As a national beverage of Japan, sake is forever intertwined with the country’s cultural identity. The Japanese people have been making sake for millennia, and it has touched everything from good times at the dinner table to the economy. It’s not just a drink, but a symbol of cultural heritage.
Despite this, sake’s role in Japanese drinking culture has been diminishing for decades. Why is this happening, and what can we do to save the dying art of sake brewing?
The westernization of Japan
Globalization has its pros and cons. While the increased interconnectedness of people around the world benefits the exchange of ideas and technologies, it can also have the effect of distancing a people from their own country’s traditions. This has been a major thread throughout Japanese history, as Japan largely maintained a policy of seclusion from the Western world until the tail end of the Edo period (1603-1868) for this reason.
Since the so-called opening of Japan, westernization has become a powerful force, influencing everything from fashion to food and beverage. This is a major reason why sake consumption and the number of sake breweries have been decreasing in Japan; people are simply drinking other alcoholic beverages. Wine, beer and Western liquors have taken over a significant portion of the Japanese market, and sake is less in demand.
People first began noticing this downward trend in sake sales in the late 1970s. The Washington Post even published an article in 1978 about how beer and whiskey were starting to cool the Japanese appetite for sake. Tsunesuke Yoshimura, the president of the Japanese Sake Association at the time, remarked, “We Japanese admire anything that belongs to foreign countries. It is not fashionable to like Japanese products.”
That sentiment is reflected in the numbers: Since 1975, the volume of sake in Japan has decreased by 76%, and the number of breweries has decreased by 51%.
No new sake breweries for locals
Noting this decline in domestic sake consumption, the Japanese government became very wary of allowing any new sake breweries to open. In fact, the National Tax Agency has all but ceased granting new licenses, except in rare cases where the applicant can prove they will be able to produce 60,000 liters (15,850 gallons) of sake per year. (Read more about the whirlwind history of Japanese sake laws.)
However, the government now has a laser focus on increasing the popularity of sake worldwide. The NTA has many initiatives in the works toward this goal, including making it easier for export-only sake breweries to attain licenses. There have been efforts to get more Japanese people to drink sake, but for the most part, the government is putting almost all of its weight behind brewery tourism and international sales.
Sake and Japanese pop culture go international
Luckily, globalization works both ways. Back in 1982, The New York Times reported a growing admiration for Japanese culture in the United States. The Japanese population in the U.S. was increasing, and so were the number of Japanese restaurants. Japanese influence on American arts — especially film and TV — surged too. And American people have only become more interested in recent years, with the popularity of things like anime, ramen and J-pop music growing ever stronger — and with that, sake.
In 2020, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association reported a 57% uptick in sake exports over the previous 10 years, with the bulk of the sake making its way to Hong Kong, China, the U.S., Taiwan and Korea. Moreover, Japanese brewers are establishing breweries overseas, like Asahi Shuzo Co., Ltd. (Dassai) in New York and WAKAZE France in Paris. French winemakers have also taken an interest in sake, and have even partnered with Japanese breweries or begun brewing it themselves. Likewise, Americans have been launching their own sake breweries, including Farthest Star Sake, Brooklyn Kura, and SakéOne, to name a few.
What is the future of sake?
Internationally, sake is trending in a positive direction. Those at the forefront of the sake industry, including us at Tippsy, feel cautiously optimistic that more people will fall in love with this alluring beverage. As our founder and CEO Genki Ito said, “All it takes…is just a sip of really good sake.” So we, alongside other sake promoters and brewers, work hard to make it easy for more people to taste more sake.
To keep this fading craft alive and eventually help it thrive again, we share stories and information about sake brewing that didn’t used to be easily accessible. We want everyone to know that all of our efforts come from a place of genuine love and excitement. We think you’ll understand that when you’re passionate about something, you want to share it with the world and hope that one day, everyone else will feel the same way you do. And we think that with a burgeoning international community of curious drinkers, sake has the potential to make a stunning comeback.
Bennetts, L. “Culture of Japan Blossoming in America.” The New York Times, 1982.
Chapman, W. “‘Bad Habits’ Lead to Decline of Sake.” The Washington Post, 1978.
“The Current State of the Sake Industry.” Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, 2021.
LeBlanc, S. “Want to Start a Sake Brewery in Japan? It’s Now A Whole Lot Easier.” SAKETIMES, 2020.
“Liquor Administration Report.” National Tax Agency of Japan, 2020.
“Liquor Administration Report.” National Tax Agency of Japan, 2021.
Sato, D. “A new opportunity for overseas expansion of sake?” NHK, 2022.