Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Liquor’

Matsuri da! (139): Drunken elegance

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 26, 2012

DID you get well and truly sloshed over the long weekend that included Christmas Eve and Christmas? The percentage of Japanese slumped face down on the bar or snoring in their easy chairs was probably no larger than it would be for any other weekend, however. Christmas is a working day here, unless it falls on Saturday or Sunday.

drunken elegance

Besides, not everyone in this part of the world behaves badly when they redline on liquor. In fact, there’s a certain tradition of drunken elegance that’s been turned into a religious ritual and dance. It’s called the konju, which originated as an imitation of the movements of some Chinese guy in ancient times who got a snootful and started rambling. It arrived in Japan in 736, but doesn’t survive in its original form. That’s because it was modified during the reign of the Emperor Ninmyo, which places it somewhere in the early to mid-Eighth Century.

The dance is so elegant, in fact, it’s often performed at Shinto ceremonies throughout Japan. One example was its presentation at the Bugaku festival of the Hodaka Shinto shrine in Matsumoto, Nagano. The folks at the Hodaka shrine thought it would be fun to couple a traditional dance festival with their Daisengu Festival, which rolls around once every 20 years. The konju was part of the choreography.

The performance was held at a site just as elegant for its beauty. The backdrop was the 3,190-meter-high Mt. Okuhodaka in the Japanese Alps. The stage was placed next to a bridge and a pond.

Come clean, now — that’s not how you behaved at the office Christmas party, was it?

Here’s a performance of the dance at a different time and different place. He does look a bit ripped, doesn’t he?

Posted in Arts, China, Festivals | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Bloody good for you

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 24, 2012

FROM the front lines of scientific research in Japan comes some news that you can use for the holidays. Two pharmacologists, Oshima Shunji of the Asahi Lab Garden and Aizawa Koichi of Kagome, conducted a study that found the combination of alcohol and tomato juice stimulates the metabolism with the effect of accelerating sobriety and reducing or preventing hangover symptoms.

Dr. Oshima said the inspiration for the research came from his desire to enjoy after-work drinks with his colleagues and his knowledge that too much booze was bad for you. He wanted to discover what food consumed with alcohol had the most beneficial effects, and decided to start with vegetables.

After finding that vegetables didn’t do a whole lot, they said they thought of using tomatoes. Drinkers’ wisdom has it that tomatoes either prevent or quickly cure hangovers. Then there were the examples of the Bloody Mary and the Red Eye, which I had never heard of before reading this report.

The researchers started by giving the water-soluble constituents of tomatoes — i.e., tomato juice — and lycopene to mice, injected them with alcohol, and then measured the concentration of alcohol in their blood. The results inspired them to try a similar experiment with humans.

They give 12 healthy men tomato juice with 5% alcohol, and then shochu with 5% alcohol. Their measurements showed the tomatoes reduced the concentration of alcohol in the blood by 30%, accelerated the process of breaking up the alcohol in the body, and eliminated it from the system 50 minutes faster.

Those with the proper scientific detachment will be interested to learn that the water-soluble constituents of tomatoes activate the enzymes that break up the alcohol in the liver.

Everyone else will be interested to learn that Dr. Oshima’s employer makes Asahi beer, and Dr. Aizawa’s employer Kagome is a food product company whose primary products include tomato juice and catsup.

The two companies jointly sponsored the research. They were already very familiar with each other because they finalized a mutual shareholding agreement in February.

Now who says scientific research is dry!

Looks like these Tomato-chans knocked back a few Asahis before filming started.

Posted in Food, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 7, 2012

THE concept of Sinocentric culturalism — that China is the flower at the center of the world and Chinese behavior and etiquette is the correct form to which everyone else must be measured — is familiar to people outside of East Asia. Less well known is that the Koreans have their own version of it. That brand also involves looking down on the Chinese for being periodically corrupted by barbarian invasions, while the Korean brand remains pure.

One example of the manifestation of that belief is found in this previous post. It features an interview with Dankook University Prof. Kim Yong-un, who was born and grew up in Japan. He tells a story that is too infrequently heard: The overwhelming majority of Koreans who moved to Japan during the 1910-1945 period did so for the same reason most Europeans emigrated to the United States in past centuries. That was to seek a better life with a greater chance for affluence. Coercion was not a factor.

At the end of that post is a note that Prof. Kim planned to publish a book claiming that his research shows the Korean language is derived from the old Silla language, and that the Japanese language is derived from the old Baekche language.

Just before it was published, the Global Times of China ran an article that discussed the book and the professor’s research. His research subjects included the Samguk Sagi, or History of the Three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla), and a text in the old Goryeo language. The professor also claimed that Japan’s 26th emperor, Keitai (507-531), was also Konshi, the younger brother of the 22nd Baekje king.

The reaction of the Chinese public to the Global Times article was enlightening. They too are well aware of the claims of some Koreans that Confucius was Korean, the Koreans invented Chinese characters, and even that Christ was Korean. The Koreans have also registered the Dragon Boat Festival as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, though it is widely thought to have originated in China. Thus the Chinese share with the Japanese the recognition that the Koreans distort history to place themselves at the center of events or to suit their own purposes.

The Japanese thought it was entertaining to read the comments to the article submitted by the Chinese readers. They included:

* After China, Japan. Which country will be next?

* The Koreans really are creative. This is probably making the Japanese dizzy too.

* God in heaven is also probably Korean.

* The solar system was also a Korean invention.

* After reading this, I realized the Japanese-Korean merger was the right thing to do.

The problem with Prof. Kim’s research is that serious linguists have covered this same ground and reached conclusions that were less ethnocentric. Scholars of East Asian languages are aware of the areas of similarity between the Japanese and Korean languages, both in structure and some vocabulary elements. Here are the opinions of Iksop Lee and S. Robert Ramsey, linguists who wrote The Korean Language, published in 2000.

