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Is Japanese sake too cheap? Many in the industry think so

Foreign tourists often surprised to find fine 'nihonshu' priced like table wine

A staff of Tokyo's French restaurant Narisawa pours a junmai daiginjo sake into a Japanese traditional Edo Kiriko glass.   © AP

TOKYO -- Japanese sake is gaining enthusiastic fans around the world. Yet foreigners who are familiar with sake after drinking it at places like upscale restaurants are often surprised at how cheap it is in Japan.

"Sake tastes good but it is priced too low," said Shinya Tasaki, president of the Japan Sommelier Association. Tasaki has a sake refrigerator at home and introduces sake to sommeliers from around the world. In 2016, Japan exported a record 15.5 billion yen ($141 million) worth of sake. But compared to wine, whose global market is estimated to be worth 1 trillion yen, sake is priced low. Tasaki said, "Brands that have unique flavors should be given higher valuations."

A spokesperson at Hasegawa Saketen, a liquor store with outlets in posh Tokyo districts such as Omotesando and Azabujuban, said overseas tourists who have familiarized themselves with sake at high-end Japanese restaurants in places like New York and Paris visit the company's stores and are often surprised by the low prices.

For example, a 720-milliliter-bottle of junmai ginjo shu, sake made from rice polished to 60% or less of the original weight with koji rice yeast but no added alcohol, and with a rich aroma, is priced at around 1,500 yen. "The price range is similar to that of table wine, so many customers get confused," a Hasegawa Saketen employee said. A similarly sized bottle of French wine made by a well-known winemaker is priced at 40,000-50,000 yen at department stores and liquor stores in Japan.

A sake event in Tokyo's Akasaka district.

Toshie Hiraide, who serves as a sake coordinator for the Japanese Foreign Ministry's overseas diplomatic establishments, said: "France launched state-led efforts to spread wine around the world, and marketing costs are passed on to consumers as higher prices. Japanese sake is made by toji [head of a sake brewery] and kurabito [sake brewers] putting their heart and soul into the process but is priced at only just above cost with a slight profit."

"Please do not buy at high prices." This advertisement caused a stir when it was released on social media in December by Asahishuzo, a sake brewer famous for the Dassai brand, based in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Asahishuzo suggests the retail price of a 720ml bottle of its popular Dassai junmai daiginjo shu made from rice polished to as much as 23% should be 5,142 yen but is actually priced over 8,000 yen at some supermarkets and online.

Storing and distributing high-grade sake usually requires more care than wine -- for example, it must be kept at low temperatures. Asahishuzo President Kazuhiro Sakurai says: "We don't want [our sake] to be priced high when it is unclear how it is handled in the distribution process. I would feel bad if someone had it for the first time and thought it's not worth the high price." The company introduces customers to its official distributors to ensure quality. It is also increasing production to meet growing demand.

The price of sake has traditionally been decided by the kind of rice used and how much it is polished. A 720ml bottle of junmai daiginjo made from 50% or more polished Yamadanishiki grown on toku A (highest-ranked) fields is priced at around 5,000-6,000 yen. Price, however, does not necessarily guarantee quality. Some junmai shu (polished to 70% or less with no added alcohol) brands, priced between 1,000 yen and 2,000 yen, are given higher marks than their more expensive rivals.

"The points-off system at [sake] competitions is largely to blame," the Japan Sommelier Association's Tasaki said, adding that "I hope [judges] do not expect more or less the same taste and instead respect brewers' unique character." Sake coordinator Hiraide said that "overseas wine fans want more diversity in the taste of Japanese sake." Keiichi Shiina, vice chairman of Chateau Lagrange, a French winery recently acquired by Japan's Suntory Holdings, said, "The next step is to add value beyond a [low] rice-polishing rate."

Kuheiji Kuno, president of Banjojozo, the maker of the sake brand Kamoshibito Kuheiji, said, "In France, vineyards are graded and there is a consistent value-creation system, from farming to the final product of wine." Tasaki said, "Sake could create higher added value if local rice varieties are specified."

In the hope of raising sake's status, Hasegawa Saketen has proposed product development to brewers. Shoryu junmai daiginjo by Katsuyama Shuzo, based in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, is priced at 10,800 yen per 720ml bottle and Wabi junmai daiginjo by Suminoe Shuzo, based in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, is also priced the same. Sake Competition, supported by the Japanese government, set up the Super Premium section in 2016 for brands priced at 10,000 yen or higher per 720ml. Creating a way to recognize sake's value is important.

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