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Japanese sake producers reflect on four years of recovery to mark earthquake anniversary

Published:  10 March, 2015

Four years since the earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc across Japan, Anna Greenhous looks at how sake producers, some of whom were wiped out at the time, have rebuilt their industry and how sake has become a symbol for regeneration and hope in the country.

Broken sake bottles following the 2001 earthquake in JapanBroken sake bottles following the 2001 earthquake in Japan

Four years since the earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc across Japan, Anna Greenhous looks at how sake producers, some of whom were wiped out at the time, have rebuilt their industry and how sake has become a symbol for regeneration and hope in the country.

The massive earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, triggered a tsunami which swept inland leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. According to the Associated Press, approximately 19,000 people died and many thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. Sake breweries were particularly hard hit in the North-Eastern, Tohoku region in the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, with some being completely wiped out by the tsunami.

The damage couldn't have come at a worse time. By March, the breweries had made the majority of sake for the brewing season which was now maturing, and many were focused on making their most premium sakes which were fermenting in tanks.

Hundreds of breweries have also closed in recent decades as a result of a steep decline in sake consumption. Although sake is intrinsically a part of Japanese culture; used for religious offerings at Shinto shrines, shared between couples during wedding ceremonies and considered by many to be the national drink, consumption has sharply declined as it has fallen out of favour to other trends such as wine and beer.

In an already difficult market and in the aftermath of the earthquake, many of the breweries had to clean up, rebuild, replace damaged equipment, attempt to ship what they had and try to start up production again as soon as possible to survive.

Whilst this may not seem like the first priority when you consider the disaster in its entirety, many sake brewery owners felt a strong responsibility to ensure the people who worked for them still had a livelihood, as well as to ensure the family business and tradition of sake-brewing continued.

A large proportion of the breweries affected were family-owned having been continuously passed down from generation to generation for 100s of years.

Earthquake damage in KuraEarthquake damage in Kura

According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, in the worst hit areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, 93 of the 114 breweries were affected to varying degrees. Suisen, a brewery in Iwate which lay 2kms inland, was one of those hardest hit: the brewery was completely destroyed by the tsunami and 7 members of staff killed.

Urakasumi brewery in Miyagi suffered comparatively little damage, despite also being deeply affected. Set up in 1724 in Shiogama, a coastal city, Urakasumi has remained in the same family for 13 generations.

Urakasumi's president, Mr Saura, looks back at the life changing events of four years ago: "The tsunami came up to our knees at the front of the building, and up to our waists in the deepest parts inside the building. We lost 30,000 bottles of sake which were broken or soaked by the tsunami". Some machines and equipment suffered water damage too.

"Our fermenting tanks were made of a kind of glass-coated iron and these hit each other and broke". "Some of the earthern buildings, including the brewery are more than 100 to 130 years old and these were damaged" with the sides of the building falling off in some places.

Rebuilding effort

In terms of getting set up again "The main problem was the shortage of gasoline, plus the damage to the highway and the lack of electricity, especially during the evenings, which meant it was very dangerous to use the highways" and difficult to get new equipment and supplies. "Fortunately the electricity supply came back in four days, which was much faster compared to many other areas, although the network in the brewery was damaged so we needed to repair this carefully first" causing further delays.

The brewery was dirty from the tsunami water. "There was no water supply for about two weeks, so we couldn't clean up". [Once we had a water supply] "we had enough to start cleaning, but making sake uses a lot of water, so we didn't have enough to start making sake again."

Despite being in the peak of Ginjo, premium sake-making season, production had to be suspended, only resuming in September, the next brewing season, once extensive repairs had been done to the building, and equipment replaced.

Urakasumi was lucky to have a second brewery on a site not affected by the tsunami. Although it still suffered some damage from the earthquake and aftershocks which forced them to suspend production too, sake brewing resuming only in mid-April.

However, production wasn't the only problem. One of the most important times for drinking sake in Japan is the end of March to early April, when people across Japan celebrate the start of spring by drinking with family, friends and colleagues under the cherry blossoms. Understandably, a sombre mood instead prevailed and "people avoided drinking and enjoying sake because of the earthquake", it felt inappropriate to celebrate when so many people had lost so much. However, "this situation damaged the Japanese economy", in affect creating a second blow to the economy making the situation even worse.


Sake appeal after the tsunami

On YouTube, Nanbu Bijin, an affected brewery, was amongst producers who made a plea to the nation asking people to buy and consume goods from the damaged areas to support those affected . What followed was a dramatic turnaround. Urakasumi's president, Mr Saura, explained: "In Eastern Japan, more than 200 sake breweries were damaged more or less, some severely and this was shown on the news, so sake breweries became a symbol of recovery from the disaster and people started to buy and consume sake mainly from the damaged area".

Consumer support

Sake sales from the affected, Tohoku region rose as people showed their support by buying Tohoku produce. "Sake sales from all over Japan increased slightly compared to the previous year" which is remarkable when you consider the difficulties in both production and shipping, along with the sheer quantities of sake destroyed or spoilt during the disaster.

Furthermore, the message spread internationally, with demand sometimes exceeding supply. Mr. Saura is seen by many within the sake world as having been instrumental in spreading the word to support people from the affected regions by buying Tokohu produce. Typically humble, he says "I don't think I did such work", although he does admit to having spoken about it at the International Wine Challenge Awards dinner in London, a few months after the disaster.

In the short term, the support which both the Japanese and International community gave by buying and drinking sake from the Tohoku region helped sake breweries which may have otherwise gone out of business.

Mr Saura thinks there may have been a more lasting affect too: "Many who hadn't drunk sake previously discovered they liked it. So many magazines supported sake and recently many young sake makers and owners of breweries are starting to make new products. The industry has been revitalised."