(T)he general structural characteristics of Japanese are almost identical to that of Korean. Concrete lexical and grammatical correspondences may be thin compared to this strikingly close structural resemblance, but there continues to be optimism about the possibility that the two languages might share a common genetic origin. The probability that Japanese belongs to the Altaic family is believed to be somewhat less than that of Korean. Even G.J. Ramstedt and N. Poppe,, who were enthusiastic advocates of a genetic relationship between Korean and Altaic, hesitated when it came to placing Japanese in the Altaic family. Moreover, there are also those who advocate a relationship with Austronesian for Japanese — a “southern hypothesis” as it were.


The significance of the Goguryeo language is that it seems to share vocabulary not only with Silla, on the one hand, but with Japanese, on the other hand. Because of the Japanese-like vocabulary of Goguryeoan, some foreign scholars have thought it likely to be a close relative or ancestor of Japanese, but that idea ignores the fact that much of the vocabulary is clearly Korean. The relationship that Goguryeoan had with Japanese lies tantalizingly beyond our grasp.

In other words, the linguists have been there and done that. Those linguists also include Japanese scholars, many of whom also suspect their language might be Altaic.

But none of them feel the need to wave the flag about it.

At least Prof. Kim takes a stab at scholarship. Not all Joseon-centric culturalists do. For an example, try this article from the weekly Shukan Post for 18 November.

“A portmanteau word has been created to define the concept that Japanese culture originates in Korea. This word is urijinaru, a combination of the Korean word uri (our) and original. This extends to all aspects of Japanese culture. Now that Japanese cuisine has become popular around the world, it extends to that as well.

“One recent claim is that Japanese sake has its roots in magkeolli, which is being aggressively promoted by some Korean restaurants (in Japan). That seems plausible at a glance, but Japanese sake was created from doburoku, and the history and fermentation processes of magkeolli and doburoku are different.

“Also, the Korean-language Wikipedia page for wasabi states that it was originally grown in Korea and is now cultivated near rivers in Korea and Japan.

“Said the South Korean news site Digital Times:

South Korean wasabi has a fragrance that is far superior to Japanese wasabi, which is well-known among Japanese chefs.

“This is of course nonsense, and wasabi is a variety of the plant that originated in Japan. But the South Koreans also claim that sushi is urijinaru, so they had to create this story about wasabi to make their story consistent.”

Now try to imagine if someone with that sort of attitude lived in your neighborhood, and how it might be to associate with them on a regular basis.

Posted in China, Food, History, Language, South Korea | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 27, 2012

MANY South Koreans continue to reveal in word and deed their lack of interest in better relations with Japan, and their antipathy to the idea itself. It doesn’t make any difference what the Japanese do — they’re not going to change.

The photo above shows one of several organized groups of demonstrators in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul last week. The demonstration was to protest the content of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s election pledges released on the 21st.

The LDP isn’t calling their promises a manifesto (British style). After the ruling Democratic Party congratulated themselves for bringing manifestoes to Japan, and then used theirs as toilet paper once they took office, manifesto has now become a dirty political word. But back to the story.

It was reported in South Korea that the LDP campaign pledges would “return Japan to a war criminal state that included far right-wing views which will completely repudiate (what today’s Koreans consider to be) the fact that the Japan-Korea merger was a war of invasion.”

I visited the LDP website and read the Japanese version of the document. (It’s not in English yet.) Under the Education category, the LDP promises to encourage students to take pride in traditional culture, to improve and revamp textbook screening, and to remove the “neighboring country clause” adopted in the 1980s for including considerations of the wishes of neighboring countries when editing textbooks.

There’s nothing in there about any repudiation of a “war of invasion”. (Which is not to say that there shouldn’t be, if that is cited in history textbooks.)

But telling the truth would deny a significant portion of South Korean society its favorite pastime. They just aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy about Japan.

Then again, this same element thinks Prime Minister Noda is also of the “extreme right”. That eliminates any possibility the Japanese will take what they say seriously.

No other governments at the time seemed to think it was a war of invasion, by the way. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt even thought it was an admirable example of the yellow man assuming the white man’s burden. Here’s an old map in English you’ll never see in South Korea. (It’s also worthy of note to compare the borders of China then with those of today.)

Here’s an excerpt from an Chosun Ilbo editorial that appeared on 22 November.

“The Liberal Democratic Party’s promise to elevate Shimane Prefecture’s Takeshima Day into a national event is proof that Japan has lost its reason. There are now concerns that if this is accompanied by a promise to deny the government coercion of comfort women, it will be impossible for Japan to return to a normal path. It is clear that this denial will not only anger China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. There is no one in Japan who can put the brakes on this. The LDP promises include the stationing of personnel on the Senkaku islets, which are the subject of a territorial dispute with China.

“The first South Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit was held in Fukuoka in December 2008, and it has continued every year since then. But if LDP President Abe becomes the next prime minister with these campaign promises, it will not be possible to continue these summits. The next prime minister, the next Korean president, and the Chinese prime minister will not be able to discuss together the future of Northeast Asia.”

* Hysteria is the only word that can be used to describe this.

* Taiwan, The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia will not be angered by any of this, because they haven’t been before. In fact, the Indonesians years ago told the Japanese human rights hustlers trying to establish the same comfort woman scam there to get lost. The only countries to get angry are the two trying to use historical issues for rent-seeking.

* What Japanese government personnel are stationed on what part of Japanese territory is certainly not the business of the Chosun Ilbo. But then this is from a country that can’t get it up to do anything when another country sinks its naval vessels or unleashes an artillery barrage on its territory, killing military personnel and civilians both.

* The three leaders will not be able to discuss the future of the region as long as two of them insist on reopening and discussing past issues that were resolved by treaty decades ago.

There has been for many years an official Japan-South Korea Legislators’ League to promote ties between the national legislators of both countries. Former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro was particularly active in the group.

The position of chairman on the Korean side has been vacant for six months, which is an unusual state of affairs. They finally got around to naming a new secretary-general, who is responsible for the actual liaison work with their Japanese counterparts.

