produced. These were varieties that were adapted to a particular locality, but built their brand as their reputation grew.


These trends continued into the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573–1603). According to the Tamon’in Nikki, which chronicles matters relating to the Kōfuku-ji temple over a 140-year period from 1478, the shikomi-oke (fermentation vat) was developed during this period so that a large amount of sake could be produced in a single batch.


It is worth noting, too, that various parts of Japan were under the control of military commanders in the Warring States period around this time, and various regional varieties of sake were developed, adapting to the local climate and food.


In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, Christian missionaries began to visit Japan from Europe to propagate their faith. Among other things, they recorded their observations about sake.


They noted, for instance, that “Sake is made from rice. But although the quantity in a drink is small, it is expensive” and “We drink our wine cooled, but in Japan, the sake is warmed.”


The Catholic missionary Francis Xavier is believed to have presented grape wine to the military commanders Shimazu Takahisa of Satsuma (Kagoshima Prefecture) and Ouchi Yoshitaka of Suo no Kuni (Yamaguchi Prefecture). It seems that the notes the missionaries made regarding sake were written on the basis of taking wine as the standard.


Apart from wine, shōchū was introduced to Japan from the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) during this period. Distilled liquor came to Japan from the south. From the Ryukyus, shōchū first spread to Satsuma (Kagoshima Prefecture), the nearest part of Japan, and so shōchū came to be produced in Kyushu. At this time, shōchū came to be consumed in Kyoto as imozake (potato wine).


In Okinawa and Kagoshima, sake is hardly produced at all. Instead, it is shōchū that is popular. The reasons for this can be understood from the history sketched above.


So it was not wine imported from Europe that made its way into Japan. But there were other liquors imported such as awamori (rice brandy) from the Ryukyus (Okinawa) and herb liquors from China and Korea. This sort of trade continued actively until the start of the Edo Period (1603–1868).


Sake in the Edo Period
Sake production continued in the Edo Period, and sake was exported to south-east Asian countries. Since sake has a higher alcohol content than wine, sake was consumed before meals, and wine was consumed during meals.


For the shogunate — the government of the time — an important problem was to work out how to collect taxes from merchants who had become wealthy from trading in sake. In order to levy taxes, the government conducted numerous surveys of the entire country.


Considering the fact that the tax rate on sake was as high as 50%, it might be asked whether very much sake could be sold.


However, the 50% tax meant simply that the price was 1.5 times as high. Because of concerns that the price would be too high and sales would fall off, when the liquor tax went up to 50%, sake merchants reduced production as a hedge against the perceived risk. As a consequence tax revenue fell short of the expected amount.


Brewing sake many times each year
Nowadays, it is normal to brew sake in the winter. This is called kanzukuri. But in the Edo Period, sake was produced many times each year.


At the beginning of the Edo Period, sake was brewed five times each year. These five brews were called shinshu, aishu, kanmaezake, kanshu, and haruzake. Because sake was produced throughout the year, this was called shiki jōzō (literally, four-season brewing — year-round brewing).


However, in times of famine, there was no rice to spare for brewing sake. On the other hand, sake was considered a sign of good circumstances because if there was a bumper harvest, there would be plenty of rice for sake, tax revenue would be assured, and the price of rice could be reduced.


For these reasons, the shogunate tried to control sake production. The term shuzō tōsei means literally “control of sake brewing.” It could be said that in present-day Japan, the measures taken by the Bank of Japan and the government to control the economy are “shuzō tōsei.”


Apart from those considerations, there is the fact that sake made in the winter is of good quality, so as one part of shuzō tōsei, sake brewing was restricted to the winter only. To put it another way, sake production was limited to kanzukuri. Under this policy, shiki jōzō (year-round brewing) was no longer possible, and died out.


Since sake brewing was only done in winter, farmers would head to the breweries in search of work when their farm work was done at the end of the fall. That is how “villages of master brewers” (tōji no mura) came to exist.

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