＃523 -【Talk at Columbia University ②】
Hello everyone. My name is Hiroshi SAKURAI, the third generation of a sake brewery called Asahi Shuzo Co., Ltd. I am currently working in the brewery as its chairman.
DASSAI is a brand of Japanese sake. Sake is a brew made from rice and water. It goes without say that sake is also greatly influenced by the history of the Japanese people.
Japan is surrounded by the sea on all sides and is characterized by mountains and few plains. Therefore, there are very few plains that can be used for agriculture compared to European countries or the United States.
However, the population reached already 34 million in 1868, the first year of the Meiji era. How was Japan able to sustain such a large population at that time before the Industrial Revolution? It was largely due to the development of intensive agriculture, especially rice cultivation.
In order to obtain even a slightly higher yield of rice per area, cultivation techniques demanding time and effort such as nurseries were developed. The development was made by the Japanese mindset. The Japanese were willing to spend more manpower if small increase in yield was able to make. Moreover, they thought it was the right thing to do. As a result, in post-medieval Japanese farming villages, second and third sons who were not heirs to the family were not discarded as overstaffed, but were retained as valuable workers in the village.
The reason why Japan was able to sustain an unusually large population in this period is largely due to the fact that rice, with its higher yields, has been a staple food and the cultivation methods has been devised and improved. In other words, instead of accepting nature as it is, we can coexist and live together with it by devising new ways. To achieve this, it was important to improve agricultural technology.
This also has had a great impact on sake producing, which uses rice as its raw material. In other words, technology is very important for sake producing. I am an outsider in the field of wine, so my statement may be besides the point. When I look at wine, however, I think that it is greatly influenced by the climate and land of Europe. It seems to me that people respect the fact that wine is made in its natural state, rather than the wine-making or grape-growing techniques. I think this is a major difference between sake and wine in terms of how they perceive technology. Sake is a drink that is strongly influenced by the ethnicity, values, and history of the Japanese people.
In the case of DASSAI, we place great importance on “taking time and effort”, technology and manpower in order to make the sake as delicious as possible. To be more specific, although we rank 12th in Japan in terms of sales volume and 4th in terms of sales value, we have the largest production staff in Japan at 170 people. Moreover, the production volume per staff member is the same as or, depending on one's point of view, less than half that of a sake brewery that followed the traditional sake brewing method 50 years ago. This is a unique figure in the Japanese sake breweries, considering the subsequent development of labor-saving equipment such as forklifts. DASSAI place importance on time and effort.
Thanks to the development of digital equipment in recent years, details of the sake producing process have become visible. Checking this detail data, we can see how important it is to take the time and effort to make sake. The DASSAI sake producing process has been further developed by our production staff who understand the importance of the time and effort that goes into making our sake.
If we just think about the shipment of “Junmai Daiginjo”, in which DASSAI should be categorized, and “Junmai Ginjo” which is lower rank than “Junmai Daiginjo”, the volume of DASSAI’s shipments is the largest in Japan, accounting for about 11% of all shipments. Although this is not necessarily accurate due to the lack of statistics, if we just look at only “Junmai Daiginjo”, I am sure that it accounts for more than 30% of all “Junmai Daiginjo”. However, when I took over Asahi Shuzo in 1984 as the third president, the brewery was selling cheap sake to a local market with no special characteristics. In Iwakuni city, a small regional city with a population of less than 100,000, we were fourth in sales ranking among sake breweries. We were suffering from triple difficulties: we had lost one-third of their sales in the past ten years due to competition, we had neither technology nor sales, and their location was in a remote mountainous area that was suffering from severe depopulation.
In the midst of this triple difficulties, other sake brands in the local sake market, which was a red ocean in itself, could not be competed with the conventional cheap sake that was only available in the local market. In the end, we were able to survive as a sake brewery by inventing Junmai Daiginjo “DASSAI” and giving up on the local market to enter the Tokyo market.
At that time, there was neither a market for Junmai Daiginjo nor stable production technology in the sake industry. However, DASSAI established then a market and production technology for a new and high valued sake. This challenge created a new hope among other small sake breweries that even small regional breweries could succeed in selling their sake in big city markets like Tokyo.
The reason why this was possible for Asahi Shuzo, which was only a local sake brewery on the losing side, was largely due to the background of that times. First of all, as the Japanese economy developed, the average personal income rose. However, the price of sake itself declined due to mechanization and rationalization. In other words, Japanese people was now able to drink as much as they want, as long as we didn’t care about the quality of sake. This had been ignored in the sake industry, but when viewed from the perspective of society as a whole, it manifested itself as an increase in the number of patients with alcohol-related illnesses.
In such an environment, the increase in the incidence of liver disease among our customers led me to change from the pleasure of drinking large quantities of sake and getting drunk to the psychological satisfaction of drinking a small amount of good sake, and I have turned the helm to a sake brewery specializing in Junmai Daiginjo. In this way, I was able to gain a favorable impression from society in a broad sense, and Junmai Daiginjo DASSAI became accepted, especially by young people and women. However, when viewed in hindsight, this was only possible because we were a sake brewery on the losing side. If we had been on the winning side, we would not have been able to deny our own sake.