The new man is Kang Chang-il, an opposition member of the assembly. In May 2011, he indulged in the Korean version of gesture politics by visiting the Northern Territories, the four small islands illegally seized by Russia after the Japanese surrender in the war.

And these are the people who are supposed to be most interested in creating stronger and friendlier governmental ties? With friends like these…

Now comes word that a Korean group in Detroit wants to erect a comfort woman memorial in that city, and are waiting for final authorization from the city to proceed. In addition to wondering who among the people remaining in that dying city will much care about it, one also wonders what the Koreans think they will accomplish other than poisoning bilateral relations into the future.

The only way to describe this is to say that some people seem to enjoy being aggressively obnoxious. That isn’t a good strategy for creating friendly relations with anyone. Even if people not directly involved aren’t the immediate object of that obnoxious behavior, they realize on some level that it could just as easily be directed at them someday.

The Japanese Cabinet Office released the results of their periodical survey of the public’s views of foreign affairs. Here are some of them.

Do you feel friendly to South Korea?

Yes: 39.2%, down 3.0 points from the previous survey

No: 59.0%. This percentage is higher than the one for yes for the first time since 1999.

How would you characterize bilateral relations?

Bad: 78.8%, a 42.8-point increase

Good: 18.4%

They also asked the same questions about China.

Do you feel friendly to China?

Yes: 18.0%, down 8.3 points from the previous survey. It is the lowest percentage since the question was first asked in the poll in 1978.

No: 80.65, a record high

How would you characterize bilateral relations?

Bad: 92.8%, a 16.5-point increase

Good: 4.8%, down 14 points.

There are at least two conclusions that can be drawn from these results.

The first is that one out of every 20 people you encounter might as well be living in a different galaxy. They sure aren’t paying attention to events in this one.

The other is that the Japanese are reaching, if not past, their limit of tolerance for Korean and Chinese behavior.

As this previous post indicated, new varieties of the Korean alcoholic beverage makgeolli have become popular in Japan in recent years, mostly among women. South Korea shipped 39,000 tons of the hooch to Japan in 2011, an increase of 2.5 times from the previous year.

That isn’t happening this year. South Korean customs reported that makgeolli exports for the January – September period so far this year totaled 21,743 tons. That’s a 28.6% decline in volume from the same period in the year before, and a 28.0% drop in value.

South Korean attitudes and behavior aren’t leaving a good taste in people’s mouths. It’s getting harder to get makgeolli past the throat in those circumstances.

NHK-TV has decided not to invite any K-pop performers for its famous New Year’s Eve musical program, Kohaku Uta Gassen. Three groups appeared last year, and those three are still performing in Japan, but the network decided they would not be conducive to creating a relaxing and pleasant atmosphere for the holidays.

The big attraction this year will be actor/singer Tachi Hiroshi singing a medley of the late actor/singer Ishihara Yujiro’s hits. As a young man, Mr. Tachi was associated with Ishihara’s production company, Ishihara was the leading male star of his generation, and he was the younger brother of Ishihara Shintaro.

Here’s a video of cluelessness on a level approaching that of Joseph Biden. A South Korean man is performing parlor tricks with alcoholic beverages for the amusement of an international audience. He gives the tricks the generic title of “bomb liquor”.

About three minutes in, he performs what he calls the Hiroshima trick. It forms a boozy mushroom cloud. The Japanese ambassador is in the audience.

Then again, maybe it isn’t Bidenesque. Biden is a cloth-headed demagogue. This guy just doesn’t care.

Posted in China, History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (132): Mugi, bakushu, and maekju

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

MOST Japanese festivals are several hundred years old and conducted at Shinto shrines that are usually much older.

But there are exceptions. One is a festival created this year and held for the first time last Saturday by the Koma Shinto shrine in Hidaka, Saitama. It’s called the Festival of Gratitude for Mugi and Prayer for Manju, and that’s a poster advertising it at the top. Mugi is the general term for barley, wheat, rye, oats, and other grains in the poaceae family. It’s been grown in Hidaka and the western part of Saitama for a long time. Manju are buns with a variety of fillings. Most often it’s bean paste, but there are many varieties, including those packed with meat and even cream custard. The first manju was brought to Japan from China in 1341, where they are also still eaten.

The priests offered a prayer for the bountiful sales of mugi products, and they gave a manju to everyone who came for good luck. To help promote those bountiful sales, there were booths offering a selection of delights, including the locally popular kinchakuda manju, made with wheat flour, Saitama’s own bean paste, and chestnuts. Inoue Hiroshi, the head of the Kawagoe (city) cultural treasure protection council, delivered a special address. Mr. Inoue spoke on Japan’s Wheat Manju, Past and Present.

The Mugi Culture Gratitude Festival Committee sponsored the event as one of the first activities to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of Koma-gun. (A gun is roughly equivalent to a county.)

Koma-gun was founded by refugees from Goguryeo on the Korean Peninsula. An ancient Korean kingdom, Goguryeo was the loser in a battle against an alliance of the Korean Silla Kingdom and Tang Dynasty China in 668. Koma is written as 高麗 in kanji, which are the same characters used for the Goryeo dynasty of Korea that lasted from 918 to 1392. Goryeo is the origin of the name of Korea, and is derived from Goguryeo. Koma was also used as a synonym for Korea long ago in Japan.

In fact, the Saitamanians think the newcomers established a Goguryeo court in exile there before giving it up and assimilating. One of the first to arrive was Koma no Jakko, an envoy from the court who showed up in 666. He might have been a member of the royal family known by a different name. His spirit is one of the three tutelary deities at the Koma shrine.

Goguryeo is said to have been a grain-producing area. The theme of the new festival is to celebrate the common food culture between the two areas and to remind everyone of the local grain-based foods.

