Sake Situation - Interview with a Fukushima Brewer About Radiation Upd | True Sake
January 2012

Sake Situation - Interview with a Fukushima Brewer About Radiation Update

Posted by Beau Timken in 2012, January, Newsletter
Recently I gave a talk on behalf of the Consulate General of Japan and in particular the Mayor of Miyagi Prefecture about the safety of sake from the Tohoku area 9 months after the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent radiation event in Japan. In so doing I contacted two friends of mine, Koichi Saura from Urakasumi in Miyagi and Mr. Ohta from the famous kimoto heavy brewery in Fukushima, Daishichi. I spoke with Saura-san by phone and asked him the same questions that I sent to Ohta-san.

Herewith are the replies from the questionnaire sent to Daishichi, which gives a very good description of the current state of affairs in regards to production and radiation in Fukushima.
  1. Are all breweries in Fukushima brewing again?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: Several breweries were destroyed by the tsunami, and quite a lot also suffered severe damage because of the earthquake. But all breweries have been doing their utmost to overcome the disaster and reopen again. (Among the breweries destroyed by the tsunami there even are breweries that are going to use other premises for brewing this year). Thanks to all these efforts, almost all breweries will be brewing sake this year.
  2. Are you back to full capacity or is your brewery still damaged?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: Daishichi had very little damage from the earthquake thanks to our new and strong concrete building. What small damage there was, could already be repaired by the next day. So we have experienced no negative influence at all on our brewing capacity. In order to keep the brewery inside safe from any radiation from the nuclear disaster, we immediately closed the building hermetically, and now that brewing is starting, we have installed special very sensitive air filters.
  3. How was the local rice crop this year? Are you using local rice? Is Fukushima using local rice? Who checks the rice for radiation? The government and/or private firms who you pay?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: Although there were several areas where the rice was damaged because of heavy rain (West-Aizu and Wakayama), on the whole there was plenty of sun in summer and with the exception of those areas, seen on the whole of Japan, the "plus" was larger and the rice harvest was very good, both as regards quality and quantity.

    The sake rice Daishichi uses is bought in Aizu (Gohyakumangoku), Toyama Prefecture (Gohyakumangoku), and Hyogo Prefecture (Yamada Nishiki). Daishichi will use rice from any area without prejudice. But all the rice will have to be checked carefully at the stage of brown rice and only rice completely free from radiation will be used. The first radiation check is done by the Agricultural Cooperation (Zenno). Checks in Fukushima are 2 to 4 times stricter than in other prefectures, due to the presence of the nuclear facility. Only when this test indicates that the rice is completely safe, Daishichi will buy it. After that, we test the rice again with our own equipment.
  4. Do you have to pay for all of these inspections? Is it expensive?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: The first check of the rice by the Agricultural Cooperation is paid for by that cooperation. In order to do tests on our own as well, Daishichi has bought its own new equipment to the value of half a million yen.
  5. Same questions about your and all of Fukushima sake brewing water. Has radiation been detected? Who checks? Gov't or private? Have you heard about Fukushima water? Are they getting checked even more?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: The radiation particles were scattered into the air during the blasts in the first week of the nuclear problems, immediately after the earthquake. These have rained down to the earth. But that was a one-time event, after that there has been very little radiation. So the well water which is pumped up from great depth is safe (the radiation has not penetrated deep into the earth). All the hundreds of wells in Fukushima were tested, and were all found to be safe from any radiation. In addition, Daishichi has had its well water tested in April and August by the Sake Brewers Association. Another test with more sensitive equipment was done in October by the University of Fukushima, and our water was found to be completely safe.
  6. How many radiation checks will be made on each sake before a US customer buys a bottle in the US at let's say True Sake. Rice check #1 Water check #2 Kura Check #3 Bottle check before it leaves kura #4 warehouse check at port in Japan #5 warehouse check at US port #6?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: At the moment Daishichi is still shipping sake from brew years 2009 and 2010, which has been kept in safe storage in our sturdy brewery (concrete walls of 25-35 centimeters thickness). Water: was checked several times and will remain subject to regular tests. Rice: Daishichi only buys rice which the Agricultural Cooperation has declared to be "ND", free from radiation. Daishichi tests this rice again when it enters our brewery. After polishing the rice, we check both the polished grains and the powder that came off the rice (the powder is sold to the food industry). Raw sake: is again tested by us after brewing. Finished sake: is again tested before bottling. Based on these tests, we can convincingly declare our products to be safe.

