A boom in sales of sake from the quake-hit Tohoku region is leading the first revival in sales of Japan’s national alcoholic drink in 16 years.
Shipments of sake fell to 595,000 kiloliters in fiscal 2010, less than half the 1.32 million kiloliters shipped in fiscal 1995, the last time sake sales rose, according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.
That long downward trend was broken by a small 1.2-percent year-on-year rise in fiscal 2011.
In total, an equivalent of 3.917 million extra 1.8-liter bottles were downed in the year than before the Great East Japan Earthquake, with Tohoku sake benefiting most.
Shipments from the six prefectures in the Tohoku region rose by about 4,500 kiloliters to roughly 69,000 total kiloliters for the year.
Ninety-three out of the 114 Makers Association member businesses operating in the three prefectures most affected by the earthquake had buildings and equipment damaged. But shipments have since risen by 27.7 percent in Miyagi (the highest increase of any prefecture), 14.2 percent in Iwate and 5.2 percent in Fukushima.
One of the reasons for the boom has been an expansion of distribution opportunities for sake makers in Japan’s biggest cities.
The Reconstruction Assistance Bar Ginza, just a short walk toward Ginza from JR Shinbashi Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo, was set up in January to promote Tohoku sake. Famous brands from the region, including Urakasumi (Miyagi Prefecture), Daishichi (Fukushima Prefecture), Nanbu Bijin (Iwate Prefecture), line the sixth-floor bar’s walls. The interior is adorned with strips of paper tied to bamboo and carrying slogans like "Don't give up, Tohoku!" and "Fight on, Tohoku!"
A 70-year-old man from Hachioji, Tokyo, his face reddened from the alcohol, was drinking in the bar in late May. He said: "I volunteered in Kesennuma, Miyagi. There's nothing better than being able to help them out by drinking."
The pub’s operator, an Akita-based izakaya chain, opened its first Reconstruction Assistance Bar in Sendai last fall and then expanded to Tokyo.
The Ginza branch has nearly 100 types of sake from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, where the earthquake and tsunami caused the most damage. Manager Masahide Tateoka, 29, said: "Sixty to 70 percent of sake orders are for brands from the disaster zone. We even have some patrons who come regularly to 'drink all the brands.'"
The Reconstruction Assistance Bars contribute their profits to the three prefectures. Although they will only stay in business until September, the operating company has applied to register the Reconstruction Assistance Bar trademark and says it is thinking about opening more locations in the event of future disasters.
The Fukushima Yaesu Tourism and Exchange Center outside JR Tokyo Station saw its sake sales increase fourfold in fiscal 2011. Some customers buy sets of 10 to 20 bottles to help reconstruction, and sales of premium “daiginjo” sake for about 5,000 yen each are also healthy.
Okidaikichi Honten, a well-established sake brewer in Yabuki, Fukushima Prefecture, saw its decades-old storehouses destroyed by the earthquake, but poor sales before last summer were followed by a strong revival.
Company President Yuta Oki, 42, said, "Things like our business partners' reconstruction-themed sales plans have played a big part."
An official for the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association said "the attention that Tohoku sake has garnered because of the ‘drink to reconstruct’ trend has played a big part (in the increase in sales)." The association said the Tohoku sake boom had also pushed up shipments for the industry as a whole.
However, Tohoku's current shipments of 600,000 kiloliters are still only a third of their 1970s peak.
"It's unclear whether they'll continue to go up," the official cautioned.
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