The shared food culture hasn’t traveled on a one-way street. The Japanese introduced Koreans to another popular grain-based product in the first half of the 20th century: beer. Here’s an excerpt from Exploring Korea, a travel guide:

Beer is called Mekchu (맥주) in Korean. The Germans introduced beer to many Asian countries and helped countries such as China and Japan set up breweries and develop brewing techniques. When the Japanese colonized Korea they introduced beer and opened breweries to produce beer for the local elites.

Considering the wealth created on the peninsula and the increase in incomes over all social levels, I don’t know about that “elites” part, but let’s continue. The site has capsule summaries of the three South Korean mass market brewers. Here’s one:

Hite Brewing Company was founded in 1933 and was originally under Japanese ownership during the occupation of Korea. When the company began it was called Chosun Beer but later changed to Hite after gaining independence from Japan.

Chosun Beer was a subsidiary of Dainippon Beer (大日本麦酒株式会社), and was half-owned by local interests. Dainippon was created in Japan in 1906 through the mergers of the companies that made what are now Asahi, Sapporo, and Yebisu beers. It was split into separate units again after the war. Hite was founded in 1933, but didn’t start shipping until 1934.

The reason I provided the company name in characters was to show this part: 麦酒. That seems to have been pronounced biiru in the Dainippon name, and it literally means mugi liquor. The characters themselves were already in use for an older form of proto-beer in Japan and pronounced bakshu in that application.

The characters are also the source for the Korean word maekju, which is the Korean reading of bakushu. The Chinese call beer 啤酒, which is pijiu in Mandarin and bijiu in Cantonese. These days they often dispense with the second character. The first seems to have been a new creation/coinage when beer arrived in China. It’s a combination of 口, or mouth, which is used as a classifier, and another character also known in Japan that means low, base, or common.

OB is the second of the Big Three beer companies in South Korea. That brewery was founded in 1952 by what is now the Doosan conglomerate, but the company had already existed in a different form as Showa Beer, whose major shareholder was Kirin.

Koreans enjoy getting worked up over what they perceive as the faulty Japanese awareness of history and lack of recognition of their contributions to Japanese culture. The case could easily be made, however, that the opposite is closer to the truth. No one in Koma-gun, Saitama, is ignoring history, and one of the Korean county fathers is venerated in the local Shinto shrine. That’s not an isolated example, either: They do the same in Arita, Saga, to honor a key figure in the ceramics culture.

For contrast, allow me subject you to this Wikipedia article called Beer in Korea. Either some boy needs to do his homework, or his teachers gave him bad homework assignments. My guess is the latter.

The Japanese still make bakushu in special circumstances, such as proto-beer festivals at Shinto shrines. Here’s a look at one held annually at the Soja shrine in Koka, Shiga. They started in 1441. The shrine makes three types, and the captions in the video say they are sweet.

Posted in Agriculture, Festivals, Food, Foreigners in Japan, History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (60)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Scenes from the National Sake Barrel Tug of War Championships held at the end of last month in Nagaoka, Niigata. The event started in 1965, and nine male and five female teams participated this year. Each match was divided into three rounds, and the winner was the first team to win two rounds.

Note the paper folded into a zigzag shape on top of the barrels. That’s called a shide, and is used to denote a sacred space in Shinto.

The photo above comes from the Hibi Zakka website

Posted in Photographs and videos, Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 8, 2012

CLICK on the Food category on the left sidebar and you’ll discover that the Japanese enjoy experimenting with different fruits and vegetables as substitutes for the standards in all sorts of dishes, including snack foods and beverages. One part of this post, for example, presents the strawberry sake made in Shimanto, Kochi.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the people outside of Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Yoshihara Hideo has created and is selling a craft beer made from strawberries. Mr. Yoshihara quit his day job at a company at the age of 55 and decided he wanted to spend his days growing the fruit. He chose the Natsuotome variety developed by the prefecture’s agricultural research institute that reaches maturity in the summer and fall. After studying strawberry cultivation on his own, he built two greenhouses to produce them seven years ago, and is now the only man in town growing Natsuotome.

One of the characteristics of that variety is a hint of acidity inside the sweetness, and Mr. Yoshihara thought they might be suited for a beer that would appeal to the feminine palate. Well, it’s technically a low-malt beer-like sparkling beverage, because it doesn’t conform to the legal requirements for beer. No matter what it’s called, the function is surely identical.

Plenty of people like it. He made 700 bottles for sale through a liquor store last year and unloaded them all. Now he plans to make 1,000 this year. The alcohol content is 5%, and each 330 ml bottle costs JPY 600. That’s close to double what a regular bottle of beer that size would sell for.

If you’re in Japan and the idea of strawberry beer has you salivating, call the Yoshidaya liquor store in Tochigi at 0288-54-0167, and they’ll probably find a way to get you some.

Some years ago, Kuwata Keisuke and the Southern All Starts had a radio hit with a song called Melody, in which the singer praises his “hot strawberry lady”. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which are the adjectives and which are the nouns in that title. A cold strawberry beer and a hot strawberry lady sound as if they’d be an excellent combination, don’t you think?

No SAS version on YouTube, but here’s the Southern Band doing it live in Okinawa.

Posted in Food, New products | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (140)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Do you know what day 15 August is? That’s right — it’s the day the Kirin Challenge Cup 2012 starts! There’s also the Kampai Goal, in which participants can win a case (24 350-milliliter bottles) of Kirin’s Ichiban Shibori. We’re now testing it, so give it a try!

– Kirin Beer advertisement from last week

15 August is the date of the Japanese surrender in the war, which even the youngest schoolchildren know.

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Popular culture, Quotations | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Small beer and bigger government

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 23, 2012

“To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.”
— William Shakespeare, (Othello, ii.1)

AFTER the law governing the types of stores that were allowed to sell alcoholic beverages was amended in 1989, large discount stores wasted no time in stocking their shelves with booze. As a result, consumers became less interested in paying the suggested retail prices, which led to greater price competition. But taxes accounted for 46.5% of the price of beer, making it difficult to discount. Therefore, the large discounters started importing and selling cheaper beer from overseas. Japan’s brewers became alarmed.

