Japan has a love affair with alcohol. Starting with their national liquor, sake, Japan has continued to expand its presence in the liquor market since, well, the advent of the liquor market. Scholars have found references to sake as far back as the Kojiki, Japan’s first written record. Since then, they’ve expanded their repertoire of alcohol manufacturing to include some of the world’s finest beers, whiskeys, and libations. So, with all of these wonderful alcohols just sitting around, waiting to be consumed, who do you think does the consuming? The answer, as it turns out, is everybody. Seriously. Everybody. There’s even “Kid’s Beer.”
This is the third in a series of posts concerning alcohol in various aspects of Japan’s culture. In this one, we’re covering alcohol’s beginnings in Japan and social import throughout the ages.
Japan’s earliest records mention nihonshu, or, literally, “Japanese alcohol.” There are very strict guidelines about what can be used in nihonshu, such as it must be distilled, it must be made from rice, and it must be made in Japan. Basically, as Americans, whenever we think of sake, we’re thinking of nihonshu. Now, though the making of nihonshu is pretty much the same, saying that to a Japanese guy would be like telling a French person that all wine was the same. Just because the process is pretty codified doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for differentiation. Just like wine, depending on the location, certain acceptable brewing styles, and ingredients, nihonshu can have a vastly different taste and body. Nihonshu varies more widely than wine, in fact, since differences in the brewing can include filtering the final product or leaving it in a cloudy, unfiltered state, or even changes in the process for nihonshu that is to be served hot instead of cold.
Nihonshu has been used throughout Japan’s history to celebrate all sorts of occasions, large and small. From harvest festivals to birthdays, celebrations, for the most part, aren’t complete without a little nihonshu splashed about. At weddings, ceremony stands upon the Kagami Biraki, a tradition where a fresh nihonshu barrel is split open in order to commemorate the occasion.
The problem, of course, is that the price for nihonshu is typically a little bit high since makers put so much time and effort into perfecting their recipes and brewing techniques. So what happens then? Do people just stop drinking because it got a little bit pricey? No! They made other alcohol! They threw out requirements that alcohol had to be derived from a certain kind of rice, and started using all kinds of other stuff like potatos, yams, buckwheat, and even OTHER KINDS OF RICE! The (comparatively) new stuff was called shochu, and started showing up around the 14th century in places like Okinawa and Kyushu. It was originally considered just the “poor man’s” nihonshu due to its higher alcohol content and cheaper ingredients. In light of this distinction, sales of shochu have typically remained low over the course of Japanese history, and it’s only since the 1980’s or so that the drink has become more popular.
Opening the door to new and different alcohols like shochu allowed the Japanese to become a little bit more open-minded by the time Westerners came to Japan with their own original and distinct alcohols. Of course, the Japanese are nothing if not innovative, and took it upon themselves to immediately put their own spin on the new alcohol they had available. However, that’s a post for next time.
Until then, keep eating/drinking the good stuff!