Women In Sake – The Myths and the Magic!
Recently I received an email from one of my readers who happens to be a kuramoto - brewery owner. The brewery is on Soda Island off of the Niigata coast. This owner also happens to be female. And as I only know two other female owners of breweries I felt compelled to speak with her more about the role of women in the sake industry to reaffirm what I already generally knew.
Like all industries in time the role of women in the sake world is clouded with myth and speculation as to when females entered the workforce. Some brewery owners told me that women worked in the kuras (breweries) hundreds of years ago, and yet others say that women only started working in the past half century. Nevertheless they all agree upon the simple fact that women were family members of the male brewers and that is how they gained "admission."
Typically, most sake workers (kurabito) were farmers by trade and made sake in the off- season (winter). They were and still are a hardy group of people who do not know the meaning of shortcuts, and always pursued the goal of a set routine whilst producing. Kurabito do not like to improvise nor do they like deviating from established ways and methods. And that is why the introduction of women in the workforce became a "distraction."
Many owners of breweries developed myths about women to keep them out, and to not provide that "distraction." For example it was said that a woman's sweat was too alkaline and would ruin batches of rice. Or better yet, a women's menstrual cycle would play havoc with the "conditions," and as such they could not be near the process. The bottom line was that male owners would make up these stories to keep women away as they just didn't want their men being exposed to a female in close quarters at all hours of the night during the brewing process. (Think of the movie Rocky and the old coach telling Rocky to stay away from women because, "They weaken the knees.")
Nevertheless, these women had brothers and fathers who were also kurabito and were natural deterrents to any shenanigans. Thus women stood side by side with the men and became natural parts of the process. From my limited time watching the interaction of kurabito I must say the women that I saw on the job didn't stand out at all, they were just another worker doing an extremely difficult job with crazy hours. And that is where the respect factor comes into play. Men respect the women, because the job is so damn difficult.
As per ownership of breweries the perception of women kuramotos is that they were in position because a guy was either dead or unavailable. Historically, like most professions in Japan, the first son would take over the ownership of a brewery from generation to generation. If number one son died or could not perform for some reason then the job went to the number two son. Ah but what if there were no sons, only daughters? Well the brewery would go to the daughter to keep the family name alive. And here we have yet another myth in the world of women and sake. It was said that if a women who was the owner of a brewery wanted to get married, the husband would have to assume her last name, which was the name of the brewery. When I asked Rumiko Obata if this was true she laughed and said that it was not!
It was speculated by a brewery owner and friend of mine that of the roughly 1400 sake breweries in Japan 15% are operated by females, and this number fluctuated and was heavily skewed towards females whose husbands had died. He said that women brewery owners are never "hazed" or given the "old boy" treatment out of honor for the difficult nature of the business. Later Mrs. Obata would confirm this by saying that she has never seen any sexist ill will towards her or other female owners. Thus the perception of sake being a male dominated domain is on the consumption front and not so on the production front. Women are as much a part of sake as men, thankfully!