The brewers set to work to create a product that could still be sold as something resembling beer, but which contained less than 67% malt. A beverage with that percentage of malt or higher was classified as beer for tax purposes. Their problem was to come up with something drinkable. Low-malt beer products were already available, but they had only a 5% market share despite their lower price.

In October 1994, Suntory launched sales of its Hops product. Containing 65% malt, the arrival of the new beverage marked the creation of the market for happoshu, a term that was officially translated as sparkling spirits. The term low-malt beer also works.

In May 1995, Sapporo began selling a product called Drafty that contained less than 25% malt, which placed it in the lowest tax category. The brewers kept beavering away to improve the taste of the products, and sales started rising. As a result, the government amended the law to tax happoshu at the same rate as beer if the malt content was at least 50%.

The new tax rate took effect in the fall of 1996. The brewers complained that it denigrated their product development efforts. But then Suntory developed a product with less than 25% malt in May 1996 to beat the new tax. They called it Super Hops.

The market for happoshu expanded further when industry leader Kirin began offering products. Asahi was the last holdout and refused to make any because they claimed it was ersatz beer. They changed their mind in 2001 when all their new real beer products developed in the interim fizzled.

These beverages accounted for 48.2% of the beer market in April 2003, up from a 37.2% share the previous year. The government raised their taxes by 10 yen a can in May. The producers’ response was two-fold. First, they shifted their emphasis from price to value, volume to quality, and market share to profit. Second, they stepped up development of the beer-like beverages with less than 25% malt content. The industry refers to these drinks as the “new sector”, but the mass media coined the phrase “third beers”.

They also started developing beer-like products with no malt at all, which are sometimes referred to as “fourth beers” and are classified as liqueurs. Some of those beverages are made with soy peptides or corn. One is made with green beans and sugar cane. They can’t legally be called beer, but the producers get around that by using words with beer connotations in their names. The first of these products was Sapporo’s Draft One in 2004.

As a result of the greater consumption of third beers and non-alcoholic beer, the market for happoshu started cratering in the late 2000s. Third beer outsold happoshu for the first time in 2008, and the market share of the latter fell to 15.4% in 2011. Asahi, Suntory, and Sapporo said they would cut back production of, but not eliminate, their happoshu products because customers had become loyal consumers of some brands.

The National Tax Agency raised the tax on third beers by 3.8 yen a can in 2006, while reducing it by 0.7 yen per can on regular beer to mollify the industry. The government also changed the laws governing the materials used in the development of these beverages to prevent the creation of new beer-like products using different ingredients.

Of course the industry as a group has been conducting market surveys of consumer preferences and product awareness. They put the results of one survey on line (in Japanese, in PDF files).

One question they asked of consumers was their reason for drinking certain products. Here are the primary responses, with multiple answers possible.

Real beer
It tastes good (73.0.%)
It makes me feel good (53.8%)

It’s cheap (73.8%)
It tastes good (36.8%)
The taste and quality have improved (25.8%)

Third beer
It’s cheap (84.4%)
It tastes good (39.4%)
It’s easy on the household budget (28.7%)

Further, 74% of the respondents didn’t know that the tax rate for happoshu was higher than that of other low-alcohol products apart from beer, such as pre-mixed cocktails and chuhai beverages. Broken down by sex, that was 80% of women and 67% of men, in a category primarily targeting women.

In fact, when asked to estimate the actual percentage of taxes on beer, happoshu, and third beer, respondents underestimated the rate by roughly 10 percentage points in all three categories.

Remember that Suntory was the first beer company to develop a happoshu beverage in 1994? By now you can already guess what they announced last week:

Suntory Holdings Ltd. plans to stop producing and selling happoshu low-malt quasi-beer, becoming the first major brewer to exit the happoshu market.

The firm finished producing its core happoshu product, “MD Golden Dry,” in June, and all of its happoshu products should disappear from stores by autumn…

Regarding Suntory’s shipments of beer and beer-like beverages in the first half of 2012, it sold 470,000 cases of happoshu, which is 40.4 percent down from the same period last year, and happoshu accounted for only 1.6 percent of shipping volume. One case is equivalent to twenty 633-liter bottles…

With the move, Suntory seems to be intensively allocating funds to its premium beer, including “The Premium Malt’s.

The information in this post confirms about a half-dozen basic laws of economics and handsomely validates the functioning of the paradigm that is the market.

It also demonstrates that the public sector is, as always, incapable of putting two and two together, and that their inability to add results in subtraction. In the quotation at the top of the post, the character Iago is referring to women. Nowadays, his observation is more applicable to the revenuers and G-men everywhere.

Kirin used everything but the kitchen sink to promote one of their ersatz beers. The song is performed by the Candies, three young women who appear briefly in a film clip at the end.

But Seto Asaka is more to the taste of the younger generation in this add for Super Hops.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, New products | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Japan’s back pages

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 4, 2012

THE Japan that emerges in stories printed below the fold and in the back pages of newspapers, or on less frequently accessed news websites, is a different place than that presented in the industrial mass media. Here are some stories that demonstrate why.

Water business

The phrase “water business” in Japan is usually a euphemism for the enterprises conducted in entertainment districts at night, particularly drinking establishments.

But most people outside the region are unaware that Japan is a global leader in another sort of water business — that for the technology used in water supply and sewage systems. In fact, a paperback was published a few months ago with the premise that Japan is the global leader in water technology systems. Whether that claim is true or not, several entities in the country have established a reputation for expertise in the sector, and they are working to expand their operations.

For example, the Fukuoka City government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for joint research in water supply and treatment.

The Kyushu city developed the technology for reusing waste water from the necessity to deal with its own chronic water shortages. They became so successful that they now want to make a paying business of it. Fukuoka City was also the first municipality in Japan to process waste water for use as water in the toilet, and they also are known for building a network of tunnels that carry off the water from the heavy summer rains to prevent flooding.