In addition, the development of logistics and computers also gave us a boost. The development of door-to-door delivery service in Japan, which simplified and lowered the price of small-lot logistics for individuals, was a clear plus for Asahi Sake Shuzo as it sought to enter the Tokyo market. The development of door-to-door delivery service in Japan has made it possible for Asahi Sake Shuzo to expand into the Tokyo market, as it was not possible to send sake to new customers in large trucks or railroad containers, which tended to purchase smaller quantities. The development of computers has also opened up the dissemination of information to the individual user and made it less expensive to convey our information directly to the end-user. They were greatly useful in the development of the urban market.
However, in the process of developing the brewery into one that made only Junmai Daiginjo, I was driven by the need to train a successor to our aging Toji. In order to reinforce the weakness of traditional sake producing practices, which at the time only produced sake in the winter and had difficulty in providing continuous year-round employment, I built a beer microbrewery as a measure to provide employment during the summer. However, the business failed. Seeing the failure, the Toji of ours possibly felt that he was unlikely to receive a salary, so he moved to another brewery with all his subordinates in tow.
I took this as a chance to start sake producing with just myself and four employees. As a result, I was able to spread my will to "produce delicious Junmai Daiginjo" throughout the brewery. It also made it possible for us to repeat countless trials and errors to achieve a delicious Junmai Daiginjo, which was not possible under the stubborn and elderly Toji. It was for this ironic reason that we, who were technologically inferior, were able to produce Junmai Daginjo more and more, and establish the technology for it ahead of our competitors.
Moreover, Asahi Shuzo, which had become an employee-only sake brewery, rather than employing a Toji who only came in the winter to work alongside the farmers, abandoned the traditional sake producing method “Kanzukuri (Sake made in the winter)” and adopted a method of sake producing in all seasons by air-conditioning the brewery. We have developed a method that enables finer control by adopting small work units, rather than the enlargement and mechanization that is common in large sake breweries. As a result, trial and error was constantly conducted, and the technology was improved at a dash.
It can be said that the same adversity saved us when it came to rice. There was no good sake rice in Yamaguchi Prefecture, our home prefecture. At first, we would like farmers in Yamaguchi to produce good sake rice locally. However, the Yamaguchi branch of the agricultural cooperative, which was also the government's most powerful pressure group, was reluctant to produce new rice. In fact, they were even taunting us with our desire for good rice. One day, I finally lost patience and decided to break off my relationship with the agricultural cooperative.
After that, we did not seek the help of the strongest agricultural organization, the power of the agricultural cooperatives, but developed our relationships with farmers to do business with on their own. I set my sights on the best rice and focused on the most expensive rice out of Yamada-Nishiki. Currently, we use 9,000 tons of Yamada-Nishiki per year. This is 34% of the 26,000 tons of Yamada-Nishiki produced in Japan as a whole. This large volume of purchases was made possible by our own efforts to develop our own channels.
In addition, after seeing the success of Asahi Shuzo, the Yamaguchi prefectural government's agricultural department, which at first did not pay much attention to sake rice, began to pay attention to sake rice and teamed up with an agricultural cooperative to produce a new variety of sake rice on their own. However, we refused to use the new variety whose quality was less than that of Yamada-Nishiki. Therefore, they started to harass us in various ways. From a standpoint of the economic rationality, it might not be a good idea not to listen to the local government, which had tremendous power in the region. However, when I thought of the faces of our customers, I could not choice to make DASSAI from rice that was not suitable for DASSAI.
Today, Yamada Nishiki famers contracted with us are not limited to Yamaguchi Prefecture, but extend from Kumamoto Prefecture in the south to Tochigi and Niigata Prefectures in the north. The area has expanded to regions that were previously considered unsuitable for cultivation from a standpoint of the climate. Ironically, the reason this has become possible is largely due to the northward expansion of suitable cultivation areas due to global warming.
Anyway, when we tell our story about rice, we say, "There was no good rice in our home prefecture of Yamaguchi. That is why we were able to establish a route to obtain good rice from all over Japan.”
Thanks to your support, we have received good reputation in the United States as well. One of our most memorable moments was when the late former Prime Minister Abe visited the United States in 2015, and DASSAI was decided to serve for the official banquet which would be held at the White House. In fact, the government of United Sates asked us to keep it a secret until just before the toast. That was why even Prime Minister Abe did not know about it until former President Obama mentioned in his toast that "this sake is DASSAI from Yamaguchi Prefecture. At that time, I remembered a TV news showing that Prime Minister Abe looked back in surprise. Prime Minister Abe passed away last year in a truly unfortunate incident, but the thoughtfulness of the government of the United States at that time will remain in our hearts. The honor of having our DASSAI as the first Japanese sake to be served at an official banquet in history of the United States will also remain in our history forever.
As I tell our story, I am deeply moved by the fact that adversity has made DASSAI what it is today.
DASSAI is now making a Junmai Daiginjo in Hyde Park, on the East Coast of the United States. It will be named DASSAI Blue. Why is it called “Blue”? There a Japanese proverb, which literally translates as “Although blue dye comes from the indigo plant, it is bluer than indigo”. By extension, it also means that the child overtakes the parent. I also named the DASAI Blue with the hope that it would surpass DASSAI made in Japan.
To people in the United States, please support DASSAI’s new challenge.