The Future of Saké Brewing is Female

but did you know its past is too?

As I write this it is International Women’s day, a day that is important to me and all members at Traverse. We believe in the present and future of women’s achievements and in 2021 there is no better time than now to reflect on and highlight women in Japan. 

But why focus on my title? Towards the end of last year the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) named a female brewer one of their 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world. Upon seeing and reading this, I wanted to find out more. Plus, I am also completely obsessed with drinking saké. Best not to leave out this vital piece of information too!

“If you can find a job worthy of your life’s devotion, immerse yourself in it. If you treat your chosen profession with respect and sincerity, you will be on your way to achieving your goals.” Miho Imada

Miho Imada is the tōji (chief brewer) of Imada Saké Brewery, known for its Fukucho saké products. As a saké fanatic, I was delighted to see that Miho had been included in the BBC’s list, but I must admit that I knew nothing about women and their role in saké brewing. I was now intrigued to learn more. So, like anyone curious about something in the modern day, I surfed the internet.

(Source - Unsplash)

For those of you who have been living in the alcoholic dark ages, saké is a beverage made by fermenting rice after it has been polished to remove the bran. It originates from Japan, where it is the national drink. Although often referred to as ‘rice wine’, saké is produced by a brewing process more akin to that of beer where the conversion from starch to sugar and then from sugar to alcohol occurs in two distinct steps. It can be served cold or warm depending on the type of saké that you are serving.

What I found surfing the web on this topic was, at first, inspiring. Miho Imada is part of a new wave of successful saké brewers that just so happen to be female; women like Mijo Fujita, Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, Hiroko Yokozawa, Kaetsu Shuzo, Rumiko Moriki, Kayo Yoshida to name only a few. Together they share countless awards for their creations along with a true passion for saké making. 

But despite this good work, when we peer at the data, saké production is still very much a man’s world. It is estimated that there are about 20 saké breweries in Japan run by women. This accounts for only about 1.4% of the total number. 

Nevertheless, it does seem that the industry is heading in the right direction, with more and more women becoming chief brewers each year. This line of thinking eventually led me to one critical question that I plan to explore in the latter part of this article:

Has saké production always been a man’s world?

(Source - Unsplash)

Following my extensive research, it would seem, rather interestingly, the answer is... no.

To fully explain how and why, as often is the way, it helps to look at the etymology. “According to ethnological authorities in Japan, ancient Japanese governmental regulations listed the name of a woman as the sake brewer for the Imperial court. "Toji" originally meant "an independent woman" and a housewife in Japan might even be called the "toji of the house."” The plot thickens. This is odd for an industry dominated by men. 

Let’s dig deeper! If we look back to Saké's unclear origins we can begin to see why. Earliest records are in Kojiki, Japan's first written history, which was compiled in 712AD. At this time production was primitive and involved a brewing method called "kuchikami no sake" (which literally means "chewed alcohol")

And according to the "Osuminokuni Fudoki" (the 713AD records of the geography of Osumi Province), it is believed that female attendants at Shinto shrines chewed and spat rice grains to brew saké for rituals. 

Well, there you have it. It seems to be the case that Japanese women were, most probably, responsible for early saké production. This continued for nearly a thousand years, with many historical account ledgers giving evidence of female saké makers claiming revenue and paying tax as a result of producing.

(Source - Unsplash)

But things changed and why did they? Like most social and cultural shifts, it’s complicated. We tend to think of modernity as freeing women from age-old oppressions and, in many modern day contexts, that’s true. But some historians argue that in Edo Japan, an early-modern period starting in 1603, taboos around women actually increased. As a result, female saké brewing disappeared and stayed so for 400 years. The reasons behind this are complex. The topic undoubtedly warrants a separate article and, I must admit, my lack of knowledge means that I would struggle to do it justice at this juncture. So I must hold up my hands and ask you to look into these questions yourselves, forming your own opinion.

In summary, in my quest to explore the role of women in the production of saké, it seems I’ve managed to uncover more questions. This, I admit, is somewhat frustrating; but let’s not forget that there is a silver lining to all of this. For it is 2021AD and we are witnessing the embers of a renaissance in women producing saké. If more people like Miho Imada can inspire change, then these embers can undoubtedly turn into fires that burn bright.