Meanwhile, the growth of the economy and the population in Vietnam strained that nation’s water systems infrastructure, and they chose to look to Japan for help. In fact, the city of Haiphong is already working with the city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City’s neighbor, to prevent leakage from their water supply systems.

Kitakyushu has been active in this sector in Cambodia for some time. As of last December, they were serving as the technical consultants for water technology in nine Cambodian cities, and last month they began helping two other cities in that country to expand their water supply systems.

Fukuoka City is also involved in the water business in Burma. The Water Department dispatched a technician to Rangoon last month to conduct surveys and provide guidance, and they’ll send a full team later. The Burmese government also sent one of their technicians to Fukuoka City for training.

Apart from altruism, one objective is to increase the opportunities for local businesses to receive contracts from the Southeast Asian countries for infrastructure improvements. The Fukuoka City project in Burma is being conducted in tandem with the UN Habitat Fukuoka office. That organization is particularly interested in water purification and desalinization systems.

Rare Earth

The temporary Chinese suspension of rare earth metal exports during the standoff over the Senkakus in the fall of 2010 certainly got the attention of Japanese industry.  They wasted no time to start looking for new sources for the metals that couldn’t be used as a political weapon. For example, it was announced earlier this week that imports of rare earth metals would soon begin from India. Also, Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co. and Kurume-based Shibata Sangyo have teamed to launch the world’s first business for recovering and recycling the rare earth metal tantalum from discarded electronic products. Tantalum is used primarily as a material for condensers in PCs and Smartphones, but all of it is imported. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry estimates that recovering the tantalum from products discarded in Japan in a year would yield about 64 tons, accounting for 14% of the amount used here annually. Fukuoka Prefecture and Mitsui plan to commercialize the recycling technology and to create a structure that enables electronics parts manufacturers to procure the metal without concerns of interrupted supply.

More than a year ago, Japanese researchers announced they had produced the first artificial rare earth metal, an alloy similar to palladium. That metal is essential for making electronic parts, and is also used as a catalyzer to clean exhaust gas. While their method is not feasible for the commercial production of palladium, the researchers intend to apply it to create other alloys as rare earth substitutes. They say they’ve begun joint research projects with automobile manufacturers, but are keeping the details under the hood for now.


A ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, in Yufuin, Oita, will generate electricity from the hot springs on the site using a 70 kW generator that Kobe Steel put on the market last fall. They plan to sell some of the power generated to Kyushu Electric Power through the system for the sale of renewable energy at a fixed cost that will begin in July. Kobe Steel says that if the power is sold at JPY 20 per kW, the spa could recover the costs by 2015.


Japanese astronomers using a Hawaii-based telescope said last month they had discovered a “proto-cluster” of galaxies 12.72 billion light-years away from Earth. They claim that’s the most distant cluster ever discovered, which would also make it one of the first structures formed by the Big Bang.

“This shows a galaxy cluster already existed in the early stages of the universe when it was still less than one billion years into its history of 13.7 billion years,” the team of astronomers said in a press release.

But the discovery may already have been superseded.

Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have previously announced the discovery of a possible cluster of galaxies around 13.1 billion light-years from Earth, but that has not yet been confirmed, the Japanese researchers said.


What Japanese women call with a smirk the “bar code” — the hair style created by follically deficient men, otherwise known as a combover in the English-speaking world — may, along with toupees and implants, be obsolete a decade from now:

Japanese researchers have successfully grown hair on hairless mice by implanting follicles created from stem cells, they announced Wednesday, sparking new hopes of a cure for baldness.

Led by Professor Takashi Tsuji from Tokyo University of Science, the team bioengineered hair follicles and transplanted them into the skin of hairless mice.

The creatures eventually grew hair, which continued regenerating in normal growth cycles after old hairs fell out.

The process has the potential for applications greater than flattering oneself in the mirror, however:

Tsuji and his researchers found hair follicles can be grown with adult stem cells, the study said.

“Our current study thus demonstrates the potential for not only hair regeneration therapy but also the realisation of bioengineered organ replacement using adult somatic stem cells,” it said.

Stop the snickering, ladies — before long another recent discovery in Japan might produce more satisfying answers when you interrogate the mirror about the fairest of them all.

Two different teams of university researchers have found the gene that causes freckling and skin blotches after exposure to the sun. One team was from Osaka University (working with cosmetics manufacturer Kanebo), and the other team, using different methods, combined researchers from Nagasaki and Kumamoto universities.

Both groups focused on ultraviolet hypersensitivity, a rare condition of which only five cases are known in the world. The condition was first identified in 1981 in Japan, but little effort was put into treatment because the only problem it causes is sunburn. The Osaka-Kanebo group inserted mouse chromosomes in the nuclei of cells from two patients with the condition to determine which would provide better protection to ultraviolet rays. Exposure to the rays would prevent multiplication of the cells, which would die after six weeks, but cells with the new chromosome were resistant to ultraviolet rays.

Crab computing

Here’s a story that made a lot more sense after spending the past week trying to make sense of the functions on my new PC:

A team of scientists from Japan and England have built a computer that uses crabs as information carriers, to implement basic circuits of collision-based computing.

The explanation:

Researchers at Japan’s Kobe University and the UK’s University of the West of England, Bristol, found that when two swarms of soldier crabs collide, they merge and continue in a direction that is the sum of their velocities. This behaviour means that swarms of crabs can implement logical gates when placed in a geometrically constrained environment.


The swarms were placed at the entrances of the logic gates and persuaded to move by a shadow that fooled them into thinking a predatory bird was overhead. Results closely matched those of the simulation, suggesting that crab-powered computers are possible.

The experiment builds on a previous model of unconventional computing, based on colliding billiard balls.

