Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

“Japanese Sake” aims to be “World Sake”
MONJI Kenjiro / Sake Samurai and Former Ambassador of Japan to UNESCO

March 10, 2023
Japanese Sake is a brewed alcoholic beverage made from rice and water, fermented with the power of microorganisms such as koji mold and yeast. It is unique to Japan, where rice is the staple food because of its long rice-farming history and the land is blessed with clean and abundant water. Today, sake faces a great challenge. Its production volume has dropped to a quarter of its peak in 1973, and the number of breweries decreased to 1,400 from about 3,500 in 1970. The reasons for this include rapid changes in the Japanese diet, the emergence of a variety of alcoholic beverages such as wines, and the shift away from alcohol among young people.

On the other hand, diverse, high-quality sake is now increasingly produced, as a result of progress in brewing technique, the development of new sake rice and yeast, and the rise of young brewers. Ironically, now is the time in history when we can enjoy the best kind of Japanese sake. The challenge is to revive Japanese sake which is in the doldrums, and I have noted three promising trends in this regard.

The first is very strong exports. The export value has increased consecutively for 13 years since 2009, achieving 6.6 times growth. In the background is the global boom in Japanese food. The popularity of Japanese food is attributed to its healthiness, delicacy, and palatability, and was boosted by its registration as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. Considering the size of the global market, the popularity of Japanese sake is still sharply limited to local dimensions both in terms of people and geography. However, it is expected that its exports continue to grow with strong support from the Japanese government.

The second is that Japanese sake has gradually gained recognition overseas as an alcoholic drink during a meal. In 2017, “Kura Master”, the first sake competition in France, was established. This is an event where French people choose the best Japanese sake to go with French cuisine, and about 100 of its judges are mainly professionals in the French food and beverage industry.

The reason why sake has come to gain a lot of attention in France is because of the recent changes in French cuisine itself; the increase of food ingredients and flavours that wine does not do well with, such as eggs, bitterness, umami, sourness, and so on. Japanese sake goes very well with these ingredients and tastes. The trend to pair New World wines or non-wine brews with food in place of Bordeaux or Bourgogne wines because of their skyrocketing price, also helped increase the interest in sake. Sake is beginning to be regarded as an equal and complementing drink to wines in France. When the stereotype of “sake for Japanese cuisine” is overturned, sake-drinking at home in France, or matching sake with other food apart from French, such as Italian, Spanish, or Chinese, could also be promoted.

Furthermore, once the fact that “sake goes well not only with Japanese food but also with a wide variety of dishes” is known, there is a great possibility for increased consumption in Japan. There are no other countries in the world than Japan where a diverse array of food is available: traditional Japanese cuisine, Japan’s unique Western-style dishes, Western cuisines such as French and Italian, Chinese, Korean, Indian and South-East Asian cuisines, etc. Moreover, many of these foods are also cooked and eaten at home. Sake offers a diversity comparable to wine, and as a matter of fact, sake is a beverage that suits best a wide range of Japanese diets.

The third is a movement to register Japanese sake as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. In order to regain the presence of Japanese sake which has weakened within our country, it is important to add a completely new value to it. With its registration as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, sake can be declared a Japanese culture, not
just an alcoholic beverage.

As Ambassador of Japan to UNESCO, I witnessed the historic moment in 2013 when Japanese food was registered, and immediately after that, I made a point that sake should be the next. Then, in March 2022, Japanese “traditional sake making” was formally proposed to UNESCO, and a decision on registration is expected to be taken in the fall of 2024.

Although the deliberation of the protection of intangible cultural heritage, initiated in the 1970s, had not progressed for a long time, it was Japan that led and accelerated its movement in the ’90s. At the time, there was growing recognition that developing countries had rich intangible cultural heritages of which people could be proud, such as traditional performing arts and traditional crafts. Meanwhile, there was heightened concern for many intangible cultural heritages that had suffered extinction or were on the verge of extinction amid rapid social changes. 

Under such circumstances, Japan has been consistently protecting both tangible and intangible cultural properties since 1950 and, in 1993, established the Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Preservation and Promotion of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at UNESCO and undertook the protection of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the creation of which was headed by Japan, was adopted in 2003, and 180 countries have now concluded the Convention, and 678 intangible cultural heritage items have been registered. Currently, food culture has come under particular focus. Every country is enthusiastic about registering its own food culture and the number of registrations now stands at 40. The registration of Japanese traditional sake making will be also an example of this trend.

Alcoholic beverages which are widely appreciated around the world such as wines, beers, and whiskies; I call them “World Alcoholic Beverages”. As sake becomes recognized as Japanese culture and widely known for its excellent match with an extensive variety of food, I am convinced that “Japanese sake” can become “World sake”. I hope readers from around the globe will try to pair sake with their own local food.

Monji Kenjiro is a Sake Samurai and a former Ambassador to UNESCO.

The English-Speaking Union of Japan

門司 健次郎 / 酒サムライ、元ユネスコ日本大使

2023年 3月 10日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > “Japanese Sake” aims to be “World Sake”