History of Sake: from the Imperial Palace to the Heart of Japanese Culture

Sake’s important cultural status in Japan is evident in the name commonly used for it in Japanese: nihonshu, or Japanese liquor. It is a beverage that has become as ingrained in people’s idea of the nation as sumo and sushi, linking itself in both obvious and subtle ways with Japanese culture and society. This article will look into the history of sake and its importance in the heart of the Japanese spirit.

Ippin Sake

How was sake invented?

Answering the question of how sake was developed requires defining what exactly sake is. Sake has a long tradition, and it has changed in style over the course of its history. Like many other Japanese traditions like tea and calligraphy, sake has its origins in China. Around 4,500 years ago, the first evidence of alcohol being produced from rice emerged in China’s Yellow River valley. This knowledge was then transferred to Japan some 2,000 years later along with rice cultivation. However, this was crudely made and unlike the refined, complex, and fragrant sakes that we know and love today.

While sake’s exact origins are unclear, its popularity in Japanese villages is well-recorded and it was a cornerstone of traditional village celebrations. One dominant theory about the origin of sake was that these villagers would get the village virgins to chew rice and spit the oozy mix into a bucket; the enzymes in their saliva would break down the starches into glucose and airborne yeast would help it to ferment. From the beginning, sake was always a way to praise and connect with the gods and it has maintained this link to spirituality ever since.

In the Heian period, over 1,000 years ago, the Imperial Court got a taste for this country brew and began to research it to a point of near obsession. They opened the first kura, or sake brewery, and set the court’s scientists the task of understanding the science behind it. In the 10th century, temples and shrines began to brew sake and, thanks to their bountiful supplies of rice, water, and a workforce in the form of monks, sake production stayed within temples for around 500 years, further cementing its link to the divine.

As technology improved, so did sake production techniques. In 1568, brewers begin to heat sake to remove “bad spirits”, effectively inventing pasteurization hundreds of years before Louis Pasteur. Other innovations include yeast strains being isolated for sake production in the late 19th century and the famous Yamada Nishiki sake rice being created in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that the so-called ginjo boom saw an explosion in refined special sakes being created initially for competition purposes. This saw new techniques being utilized, like rice being polished more than ever before to create aromatic and impressive beverages; a stark contrast to its birth as a spit-and-chew home brew thousands of years earlier.

Ippin Sake

How did sake become popular?

Since it was first produced in Japan, sake has been a way to connect with the gods, and it is with this spirit that it was celebrated and obsessed over in the Imperial Court and temples all over Japan. It is in part due to this link with the divine that sake has become popular, with the Shinto god of sake also being the god of rice and fertility, so farmers would sprinkle sake on their land to appeal to the gods for a good crop. The impact of sake can be seen in Shinto weddings, celebrations, and even business meetings, thanks to this fortuitous reputation.

There’s no doubt that sake was also popular due to its ingredients being easy to obtain. Rice, like sake, holds an important place in Japanese culture, and this is evident in the masu cups traditionally used to serve sake. In fact, a masu was originally used to measure a daily portion of rice, later falling out of fashion as people’s diets and appetites changed. Sake’s refinement by the Imperial Court and temples saw sake become further linked with religion and life in Japan. In the 16th century, sake producers began to pop up in villages all over Japan, with villagers supporting their local kura. Over time, and thanks to the quality of water in the areas, kura in Fushimi (in Kyoto) and Kobe became nationally renowned, with sake from these areas being bottled and transported all over the country for consumption. It was at this point that mass-produced sake was born, with no denying its national importance that continues to this day.

Ippin Sake

What is the importance of sake in Japanese culture?

You don’t need to look any further than the word “nihonshu” (literally Japanese liquor), commonly used in Japanese to refer to sake, to see its importance in Japanese culture. Its links with religion and spirituality have seen it become linked to both religious ceremonies and special celebrations, not to mention the Japanese military and mythology, being seen as the only drink worthy of the gods. One notable example is the sansankudo wedding tradition, where the couple sips sake from three different cups - one representing heaven, one earth and the other humanity - for good luck. Another common sight at a Shinto wedding, and many other celebrations in general, is a taru cask filled with sake being tapped; think of the equivalent of champagne. Another important tradition is o-toso spiced New Year’s sake. The sake is steeped in cinnamon, pepper, and sansho and is enjoyed by the entire family. Its name means “defeating evil spirits” and it is symbolic of putting the previous year’s problems behind you.

Its link to Japanese culture is also seen through its association with seasonal observations like hanami (blossom viewing), yukimi (snow viewing), and tsukimi (moon viewing), where different forms of sake are typically enjoyed, which vary with the seasons. But it’s not just traditional celebrations in which one can see the importance of sake. Not only does it have a long association with the Japanese military as an important sign of Japanese identity, but the premium ginjo sake boom coincided with the 1980s business boom that preceded Japan’s Lost Decades. As such, it was, and still is, consumed in business culture as a sign of bonding and trust. There’s an argument to be made that most businesses in the 1980s weren't done in the office blocks of Tokyo, but in the city’s izakayas.