Japan's smart set send sake into decline
By Danielle Demetriou in Tokyo
Smoke and laughter hung in the air at a dimly lit bar on a Tokyo back street, where fashionable professionals lounged on cushions around low wooden tables. But there was one unexpected omission: there was- not a bottle of sake in sight.
The traditional rice wine is in rapid decline, with just 1,450 breweries remaining of the 4,000 dotted across Japan at the height of its popularity in the 1960s. As the autumnal sake brewing season begins this month across Japan, the latest casualty is the Watanabe Shuzo brewery, which last week closed its doors after 130 years in business. "Young people think it's something that old men drink. And, demographically speaking, it is old men who drink sake in Japan," said John Gauntner, a sake industry consultant.
Sake, made from fermented polished rice and also known as nihonshu, has long been regarded as the quintessentially Japanese drink, but the industry appears unable to reverse its decline. It has been overtaken by beer as the leading beverage, and drinks such as sweet liqueurs, alcopops, sparkling wine and gin are rapidly growing in popularity. Production of shochu, a distilled Japanese spirit made from rice, sweet potato or wheat, most fashionably mixed with oolong tea, is also booming.
"For younger people, traditional drinks are not hip at all. We have tried to make sake fashionable and recommended Westernised sake cocktails, but it has been in vain," said Shunsuke Kohiyama, export adviser for the Japan Sake Brewers' Association.
Clutching a beer in a bar in Tokyo's fashionable Jingumae district, Jun Tokowa, a 35-year-old interior designer, was proof of the problem. "I avoid sake because it makes it hard to get up for work the next morning," he said. "It's terrible for hangovers. I mostly drink beer or wine. It tends to be older men in a different kind of bar who drink sake."
Women are also turning away. Sipping an oolong tea shochu, Aki Nakamura, 25, a marketing manager, said: "This is healthier than sake and not as strong. I might have sake when eating certain foods, or during religious festivals, but not when I'm out with friends."
The only good news is that sake is becoming popular in cities such as London and New York. "Outside Japan, it is extremely fashionable and an emerging market is premium sake being exported," said Mr Gauntner.