The March issue of dancyu has a special feature on Japanese sake. In it, there is an article titled: "The current state of sake producers based on a survey of 419 producers". While I was reading it, I noticed that Dassai was mentioned. In the section on the number of people involved in the sake-making process, Dassai is the largest in Japan with 130 production staff, easily surpassing the 90 people working at other big producers such as Kenbishi or Hakutsuru.
This article is not consistent with the commonly held belief that "Dassai has succeeded in mass-producing Junmai Daiginjo - said to be labor-intensive - through data and mechanization". On a national level, Dassai ranks 12th in the country in terms of production volume and probably only 6th in terms of value. Despite this, the number of people involved in sake-making is N°1.
Our manpower, along with our production volume, now makes it difficult for people to wrongfully say things like "Asahi Shuzo sake-making is automated". If you look at the weight between the number of people involved in sake crafting and the volume of production, especially for famous local producers, then you clearly see the importance of manpower.
If it was true that "Dassai can be mass-produced with machines" like some people like to say, then what of the other producers? Does it mean that "they've succeeded in cutting corners, not using machines"?
Well, apart from the importance of data, the mechanization of sake crafting – Dassai crafting - is a statement that has somehow become the sole focus of those who want just want to discredit Dassai. But why is it that there is such a gap between the truth and this popular belief?
There is a peculiar background to this: it requires a lot of intensive work and a costly workforce ("tema" in Japanese) to make Dassai. I believe it was because we did take the trouble to go through this "intensive work and a costly workforce", to add "tema" that we managed to get where we are today. When I took over Asahi Shuzo, we used to make about 130,000 liters of ordinary sake a year, with 4 people. We have now grown into making 54 million liters a year with 130 staff members. It was during this growth that my own way of thinking came about. What I mean by that is that I realized that, even a loser like me can become somebody if he takes his time. Some of you may know that during my childhood, not only I wasn't any good at studying, but I also wasn't any good at playing sports. And in the midst of struggling as the president of a losing sake-making company, deep in the mountains with no way out, I invented this idea of "taking the time". I realized that if I would put in twice as much time as other people, I could make it as an entrepreneur.
That's why I'm still thinking about sake-making 365 days a year. I'm 71 years old now, so I wake up at night. I wake up at night and before I know it I'm thinking about sake-making. And for me, this is fun. To me, sake-making is my hobby.
I have taken this idea and applied it to the production of sake. Of course, with the scary Labor Standards Bureau in Japan, I can't put the burden of many working hours on each member of the staff, but the point is that I realized that if we had the right number of people and put in the effort, we could pursue in making a great sake. We didn't have to be a "traditional sake-making company": Even a losing sake-making company from Yamaguchi with no history could pursue making a great sake. It was a tremendous discovery.
On one hand, the Toji system (sake artisan system, paid by the company to craft sake) is based on modern capitalism ("modern" as starting from the Edo period), so it was not considered a good idea to put in a lot of 'tema', a lot of costly and intensive work. Although it is interesting to note that, when it came to making a special sake for an annual sake competition, efficiency in the craft was ignored: all sake workers would put in the work altogether in washing rice or making koji.
The fact is, the Toji and their workers are contract-based for each working season. So apart from when making sake for a competition, it was important for them to produce a lot of sake with the smallest number of working hours, all to keep the contract for the following year with the company employing them. It was therefore an important tacit understanding that the main sake crafted for the sake company by the Toji and its team, which accounted for the majority of production, should be made with as little effort as possible.
But that's where Dassai comes in with a completely different concept of sake-making: "making a broadly available sake that requires a lot of 'tema'". That is to say, "in the pursuit of great sake, making Junmai Daiginjo broadly available on the market". For the Toji and other sake-making companies, this was a foul trick. During a meeting of Toji (sake artisans), I was told something like "we could do as well as Dassai if we tried".
Well, come to think of it, this idea of "tema" (putting in a lot of effort, costs into a craft) is something typically Japanese. During the Edo period, the search for a way to maximize rice production on limited farmland to feed the population of small villages led to this particular way of thinking. It went far into adding "tema" in the field, that one might think of as pointless.
In other words, it was a system that would not make everyone rich, but it helped in giving work to, not only the eldest son of the farmer but also the second and third sons, who might otherwise have become a nuisance for the village. This way, they could become proper members of the farming community. In short, Dassai sake crafting is an extension of this very Japanese way of thinking.
And, unlike in the past, in today's technologically advanced world, the time and effort taken to produce the product allow for the pursuit of quality rather than increased yield. This is the reason why Japan has had a high reputation for manufacturing since the Meiji era. And it is this way of thinking that Japan, as a manufacturing powerhouse, has lost sight of in recent years in the face of globalized competition from other countries. And the fact that Dassai, which has rediscovered these old-fashioned Japanese values, is the number one sake exporter in Japan (17% of the total) means that these values can be understood abroad.
And the most important condition that makes this "tema" concept fit into the modern world is the "burning desire to make the finest sake". Without this, this concept of "tema" would have a negative meaning. In the countryside, at a community meeting, it can take up to three hours to talk about something that could be done in half an hour, or three people can spend a whole day working on something that could be done in an hour. Some would say without any remorse that it helps "involving the community", and that this is necessary to integrate into the local community. This is usually what makes a community comfortable for the old but suffocating for the youth.
This is a symbolic example of the negative effects of Japan's unique concept of "tema". I think this is the reason why "local revitalization" fails in many places. In other words, the members of the community are satisfied, but nothing great is produced.
When we forget to try to make a better sake, a finer product, and when we just settle for the same thing as yesterday, "tema" becomes something that "everyone does conservatively", and as a result, we lose out to countries with low labor costs and companies whose managers make quick business decisions.
This need to make good products is integral to the concept of "tema". And making a good product must lead to high profits. Without the backing of high profits, there just cannot be better income for the manufacturing staff. It brings a dichotomy of incomes, or rather a decline in overall income. That's just like what Japan is today.
However, the scary thing is that there has to be a mechanism to connect a good product with a high profit. This is the job of entrepreneurs, isn't it? I think that entrepreneurs, myself included, should not say: "If you make a good product, people will eventually understand it one day". This would only lead to the exploitation of employees. To value this concept of "tema" will inevitably be unpopular with people believing in cost-efficient businesses and those who don't want Japan to change.
As far as we are concerned, we will continue pursuing this "tema requiring sake crafting".