That set the author of the article to wondering:

The paper’s authors did not say whether public money was used to fund their experiments.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem as if the experiment would be so expensive that a university couldn’t fund it on its own. The author might be suggesting that futzing around with crab-powered computers is a frivolous enterprise with no apparent application, but there might be some there there.  Explains Josh Rothman:

What’s the point? Increasingly, computer scientists are interested in the ways that natural systems solve computing problems. Often, they do so in surprising (and surprisingly effective) ways. Other researchers have investigated the ways in which honeybees compute the most efficient route through a field of flowers (see a well-reasoned take on that research here); one of the crab-computer researchers, Andrew Adamatzky, has been exploring the possibility of slime-mold computing. Future generations of computers, they argue, may well be inspired by nature.


The Moji Customs Office in Kyushu reports that the value of beer exported through the Port of Hakata in 2011 totaled JPY 1.225 billion, an increase of 6.3 times from the previous year. The volume of exports totaled 10,960 kiloliters, a year-on-year increase of 9.2 times. That set a record, and it was the first new record in 10 years. South Korea accounted for 57% of the exports, and there’s a story behind that. Premium Japanese beer has become popular in that country, which is closer to the Port of Hakata (also in Kyushu) than to Tokyo. Sapporo also established a sales company in South Korea last June. And don’t forget that the Japanese built the first breweries on the Korean Peninsula to begin with when the two countries were merged a century ago.

Does this mean tastes are changing in South Korea? The mass market beer in that country may be even weaker and thinner than the adult soft drink that pretends to be beer in the United States. That’s perhaps due to the robust and hearty nature of Korean food, with its industrial grade spices. It would make sense that people preferred something less intense to wash it all down with.

Hand grenade hotline

To conclude, here’s something I’ll bet nobody expected. The Fukuoka police became the first police department in the country to institute a hot line for tips on hand grenades. They’ll pay JPY 100,000 for each hand grenade found or confiscated as a result of a tip.

Concerns have been growing lately over the use of hand grenades to attack companies or in gang fights. Hand grenades were used in six incidents in the prefecture last year, the most in the country. Rewards will also be given for the discovery of homemade bombs. They’re serious — the police have printed 2,000 posters and 5,000 flyers.

They’d better be serious if gangs are bringing grenades to a gunfight.


This clip of an English-language news report provides further info on the changing Joseon tastes for beer. They mention that 60 brewpubs have been established (by then) in South Korea since laws were relaxed in 2002. Pardon the goofiness with the Youtube link.

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Considering (a) that microbrewing had already taken off in Japan at that time, and (b) the substantial but largely unacknowledged influence that Japan still has on Korean culture, it is quite possible that the Korean laws were changed after the Koreans sampled some of the Japanese beverages.

Not that they’d ever admit it.


Here’s another change: When I arrived in Japan in 1984, most funerals were still conducted in the home of the deceased. Now, however, they’re usually held in funeral parlors.

I attended a funeral in one of those establishments a week ago today for a pleasant man who passed away at the age of 86. I’ve been to enough of them by now to be familiar with the customs, but I was intrigued when I recognized the song the pianist was playing just before the service started: Hana (Flower), by Okinawan roots rocker Kina Shokichi. It is interesting to reflect on which things eventually become accepted as part of the common culture. No English translation can do the lyrics justice, so I won’t even try, but the song works in that context.

Here are three different versions spliced into one video.


Posted in Business, finance and the economy, International relations, New products, Science and technology, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (121): Hanging the sake balls

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 14, 2011

EVERYONE who’s seen a movie whose action takes place aboard a naval vessel knows the phrase, “The smoking lamp is lit”. It originated in the era of wooden sailing ships, when preventing fires was the first order of business and permission to smoke was signaled by lighting a lamp hanging at the forecastle.

Years ago, the sake establishments in Kyoto had a similar signal that must have been more eagerly awaited by landlubbers and swabbies alike. The proprietors of those establishments hung a ball made of leaves from the Japanese cedar to announce that a new batch of sake was finished and ready to be poured down the hatch.

Nowadays all that’s required is to look for a tavern where the exterior lights are still on and the noren (shop curtain) is suspended over the door, but the custom of leaf ball hanging still lives at the Matsuo Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. In fact, a male parishioner put up three last week — one at the main building, one at the administrative office, and one at the storehouse where the mikoshi, or portable shrine for the deity, is kept.

This is a Shinto event, after all, so of course they’ve maintained the liquor connection. The balls are hung from the eaves with care as part of the Jo’u Festival held at the shrine every autumn in supplication for the safety of the sake brewers. As every devout worshipper knows, the first commandment for getting righteously ripped is divine protection for the brewers.

The sake/Matsuo Taisha link is a very long one. A shrine was first established on the current site in 701 — note the triple digits — though they didn’t settle on the Matsuo name until 1950. It’s associated with the Hata clan, a prominent immigrant clan whose origins are in China and who are thought to have come to Japan from Korea in the 3rd Century. According to the barroom scuttlebutt, one of the jewels of continental culture the Hatas brought with them was sake brewing techniques. The shrine’s association with grog in the popular imagination is at least several centuries old: It’s mentioned in that connection in a kyogen comedy from the 16th century.

In an interesting turnabout, the ball of leaves was originally hung as part of the festival to denote the start of a new sake batch, rather than its completion. The heavenly spheres are about 60-70 centimeters in diameter, and they’re made from the trees in a grove at nearby Nantan. The festival itself has been expanded to include the manufacturers and wholesalers of other fermented food items, such as soy sauce and miso paste. This year, representatives of about 50 companies showed up to receive their blessings.

What do they give in return? Take a look at that wall of sake barrels in this brief video to see.

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Posted in Festivals, History, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Hashigo in Hakodate

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 12, 2011

BAR-HOPPING is a casual affair for most people — they meet at one joint and when the spirits move them, they decide where they’ll hop next. Most Japanese boozers make their choices the same way, but here they don’t hop from one place to another. They climb the ladder — the expression used is hashigo-zake, hashigo being a ladder.

