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Fukushima looks to top-tier sake to beat stigma, lift economy

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International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fact-finding team leader Mike Weightman examines Reactor Unit 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, May 27, 2011. -- REUTERS

IN AN AREA OF JAPAN still decimated by a nuclear disaster, sake is giving cause for hope.

For the past five years, the sake brewers of Fukushima, on a two-decade quest to develop premium products, have captured the most gold medals in a key national competition and have won numerous international awards. Drinkers worldwide have noticed the rising quality, with the result that sake exports from Fukushima have more than doubled since 2012.

Now the prefectural government and local brewers are promoting their success. The hope is that Fukushima’s championship sake — made from local rice and water — will serve as a symbol of the safety of local agricultural and fishery products and of the prospects for the prefecture’s broader revival.

“If we can show that Fukushima makes the best sake in the world, surely we can overcome the stigma,” said Hiroyuki Karahashi, the president of Homare Sake Brewery Co., which won first place in the sake category at the 2015 London International Wine Challenge.

Fukushima’s challenge is enormous. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that devastated the region in March 2011 killed 4,000 people in Fukushima alone. Many of the 50,000 people forced to leave their homes have no plans to return. The local economy has been largely propped up by reconstruction spending the years since, but that spending is expected to fall in the years to come.

Meanwhile, local companies still struggle with lingering public fears of radiation contamination. Only around 30% of businesses in the important fisheries and food processing sectors have seen their sales rise to pre-disaster levels, according to the nation’s reconstruction agency. 

All agricultural products from Fukushima — including every bag of rice — are tested for radiation using internationally accepted standards before shipment. Since 2015, no rice has registered radiation above the safety level, national broadcaster NHK has reported.

Still, 55 countries have some kind of restriction or requirement for additional documentation on imports of Fukushima products, according to Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Takahiro Ichimura, a director of trade promotion at the Fukushima Prefectural Government, who’s spearheading efforts on the sake promotion efforts, said the importance of ingredients in the sake should help change people’s perception of Fukushima.

“Water and rice are crucial,” he said. “Once Fukushima’s sake gains broader recognition and more people drink it, we think that overall appreciation for Fukushima should also increase.”

The surge in sake exports follows a plunge in consumption in Japan — by half over the past 20 years, as consumers broadened their tastes.

Fukushima is trying to increase sales in the US and Europe, including with promotional tours, Ichimura said. It has allocated ¥100 million ($880,000) this fiscal year to promote local sake at events in major cities in Japan and abroad, as well as at trade shows and promotional Web sites, in a campaign run by a private public relations agency. It plans to increase the budget 10% next year.

One event near Shimbashi station, a Tokyo business area teeming with salarymen, drew 30,000 people this year, up from 20,000 last year, according to the prefecture.

Behind the brewers’ recent success lies a shift in strategy toward premium products. Twenty years ago many of Fukushima’s breweries produced cheap sake that included distilled alcohol, earning them a poor reputation in Japan’s northeast, historically a major sake-producing region.

The prefectural sake academy, established in 1992, changed the game. The various breweries’ heirs came together there to pool their secret brewing techniques, raising the bar for the entire prefecture. At one three-century old brewery, the focus is now on using organic rice, while at another an older, more time-consuming technique to create yeast mash — a key ingredient — is being revived to improve flavor.

To be sure, changing Fukushima’s image will be a struggle. While Japan’s latest national budget included billions of yen for the purpose, 13% of Japanese respondents to a recent survey said they would hesitate before buying produce from Fukushima due to worries about radiation.

Ichimura remains optimistic.

“Fukushima’s sake is a symbol of its recovery,” he said. “It’s managed to achieve results despite the odds. My hope is that people will see this, and see how Fukushima is moving forward.” — Bloomberg