No.161 A Witness to History
A photographic introduction to items from the collection
"Sake Brewing in Heisei" – Production, Inheritance, and Innovation
The National Museum of Japanese History produces, publishes, and preserves "Visual Materials for Folklore Studies" under one theme every year as achievements of collaborative research projects using visual materials. In the year 2009, Aoki, the author of this article, produced two films targeting sake brewing in Tochigi Prefecture: "Sake Brewing in Heisei – Production," which follows the production of rice for sake brewing to the daily working process at a brewery, such as firing and bottling as well as sales and customer service; and "Sake Brewing in Heisei – Inheritance and Innovation," which describes the events of the Tochigi Sake Brewers Association, the technical assistance of the Tochigi Industrial Technology Center, and sake brewing using the daiginjo and kimoto methods.
I. Lack of Successors
In recent years, the number of migrant workers has been decreasing. In 1972, there were as many as 549,000 migrant workers. However, in 2003, the number was only about 46,000 (ref. Department of Commerce, Industry, Labor and Tourism, Iwate Prefecture, "Reality of Migrant Workers in Iwate Prefecture"). This phenomenon was the result of an increase in local employment opportunities in regions of heavy snowfall such as Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Hokuriku, a sharp decline in the number of farmhouses from which migrant workers came, increased disposition of avoiding long-term work away from home, etc. This significantly affected the sake brewing industry and the civil engineering and construction industry in the Kanto area that had mostly relied on the labor force of migrant workers.
Sake brewing requires particularly advanced techniques, and it is difficult to train successors in a short time. A young and capable sake brewer told me that he had no clue about what other brewers were doing during the first two years since joining the company. Sake brewing is unique in that such advanced techniques have almost been monopolized by migrant workers rather than by original sake brewers.
The reason for this situation is that in the Taisho period, farmers in Niigata Prefecture were attracted to working away from home at a brewery in the Kanto area in winter, which did not affect farming. They learned sake brewing techniques to find a job at a sake brewery and then formed a huge group of sake brewers called Echigo toji. After that, sake breweries entrusted all stages of sake brewing to the Echigo toji brewers for a long time, and techniques and data of sake brewing were not accumulated at sake breweries themselves. When the number of Echigo toji brewers decreased in the 1970s, sake breweries employed Nanbu toji brewers of Iwate Prefecture as a temporary measure. However, because the number of Nanbu toji brewers also decreased in the 1990s, sake breweries had to nurture their own full-year sake brewers.
II. Change of Sake Brewers
Nevertheless, sake breweries hardly made sufficient preparation for a future shortage of migrant workers. They were rather late in taking measures due to the large benefits of employing migrant workers. But then, migrant workers suddenly disappeared one day from some sake breweries.
In place of migrant workers, successors of sake breweries and local commuting workers supported sake brewing. They went straight to a position of full responsibility for sake brewing after having had experience as apprentices and having trained for several years at the National Research Institute of Brewing or another related company. Some people questioned their skills in this situation. However, they soon won a gold prize in awards and made excellent achievements one after another. I was first keenly interested in what made that possible.
From the 1990s, sake breweries with relatively large-scale management started employing local commuting workers to prepare for the future and had them learn sake brewing under the supervision of Echigo toji and Nanbu toji brewers. These commuting workers have now built a career of more than ten years and are in a position to bear responsibility for sake brewing as local toji brewers. Meanwhile, the number of Echigo toji brewers working outside Niigata Prefecture has become very small, and the number of Nanbu toji brewers of Iwate Prefecture has also kept decreasing. Therefore, I thought that this may be the last opportunity to record the sake brewing activities of Echigo toji, Nanbu toji, and local toji brewers at the same time as providing visual materials. So I requested permission to film the Tochigi Sake Brewers Association where there is still a relatively large number of Echigo toji brewers in the Kanto area and where local workers are trained under the unique certification system called "Shimotsuke toji," as well as the Tochigi Industrial Technology Center that provides technical assistance to the above Association.
III. Through Filming and Editing
Filming lasted for one year and two months. This was unusually long for visual materials for folklore studies that are conducted under a one-year contract with a filmmaker, and I myself had video cameras running in a period outside contract. I recorded the sake brewing of daiginjo and the events carried out by the Association in a period beyond the contract and used them as editing materials. This experience gave me an opportunity to learn the complicated process of sake brewing.
As the first factor in learning sake brewing techniques in a short time, I was impressed with the mixed attitude of sticking to the basics and taking on various challenging. Instead of the senses and experiences of Echigo toji and Nanbu toji brewers, young Shimotsuke toji brewers carefully read books on sake brewing techniques to understand the principles of sake brewing, and thoroughly analyze data resulting from their work. They also gave me clear and detailed explanations of the significance of each working process. Meanwhile, it is of particular note that when successors of sake breweries are in charge of sake brewing, they change material rice and the method of sake brewing little by little every year. They are particularly enthusiastic about trying various methods by using rice for sake brewing and yeast from Tochigi Prefecture. There is no doubt that both migrant workers and the management are directly involved in sake brewing, and they can therefore try new things and easily accumulate the results as data or experience.
However, I found that experienced Echigo toji and Nanbu toji brewers use their bodies and five senses in a way different from other brewers. For example, experienced toji brewers stir koji energetically and move their arms slowly when stirring moromi. They perform each task in a short time to transmit force quickly and effectively. On the other hand, young Shimotsuke toji and commuting brewers take more time in their work. However, to improve work efficiency and perform the work as planned, it will be necessary to watch and learn the way that experienced toji brewers use their bodies and to try to follow their quick movements. Furthermore, while experienced toji brewers carefully observe how dipped rice grains are broken, the aroma of moromi, etc., Shimotsuke toji brewers seem to put more importance on analytical values.
In addition, experienced Echigo toji and Nanbu toji brewers have the personality and dignity to organize people without a word. Sake brewing was traditionally a job that required communal living at the same brewery for about half a year. Therefore, only a person of integrity who has experienced a long apprenticeship could become a toji oran organizer. Sake brewers are well organized under skilled toji brewers. However, it is still not very well known how far this situation will remain after sake brewing is shifted to that borne by local commuting workers. Tasty sake can be produced only by local brewers, but Echigo toji and Nanbu toji brewers have more than that with their skills and presence. In "Sake Brewing in Heisei," I wish to convey young Shimotsuke toji brewers taking on a challenge and experienced toji brewers using their bodies and showing their presence, as a research result only available as visual materials.
Takahiro Aoki (Folklore Studies/Geography, Research Department)