Japanese sake brewers protecting future by owning their past

    ust like a French Bordeaux wine, a Swiss watch or Bohemian crystal from the Czech Republic, Japanese sake brands are looking to make an indelible mark by capitalizing on their geographical selling points.

    Eager to boost sales of their products abroad, Japanese sake brewers are registering their brands under the geographical indication label, shortened to GI, which guarantees the authenticity and quality of high-end regional products.

    Sake makers have registered their brands at a rapid pace in recent years as domestic demand has leveled off, leading the brewers to officially establish their intellectual property and make it both a selling point and marketing tool.

    By linking the brand to specific regions where the quality standards and reputation are firmly established based on unique production methods and features attributable to geographical origin, they also hope to contribute to rural development as well as preserve cherished local traditions linked to Japanese rice wine.

    The National Tax Agency, which holds jurisdiction in Japan over the GI system, is assisting sake brewers’ efforts to explore overseas markets for their products.

    “We want to use the GI designation as an opportunity to help sake from Iwate spread around the world,” Yusaku Shimizu, head of the Sendai Regional Taxation Bureau, said at an event held in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, northeast Japan, in October.

    For sake, 14 locations in 12 of Japan’s 47 prefectures have so far received GI designations — two each in Nagano and Hyogo and one each in Iwate, Yamagata, Gunma, Niigata, Ishikawa, Yamanashi, Mie, Shiga, Yamaguchi and Saga.

    Of them, 12 locations were designated over the past five years, with the one in Iwate being the latest to gain the distinction and another — in Shizuoka — expected to become the 15th by yearend.

    The surge of regions being awarded GI, which must be made official with a certification sticker identifying the place of origin, can be traced back to the GI designation of sake as a Japan-specific product in 2015 to promote exports.

    For the GI designation, criteria for unified standards were set anew to clarify that sake brewers must use Japanese-grown rice and produce their products within the country.

    This helped provide momentum to obtain the GI status among local sake brewers’ associations eager to appeal to consumers both in Japan and abroad with regional specialties and flavors.

    But despite efforts to promote brands via GI, there are aspects of the system that do not necessarily lead to increased brand recognition and it remains to be seen if the efforts at promoting the regional sake brands will pay off.

    There is not a great general awareness of the GI system in the first place, while obstacles remain for drawing up rigid, authentic standards for such labeling.

    According to a survey released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2020, only 7.2 percent of consumers were aware of the GI system.

    Furthermore, since all regional sake association brewers must agree on standards for GI designation, at times, they fail to iron out differences over production methods or other issues, such as where the brewer’s rice must be sourced.

    In fact, there are brewers who seek to use rice from outside their regions that better fit in with their production and, in many cases, they still can claim the GI status so long as the production site is in the designated region.

    “Establishing more strict standards will increase brand recognition, but it is like putting the cart before the horse if brewers cannot agree on the standards,” a National Tax Agency official said.

    On the other hand, there are also examples of regions becoming ever more stringent in their GI classification, adding their own standards that limit, for instance, the use of raw materials to those produced in the designated location.

    In one of such unique cases, a location in Nagano was certified in June separately from the central Japan prefecture that had already obtained a GI designation for the entire prefecture in 2021.

    The newly certified location — Shinano-Omachi — narrowed down the restrictions with criteria under which only rice grown in Omachi city and a neighboring village is allowed to be used.

    In addition, brewers are required to use rice from among the famed Yamada Nishiki and three other brands to meet its standards, which also limit brewing methods and the production volume further.

    Shinano-Omachi thus became a designee within a designee — the first case in Japan of a two-tiered GI designation, which allows for stronger promotion of the regional brand.

    As for Iwate’s GI designation, the prefectural brewers association has been working to distinguish its “junmai” pure rice wine made exclusively with malted rice and yeast produced in the prefecture by calling it “All-Iwate Sake.”

    “GI is the minimum defense for brand protection,” said Kosuke Kuji, 51, vice chairman of the association. “We must consider how to market our brands for our survival.”

    Nicolas Baumert, an associate professor specializing in the cultural and historical geography of Japan at Nagoya University, pointed to the significance of GI certification from not only a product standpoint but broader cultural perspectives now that sake is consumed worldwide.

    “GI designation serves as a quality certificate,” Baumert said, noting that people overseas wish to learn more sake production lore that is “rooted in regional climate and culture.”

    He added that if applications for the GI indication, which are now only allowed through brewers’ associations, “are made more flexible, it will contribute to regional revitalization.”