From Nara to Now: Translating Sake Outside of Japan

With Japan pushing for sake to become its next big export, Space Doctors cultural analyst and certified sake expert Weston Konishi explores the different approaches Japanese breweries are taking in sake labelling to the US market, and how it is re-shaping the meanings of sake for new audiences.

What do you do when you know you have a good product but face cultural barriers when you try to export and brand it abroad? That’s the dilemma confronting Japanese sake brewers looking to expand into foreign markets with their rice-made beverage that is a centuries’ old brewing tradition.

Sake has many advantages going for it as the next “big thing” in the United States, by far the largest market for the drink outside of Japan. It’s pleasant on the palate and versatile with a variety of cuisines. Although often misidentified as “rice wine,” the fermentation process is more similar to beer brewing than wine production, making it unique from other alcoholic beverages with European origins. Each component ingredient in sake—the rice, the water, the yeast—factors into its unique character and flavor profile. And unlike wine, vintages are irrelevant so consumers don’t have to worry about memorizing good years and bad.

Some of the larger sake producers, like Ozeki and Gekkeikan, have had a presence in the U.S. market for years. As with wine, mass production leads to a generic product that tends to lack elegance and complexity. Increasingly, though, smaller artisanal sakes are appearing on liquor store shelves as American consumers discover the virtues of premium sakes with greater complexity and nuance than the big producers.

In fact, sake exports to the United States have given the industry a new lease on life, offsetting a decades-long decline in domestic sales as younger Japanese—viewing sake as somewhat old-fashioned—gravitated toward beer and wine consumption. But there is still a sense that overseas sake sales have more room to grow in order to break into a larger share of the global food and beverage market. The Japanese government, in particular, sees sake exports as a potential economy booster and would like it to become a mainstream product in the United States.

Deciphering Sake

But that goal seems out of reach at the moment. A major problem has been branding sake in foreign markets, where knowledge of the drink is still relatively nascent and advertising space is crowded out by major beer, wine and liquor brands. To be sure, American consumers may be increasingly able to tell the difference between premium sakes and mass-produced ones, but there still seems to be a learning curve in discerning the subtleties of one premium sake from another.

More descriptive labeling could help tease out distinctions in premium sakes. Sake labels, often printed in calligraphic Chinese characters (or Kanji), can be obscure and intimidating for many non-Japanese consumers. Information such as where the sake is produced, how dry or sweet it is, and what level of rice milling was achieved in its production (generally the more the rice is milled the more refined the structure and quality of sake) are similarly unreadable for most Westerners.

Further, many of the artisanal sake houses gravitate toward label designs that are shibui (or subtle) rather than eye-catching. Kokuryu, a sake producer from Fukui Prefecture, for instance, labels its bottles with understated textile-like patterns—an elegant presentation that suggests sophistication but doesn’t necessarily pop out on the shelves.

 

 A spectrum of visual appeal

In the face of these impediments, Japanese sake producers have seemingly taken three general approaches to labeling their products in the United States. One approach is to leave the design and labeling more or less unchanged from what would typically be seen on shelves in Japan. These sakes tend to be the more upscale brands, such as Kokuryu and Kubota, who being more uncompromising in sake authenticity, are likely unwilling to alter the look of their products just to appeal to foreign consumers.

Another approach clearly is aimed at non-Japanese consumers, often dispensing with Kanji altogether and coming up with labels that may sell more in foreign markets. Some producers veer dangerously close to designs that evoke antiquated Western stereotypes of Oriental exoticism.

Osaka-based Daimon Shuzo, for instance, prints its Tozai line of sakes in brush stroke fonts with inscrutable titles like Snow Maiden and Living Jewel, which connote a certain Japanese exotica. This look might appeal to American consumers who want an easy entry point into premium sake but who may nevertheless be less adventurous than Kubota drinkers. (Try ordering Tozai from a sake sommelier in Japan, however, and you might get a blank look. Tozai is aimed at the U.S. market; Rikyubai is the traditional label Daimon Shuzo uses in Japan.)

More recently, Joto Sake has appeared on American liquor store shelves. Taking the exact opposite tack from the traditionalist approach, it has a pulp cartoon design on its “one cup” packaging. Certainly, it’s the very definition of eye-popping, with its kaleidoscopic ménage of talking fish, Mount Fuji and spray painted graffiti. This might appeal to a younger cohort of consumers, both in Japan and abroad, who have grown up on manga and anime and may be attracted to a more youthful presentation even if the product may not be so high end.

Purists, like Kokuryu, might balk at this further adaptation to the English-speaking American consumer but some very fine brewing houses are adding more English tasting notes to their packaging. Hakkaisan, an award-winning brewer from Niigata Prefecture, writes glowingly on their sparkling sake bottle: “Our crisp Sparkling Haikkaisan Nigori sake is born of the soft and clean waters of Niigata. Perfect as a celebratory aperitif or for pairing with your favorite foods, this elegant sake will add sparkle to any occasion.” The implicit message is also that sake doesn’t necessarily need to be paired with Japanese food—in fact its lactic acid properties make it a good match for pizza and burgers as well!

What lies ahead for Sake

Each of these approaches targets varying types of consumers, from sophisticates to novices, but they attempt to do the same thing—convince consumers of sake’s unique appeal. Though whether sake will eventually become as well-known and accepted a liquor like vodka in America remains to be seen, surmounting the culture gap and perceived inscrutability of sake would certainly increase its relevance.

But as with all “next big things” there is a shelf life to their popularity. How will producers brand sake in the future once the novelty of their product wears off? Will sake brewers lean toward trendier labels that veer away from the traditional or will they double down on their “Japaneseness” once foreign consumers are up to speed on their products? The journey of sake to the west still has a long way ahead.

— Weston Konishi, certified sake expert and longtime sake enthusiast