Shochu: Japan’s Bridge to the World

Kyushu has plenty of things of which it can be proud, and its excellent food—in the sense of both agricultural products and food products—certainly stands high on this list. Shochu, one Japan’s three designated kokushu, or “national alcoholic drinks,” alongside sake and awamori, is a great example. With its warm climate, Kyushu is the perfect place to grow the ingredients of shochu—sweet potatoes, wheat and rice. This inspires the local distillers to strive for excellence.

Japan’s population is ageing and its birthrate is declining. Against this background, Japan’s alcohol makers are on the hunt for new markets abroad and municipal governments and other bodies are putting their weight behind this movement. Central government is also putting its shoulder to the wheel. A little over three years ago, in April 2012, Motohisa Furukawa, the then Minister of State for National Policy, launched the “Enjoy Japanese Kokushu Project,” an initiative designed to get the public and the private sectors to work together on promoting Japanese alcohol—sake, shochu and awamori—to the world.

At the practical level, it was Nobuyuki Sato, a professor at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Economics, who led the Kokushu Project. “I was on secondment to the Financial Service Agency from the Ministry of Finance when Minister Furukawa tapped me to run the project alongside my other duties,” recalls Professor Sato. “I remember it well because the job started on my birthday.”

The declaration that accompanied the launch of the Kokushu Project summarized what is special about Japan’s national liquors in three points. Firstly, the patience, care and scrupulous attention to detail required to make the national alcoholic drinks is the epitome of quintessentially Japanese values. Secondly, brewers and distillers often belong to prominent local families which have helped support the local economy for centuries, a role they will continue to play in the future. Thirdly, as more countries with no historical affinity for sake or shochu—whether Korea, India or France—wake up to their merits, Japan’s national alcoholic drinks have an opportunity to serve as a 21st-century bridge between cultures.

In overseas markets, the third point is the one that is garnering the most attention. It springs from Professor Sato’s personal experience of living in France. “From 2006 to 2009, I was seconded to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. In the course of those three years in France, I gradually realized that Japanese drinks went well with all sorts of French dishes. It’s important to break the preconception that Japanese drinks only go with Japanese food. They can go with anything,” declares Professor Sato.

So how does Sato plan to turn shochu into a bridge to between cultures? Trying to please the mass market would be a mistake, he claims, preferring a strategy of developing its popularity by building its brand value in trend-setting cities such as Paris. “Japanese shochu is made from high-quality Japanese ingredients, so it is relatively expensive,” he explains. “We are going to target countries with a large class of high income earners in order to make shochu into an upscale brand.”

As Kyushu’s shochu distillers focus on boosting exports, it is important for them to be aware of this initiative.

In summer 2015, Professor Sato moved from Nagoya University to Chatham House, the renowned London-based think tank. “From my new base in London, I want to promote the idea of ‘Cool Japan,’ with a special emphasis on our national drinks, to Europe and to the world,” he concludes.