Spotlight On... Winner of Minister's Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food, Rie Yoshitake

UK-based Ms Rie Yoshitake was among the winners of the Eighth Minister's Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food announced earlier this year. Ms Yoshitake is a UK-Japan communication expert and Sake Promoter. She is an official UK Liaison for the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association and the UK representative for the Sake Samurai Association.

The Minister's Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food is given to people who have made outstanding contributions to the introduction and spread of Japanese cuisine and agricultural and fishery products overseas. Its purpose is to further expand exports of these items. Both foreign nationals and Japanese nationals residing overseas are eligible.

We spoke to Ms Yoshitake about her activities and the award. Below follows a summary of the interview.

Where in Japan are you from?

I’m from Fukuoka, Kyushu. Fukuoka or Kyushu people in general are known to be very warm and friendly. I’m from the seaside - a place called Munakata. It is said to be the origin of overseas Japanese trade - everything started from that port. I feel like it’s in my DNA to go overseas somehow, but eventually to bring something back too. Fukuoka people are very outward thinking. You can find many in the UK!

How did you become interested in promoting sake?

I'm a wine person, and mainly worked in the wine business until I started promoting sake. London is the capital of fine wines - all the best wines are selected from overseas so that's why competitions like the International Wine Challenge (IWC) developed here. It also has a vast network and is the centre of journalism in Europe, so this really is the best place to introduce sake. As a Japanese person in the wine business, Sake Samurai (an organisation whose purpose is to promote sake) pinpointed me. I have a great wine network and they wanted to connect wine and sake.

At the time I knew nothing about sake. I had an image of it not tasting very good, and that it was not at all stylish. But after working with Sake Samurai and understanding their purpose, I realised that sake is not just an alcoholic drink, but it is Japanese culture. It has been around for hundreds of years. The more I got to know about sake the deeper I got to know myself. I found that sake is Japan. I feel very happy and lucky that through sake I found what I truly wanted to do, which was to make a bridge between Japan and the UK. It is not only about educating British people but about helping Japan – helping Japanese people to find out who they are – their identity. If it was simply for the sake of selling alcohol I wouldn’t do it. I’ve been supporting Sake Samurai for eight years now, but the first five years were absolutely as a volunteer. Time and effort was spent from my heart. It is my complete joy to do this!
Also, I would like Japanese people to understand about London being a centre for media and the home of such a large wine network. I want to advise Japanese colleagues how to promote and use those networks, as well as promoting Japan here.

Why is Japan keen to promote sake overseas?

Sake is a declining industry in Japan. If it were doing well maybe people would not have established the Sake Samurai Association. About 100 years ago we had around 4000 sake breweries (or kuramoto) but now there are only about 1000 operating sake makers. And we are losing about 10 breweries every year. Once you lose the licence to make sake, you can’t get a new one. There are many reasons for the decline, but generally, sake is not considered to be a stylish or popular drink, especially amongst young people in Japan. In many areas Japan tends to look overseas and jump on board with what is popular, rather than taking their own stance. One reason why we promote overseas is because eventually we want Japanese people to find out what is important in their own culture. If sake were to become popular overseas, I think many Japanese people would change their attitude about it too. So, it’s not just about generating sales overseas, but increasing the popularity of sake in its homeland too.

Another reason is to boost tourism. As people start knowing more about sake, there is more opportunity for sake tourism, thus helping the sake makers to survive and boost the local economy. Just as there is wine tourism in France, we can develop sake tourism in Japan. People can visit local sake brewers. A sake maker’s house would be one of the oldest houses in a local area.  By visiting and getting to knowing them, tourists are getting to know the history and culture of the area.  Sake houses are still quite old – they have a history of hundreds of years. Where else in Japan can you visit a place that has been there for hundreds of years? It is automatically a museum of the locality and so well connected to everything. But the most important thing is that sake is delicious! And local sake has a local taste and the local food is a perfect match for it. Now people try to make a very easy-to-drink, general style but traditionally the flavour of sake would be specific to the local area and its food.



What problems have you faced in encouraging people to try sake in the UK?

There are three main misconceptions about sake that people overseas often have. Firstly, people think it’s an alcoholic horror! That it is distilled like a spirit rather than brewed.  Secondly, that sake needs to be drunk warm. Thirdly, that sake only goes with Japanese food like sushi. I want to remove these misconceptions before encouraging people to think about sake. It’s difficult to start from this very negative image. Perhaps the sake that people drank in the past wasn’t good at the time, but 30 years ago we had a revolution in Japan because of the arrival of ginjo. A new machine for polishing rice was developed, and the sake you can get now is of a very new and fine quality – just like fine wines. This good quality sake is better served cold. I want to let people know that we can drink sake in a more relaxed way - even at home – just as you might have a bottle of wine. We could drink sake and wine for a meal together naturally. In fact, in this respect I have learnt a lot from Ambassador Hayashi, who is a great ambassador for sake.

Ms Yoshitake with Sake Samurai volunteers and representatives from sake breweries at the IWC award winning sake tasting event at the Embassy

What advice do you have for British people who would like to know more about sake?

I have found that people who want to try sake are often fans of Japanese food. Sadly there are not many retailers who sell good sake. There are only a few places that stock it (for example, the Japan Centre), so it often needs to be drunk at a Japanese restaurant. In fact, I would recommend that this is the best way to try sake first, rather than buy a bottle yourself. The good sake from Japan is still difficult and expensive to buy in the UK, and often you may find that the bottle has been sitting on the shelf too long if you are not careful. Sake is not like wine – it doesn’t last. Generally it needs to be consumed young - within a year or so. Therefore, consumers have to be clever enough to know where to buy from and check the date of production. You should try to drink it as soon as you buy it – don’t keep it for too long. You can enjoy it hot or cold – it is something so unique!

Also, if I were a sales person, something I would love to talk about more is that sake is supposed to be good for the skin. Sake has a lot of amino acids – the most of any drink. It gives nutrition to the body and helps the function of the liver and heart. It was always said in Japanese history that sake was the king of Japanese medicine! Also, because of the amino acids, it helps to hydrate the skin – I joke that this is why the Japanese look deceptively young!  And another thing, with good sake, everything is natural – no additives. Sake is very pure and natural.

What are your future plans for sake promotion in the UK?

Sake is going to be a great ambassador for Japan - people will be able to find out more about Japan through sake. We are just moving into the second gear of sake promotion now, so in the future I’m very curious about how British people will include sake into their own culture. I still think London is the best place to introduce sake to the rest of the world. The UK places much importance on history and tradition but these live together with innovation. What I want to see in the future is how tradition and innovation go together with sake. I want to see how sake is integrated into European culture. I hope Britain will help to invent a new image for sake. I think we would attract a new audience with that new image. As I mentioned, young people in Japan have been staying away from sake, considering both the production and the drink itself to be old-fashioned. Sake cannot survive as it is. We want to protect sake at the same time we need to do something to challenge the sake industry and build something new as well so that the Japanese heritage and identity that we are proud of will live on forever.