    Separate from this, the Japanese Government will regularly buy sake from breweries in Northern Japan and test these (starting this month). The EU is since March demanding a test report with all imported sake.
  7. Are brewers buying more rice from non-Tohoku prefectures? Has the price gone up for this extra rice that wasn't contracted for?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: It indeed happens that some breweries, which have no testing equipment themselves, prefer rice from other prefectures to that from Northern Japan. But Daishichi is doing tests in cooperation with the University of Fukushima, which has the best testing equipment in Japan. And these are double tests, done after the rice has already been tested and declared free from any radiation by the government and the Agricultural Cooperation. Therefore, Daishichi can also use rice from Northern Japan without any risk.
  8. How much sake will you make this year compared to last year? Less?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: Daishichi will brew the same volume as in other years, perhaps a bit more as sales are quite strong.
  9. Are Japanese still buying a lot of Tohoku sake in support of Tohoku or has that stopped? Do you foresee customers now avoiding Miyagi and Fukushima and other close Tohoku sakes? (I believe it is the Japanese way for other non-tohoku Japanese to not want to "risk" buying Tohoku sake? Is this true?)

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: It is true that the buying of products in support of Tohoku has peaked, but in the case of Daishichi, also this month our sales are more than 10% higher. We think there are many people among those who bought our sake for the first time in April and May who keep buying Daishichi, and we are still finding new buyers as well. We also think that consumers realize there is no danger at all in drinking sake from Tohoku. There is daily news on TV and in the newspapers about radiation science, and I believe people will build up realistic knowledge about this matter and no longer react in panic. Moreover, sake is different from tea (where radiation concentrates on the leaves) or milk (the end of the food chain). As stated above, the sake rice is being thoroughly tested before use.
  10. How are you feeling about the near term Tohoku sake industry? Specifically Miyagi - and Fukushima? Are there any plans to do a marketing or ad campaign assuring consumers of safe sake?

    Answer from Mr. Ohta of Daishichi: Fortunately, Daishichi has been able to win the trust of customers by its safety measures and strict tests, but this is not the case for all breweries. There is also a difference between white rice and foods as mushrooms and meat where radiation of hundreds and even thousands of becquerel has been detected. Of all rice tested in Japan, 85% was completely ND (clean), and the rest was just contaminated with a few becquerel to a few score. This light contamination will anyway become zero when the husks are removed and the rice is polished. So the risk of drinking sake and eating the above food products is completely different. This scientific knowledge may be something we should propagate together for more effect.
All of these answers please me greatly and I am glad to say that Saura-san from Urakasumi in Miyagi echoed the same positive answers. In fact, he said that sales at Urakasumi were up 15-20% over last year at this time because, as Saura-san stated, when the good people bought sake to support Tohoku it was the first time that many tasted their sake and they liked it so much that they are buying more out of taste than duty to honor Tohoku. That's pretty cool.

The bottom line is that US consumers should not worry in the least about the sakes that they are drinking. The screening has been extensive and intensive. The only aspect that may affect exported sakes is that the producers may have to pass on the costs of doing all of the testing to the importers who will then pass it on to us! But a few more cents for safety is all good. When I asked Miwa about how many customers inquired in regards to radiation in our inventory she said that maybe seven or eight customers asked if "the sakes were okay?" and at least three people said they will not buy sake dated after March 2011. So on the whole people feel pretty comfortable with the situation, and I feel that the blip on the radar is passed.

Drink confidently!

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