The vats of the only unrefined sake maker from Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, are bubbling again, despite a forced evacuation following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Before the March 11 earthquake last year, Chieko Sasaki, 65, was one of a growing number of small-scale “doburoku” (unrefined sake) producers across Japan.
She led a busy life growing rice and vegetables, operating a restaurant, and brewing two brands of doburoku, "Dobuche" and "Hakuro," which were growing in popularity.
The quake and nuclear disaster destroyed that way of life. With Iitate designated for evacuation, Sasaki moved to the Iinomachi district in Fukushima city and found herself with nothing to do.
"My soul will be destroyed before my body stops moving if I keep this up," she remembers thinking.
As Iitate produce disappeared from shops, Sasaki decided that she had to brew doburoku again under the village’s brand, but a maze of red tape was standing in her way.
Japan’s alcohol laws normally restrict brewing licenses to relatively large-scale producers. Sasaki had only been able to get into the doburoku industry in 2006 after Iitate was given special economic zone status for doburoku brewing the previous year.
The special economic zone designation allowed farmers to use their own rice to brew small batches of doburoku, and Iitate was the first municipality in Fukushima Prefecture to get the dispensation.
The neighboring village of Kawamata was one of five other Fukushima municipalities that later got the same designation, and Sasaki could have restarted her brewing there. However, she felt strongly that she wanted to keep the Iitate designation.
The complex rules meant the only way that could be done was to get the area where she had evacuated to designated as part of the doburoku special zone. The Iitate village government, which had moved to Fukushima city following the evacuation, lobbied central government and Fukushima city officials and the result was a bureaucratic fudge in which the address of Sasaki’s brewery in Fukushima city was included in Iitate’s zone.
Although rice for the doburoku can no longer be harvested in Iitate, Sasaki still has some Akitakomachi rice harvested in 2010. When that is used up, the special zone system has provisions that allow a brewer to use rice from outside the zone, and, until rice farming resumes in Iitate, Sasaki plans to use rice grown by a relative in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture.
She installed a tank in the traditional Japanese warehouse of a private home that she is renting in Fukushima city and began preparing rice for brewing on April 14.
Sasaki has concerns about the future of her enterprise: "Even if no problems arise after testing for radioactive materials, I have no confidence about whether products from Iitate will sell, or how far I can go.”
But she says she has no choice and can only take it one step at a time.
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