Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The exporting of Japanese culture

In doing some researching for my job (for the moment), I've noticed what to me at least is a disturbing although not entirely startling trend.

It started with nihonshu, which you probably know as sake. Looking at the market and export numbers it's gained quite a bit of popularity abroad lately, especially in the US as a trendy drink that's more "cultured." It's caught on easier in the US than Europe since the latter is more strongly dominated by wine culture, but is still seeing more and more growth in larger cities around the world such as NYC, London, Seoul and Shanghai. France is pretty slow to catch onto this because they are still firmly ensconced in their own culture of cheese and wine apparently. Export figures have steadily risen on the strength of the market in the US doubling in the past 5 years and tripling over the past 10.

Contrast this with nihonshu sales in Japan, which have fallen steadily over the same periods. The younger Japanese sees nihonshu as too old school and out of fashion, and even the older folks are starting to shift more towards drinking shochu, the other indigineous drink of Japan. It has Chinese/Korean roots and is actually marketed as soju (Korean name) in the US, but local production of shochu in Japan is high and rising, while at the same time more and more people are leaving the nihonshu up on the shelf.

The most important names in discussions of sake these days also probably aren't what you'd expect. Some discussions I ran across of sake have foreign expert John Gauntner as the big hope for Japanese sake brewers to stay afloat - the thought is that for domestic sales to pick back up, the only way is to go international and show young Japanese how much the rest of the world loves nihonshu, meaning that it's ok for them to like it again too (translation: foreign = cool in Japan). There's also Philip Harper, a Briton who has become the first foreign sake brew master... the fate of sake may progressively be less and less in the hands of Japanese.

Then again today I was looking up numbers on bonsai - you know, the little trees that Mr. Miyagi made in Karate Kid. Like shochu this too finds its roots outside of Japan (China in this case), but Japanese made noticeable adjustments that set them apart from their original counterparts. Anyway, apparently producers of bonsai and related products in Chiba were really hurting as local interest waned, but then about 5 years ago exports out to Hong Kong and China especially but also the EU really started picking up. Exports doubled in 2007 and have grown over tenfold since the beginning of 2005. Yet again, exports step in to fill the local void in the market for a Japanese cultural staple.

I guess I could also throw sumo in there as well, in which foreigners seem to grab quite a bit of the news lately... a European won the Emperor's Cup for the first time last year, and the whole sport is a flutter after a slew of wrestlers get caught smoking marijuana (2 of the 3 I remember caught were foreign). I don't see how there could be sumo without foreigners now or anytime in the near future.

So what's it all come down to? Japanese culture isn't popular enough in Japan, so exporting it looks to be it's only hope for survival. Will it take the rest of the world to show Japan that its culture is actually worth preserving? I hope not, but if so I'll do my part. Heightened appreciation for traditional Japanese culture is good, I just wish there was more of it amongst Japanese as well.


McAlpine said...

I couldn't wait to comment on this one, but I think too many people give too much credit to Mr. Harper when in fact he wasn't the first sake sommelier and Toji.

Mrs. Cummings is:
And not only that but she runs her own brewery. She's been around for a number of years also. This puts Phil Harper to rest for the time being.

Next, I loved this blog post. I thought it had merit, which is a first amongst many who simply just blog about tech stuff. I especially enjoyed the last paragraph about wanting to help do your part in preserving Japan's culture.

Everyday I'm faced with this uphill struggle because so many Japanese truly are ignorant of a lot things here in their own country. They no absolutely nothing about wine, yet they prefer it over their own national drink. There excuses range from" Ooh, nihonshu stinks," or" nihonshu tastes so bad." But when asked how wine tastes they are clueless. They have truly become devoid of soul and spirit over the last 30 years! I get pissed off sometimes about. I like wine too, but I can appreciate all spirits the world over.

darg said...

Wow, thanks for commenting and pointing out Mrs. Cummings - I found a great article on her that is seriously inspiring! It's amazing how she turned the whole situation down in Obuse around.

Keep fighting your struggle with the wine vs. sake debate... it's hard to believe that they'd subscribe to wine culture and ignore their own to leave it in ruins.

For those not familiar with Sarah Marie Cummings, read more here:

John in Japan said...

Are your sources for these conclusions found on the internet or did you go and interview those involved in said sultures?
Either way, do you think you could help a Waseda student out by pointing me in the direction of your numbers that got you to said conclusions?

darg said...

John- I don't remember exactly where the links I used are, but all the stats were found online. A quick search showed that a lot of people quote MoF exporting figures, and that was definitely somewhere I looked as well, so the Ministry of Finance would be a good place to start looking - if you can read Japanese, then all the figures are right there.

Another good place would be looking around for details about John Gauntner, or even contacting him yourself from the link provided in the article.

Searching in Japanese is your best bet if possible - here was an article near the top of the list searching for 日本酒 輸出:http://sankei.jp.msn.com/economy/business/071222/biz0712221004001-n1.htm