Up north in Hakodate, however, they’ve turned liquor ladder climbing into an official event, with a schedule and a pre-determined itinerary. The logistics are made easier because there’s a district in town called Bar-gai, where many eating and drinking establishments are concentrated. Groups throughout the country thought that was a splendid idea, so the Hakodate Bar-gai Executive Committee decided to hold the first national Bar District Conference on Saturday for everyone to share their experiences. Roughly 100 people from 18 different regions showed up, including Fukuoka City and Itami, Hyogo.

The meeting included a panel discussion, during which the representative from Itami reported that their 2009 event, Itami Machi Naka Bar, sparked similar expeditions in 23 other locations in the Kinki region. Another participant was Ide Osamu, the director of Idea Kyushu-Asia, a non-profit involved in activities to promote tourism. One of those activities is Barwalk Fukuoka. Said Mr. Ide: “It’s important to maintain the quality and community spirit of bar districts.”

I’ll say! It’s also important to maintain your balance so you don’t fall off the ladder during a Saturday night of bar-hopping! The participants at this conference had a more sober outlook, however. After the morning meeting, everyone went out for lunch instead of out ladder climbing.

The idea of an organized bar-hop in general, and a non-profit sponsoring an evening of bacchanalia in particular, will make a lot more sense once you’ve seen a video of the 2008 Hakodate barwalk. No sawdust, peanut shells, or air hockey tables here. They even chose a nice place for the customary ramen shop stop on the way home.

And of course Idea Kyushu-Asia has a Japanese-language website.

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Mikan liquor-ish

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 11, 2011

ONE of the classic scenes of Japanese domestic life in the winter is a family seated around the kotatsu (a low wooden table with a futon around the sides and a heat source underneath), drinking green tea and snacking on the tasty citrus fruit known as mikan. As easy to peel as a tangerine but with more heft, the mikan is sometimes known as the mandarin orange or Satsuma orange in English. It is by far the mostly frequently eaten citrus fruit in Japan; statistics for 2006 show that per capita consumption of oranges was roughly 585 grams, while that for mikan was 4.55 kilograms.

Its ancestor came to Japan from China centuries ago through the port at what is now Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, but it’s generally accepted that the variety now grown and eaten in Japan is a hybrid created in Kagoshima. That’s based on the research of the late Prof. Tanaka Chozaburo, who spent his life studying the mikan, and who identified 159 seed varieties in the same genus. Mikan groves are most likely to be found in Shikoku and Kyushu, with Wakayama accounting for 19% of the national production, but there are orchards as far north as Kanagawa and Chiba, both of which border the Tokyo Metro District.

Mikan are most often consumed raw or in juice, but with overall consumption declining, the city of Arida, Wakayama, started looking for ways to boost demand for their local variety. It took two years, but local growers and processors working with a Nagano winery succeeded in developing a wine and a liqueur made from the fruit.

One of the people who worked on the project was Takano Yutaka of the Japan Sommelier Association. Mr. Takano said it was difficult because mikan have less sugar than grapes. They froze the juice first in the same process used to make ice wine, extracted the part with the high sugar content, and let it ferment for six months. The beverage is said to retain the fruit’s original aroma and tartness, as well as being thick and very sweet. Tipplers can down it straight, with ice, or with carbonated water, and all of this is starting to sound as if it’s being marketed primarily to young females.

The Wakayamanians have produced 1,500 bottles of wine, called Himekibana, priced at JPY 3,150 yen, and 3,000 bottles of the liqueur, known as Kahorikibana, sold for JPY 1,050 yen. If you’re in Japan, you can buy it at the larger Aeon stores and on the Internet. And if you read Japanese you can roll on over to the mikan page of JA, the agricultural cooperative, as well as the page of the Japan Sommelier Association.

I don’t think I’d be interested in drinking it more than once, but it does seem to have the potential for becoming a nice sherbet, doesn’t it?

Speaking of mikan, sweetness, and females, you get a chance to see and hear Morning Musume — the daughters of the morning — perform the song titled “Mikan”. Child love!

Those whose default attitude toward Japanese pop culture is stuck on “snide” should read this and adjust your metric accordingly.

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Posted in Agriculture, Food, New products | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The barstool philosopher

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 6, 2011

READER Camphortree wrote in this week to suggest that incipient Alzheimer’s was one possible explanation for Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s behavior. While that’s possible — nothing can be ruled out with Mr. Kan, after all — my suspicions lie in the direction of a long, lush life of alcohol consumption.

Consider, for example, what a columnist in the Nikkei Shimbun reported him as saying in the Diet on 20 July:

The earth has passed through 4.6 billion years of history, but we have relied on nuclear power for only a few dozen of those years. Therefore, I do not think it holds that we must rely on it for eternity.

Doesn’t that sound like the sort of wisdom you might hear dispensed with a solemn, authoritative air by a slightly gasping and swaying geezer with purple veins in his nose and gravy stains on his lapel, sliding over a few bar stools to strike up a conversation?

The sort of fellow who would seize on any comment you made, no matter how brief or noncommittal, to expound on his liquid insights in a different direction altogether? Such as this one the prime minister belched forth at a public meeting in Nagano, which was reported in the press on 1 August.

The old men (おじいさん) who went to the mountains 200 or 300 years ago to gather wood were able to manage everything with that firewood or whatever. All we have to do is to convert that into a new technology, and that is completely possible.

Don’t forget, he was awarded an engineering degree from a reputable university. It brings new meaning to the word “technocrat”.

It’s a mystery why guys like this never seem to have to go to the bathroom so you can move to another part of the bar (or another bar altogether) before they get back. The amount of fluids they consume combined with the size of their prostates should mean their frequency of head calls would be higher instead of lower.

My favorite is this one from the same speech:

We can’t take a risk even once that would destroy the planet, even if there’s just a one-in-one hundred million chance.

It has to be the liquid courage that gets him out of bed and out of the house every day to defy the odds that the earth could split open at any moment and swallow him up right there on the sidewalk!

Here’s another speaker three sheets to the wind who leaves his audience in tears.

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Quotations, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »