Barrels of sacred sake at Meiji Jingu Shrine (Miguel Michán photo; Flickr link below)
Nihonshu, or sake as it is known to the rest of the world, is selling well overseas. According to a recent report by Mainichi newspaper, Ministry of Finance trade statistics for January to November exports indicate that more sake than ever before has been flowing out of the country. To be precise, 12,223 kiloliters of sake, breaking the record of set in 2008 of 12,151 kiloliters. An upturn in the global economy and an increase in interest in Japanese cuisine both seem to be factors driving the boom. Countries importing sake included the U.S., China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and North Korea.
“In truth, the trend has been going on for about 15 years or more,” sake expert John Gauntner said in a recent e-mail. “And every year a new record was set, until the Lehman Shock in ’08, and sales dropped again in ’09, only to rebound in 2010. There are a million things behind the long trend, but the gist of it all is that people overseas are finally coming to understand what good sake is all about. At the same time, more and more premium sake is becoming available as the distribution system realizes its potential. The big problem now is the exchange rate. If it were not for that the growth would be much, much better!”
The strong yen aside, the market growth has been phenomenal in South Korea. According to Sankei News, the country’s agriculture and fishery marketing corporation put the sake import market at $270,000 in 2000 but in 2009 this rose to $9,560,000. This rise is all the more astounding considering the fact that, due to heavy taxes, a bottle of sake in South Korea can cost three times as much as the same product in Japan.
The trend is driven by an increase in the numbers of Japanese-style pubs (izakaya) that have been popping up all over the country. Quite simply, when Koreans eat Japanese they also want to drink nihonshu. But it’s all part of a wider trend in South Korea that began around the time of the 2002 World Cup when many Koreans traveled to Japan and experienced Japanese culture (and vice versa). Young people are now keen to embrace Japanese culture and that includes not only its cuisine but also manga and anime.
The love is flowing both ways. As we reported previously, Korean pop culture is booming in Japan and appropriately, Korea’s sweet white alcoholic drink makkori has also proved to be a big hit with the nation. Part of the appeal of makkori is that it’s lower in alcohol than nihonshu and appeals to younger drinkers who find sake a little too strong for their taste … which provides impetus enough for nihonshu brewers to see new drinkers overseas.
Photo by Miguel Michan