Prime Minister Abe’s Saké Diplomacy
Japan’s Emerging Alcoholic Beverage Export Strategy
Volume 20, Issue 2 (Discussion Paper 1 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 August 2020.
Japanese governmental strategies under the direction of Abe Shinzō seek to increase the export of Japanese sake, both in volume and value, for both economic benefit and as a mechanism to enhance Japan’s soft power on the international stage.
Keywords: Diplomacy, saké, exports, soft power
Introduction: International Market Share of Japanese Saké
Saké (nihonshu) is Japanese rice wine made from fermented rice. There are a number types of saké such as raw saké (namazake), cloudy saké (nigorizake), sparkling saké, local saké (jizake), old saké (koshu), or sweet saké (amazake) with less alcohol. There is another distinction based on the degree of polishing the rice: at least 40% polished away (ginjo) and at least 50% polished away (daiginjo). Also, another distinction is the addition of alcohol. Saké without the addition of other alcohol is called junmai, and sake with the addition of a small amount of extra alcohol is categorised as honjozo. The varieties of saké made in Japan have been becoming more and more popular in the world. (1)
Indeed, the quality of Japanese saké has been highly recognised internationally, and there is a Japanese saké section in the world’s most rigorous competition, namely, the International Wine Competition (IWC). (2) Despite the increasing popularity of Japanese cuisine and saké in the world, however, the global market share of Japanese saké is less than 1% (approximately ¥400 billion) out of the entire alcoholic beverages in the world (¥108 trillion), and the main consumers of saké are inside Japan. On the contrary, the global market share of wine amounted to some ¥23 trillion, which is 57 times larger than that of saké. (3) In this unbalanced international commercial situation of alcoholic beverages, what has Prime Minister Abe Shinzô planned to promote Japanese sake around the world?
Japan’s Saké Export Strategy under the Abe Government
The Abe government has intended to strengthen the international competitiveness of Japanese saké. For instance, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide visited a saké brewery in Tottori Prefecture for an inspection on 4 November 2019. Although Suga usually does not drink alcohol, he tasted the flavour of the saké in a wine glass. The Chief Cabinet Secretary stated: ‘Saké has great potential as an agricultural export, and it’s necessary to promote high-value-added products, set prices accordingly, and have a brand strategy’. (4) According to the data of the Minister of Finance, Japan exported about ¥22.2 billion worth of saké in 2018, which was a 19% increase from the previous year, marking the ninth record high. (5) The increasing international popularity of saké is partially due to the fact that Japanese cuisine was registered as an intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2013. (6)
Likewise, Prime Minister Abe has strategically promoted Japanese saké to strengthen its international competitiveness and to expand the global market share. Notably, the Abe government has earmarked approximately ¥1.78 billion ($16 million) as the state budget for the promotion of Japanese saké and other alcoholic beverages produced in Japan. The total budget for the promotion of Japanese saké in 2020 is seven times larger than that of the initial budget of the previous year. Specifically, the Japanese government plans to set up booths in large-scale international exhibitions, invite foreign buyers, establish coordinators overseas, enhance marketing research in major countries, strengthen promotion of Japanese alcoholic beverages in Japan House, and to facilitate tourism for saké brewers. (7)
With a view to effectively facilitating the promotion of Japanese saké, the Abe government established an export promotion office within the Liquor Tax and Industry Division of the National Tax Agency, an external organ of the Japanese Finance Ministry, with 18 dedicated officers in July 2020 to support companies that export Japanese alcoholic beverages. According to an official of the division, ‘most of the sake breweries are small and medium-sized companies, and it’s difficult for them to develop new sales channels on their own’. Therefore, the agency attempts to provide business matching services to saké brewers. (8) Thus, Japan’s alcoholic beverage export strategy has been emerging under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe.
Abe’s Saké Diplomacy toward Hollande, Putin, Obama, and Trump
Interestingly, Prime Minister Abe has made diplomatic endeavours to contribute to the promotion of Japanese saké in international conferences and to entertain national guests with a spirit of Japanese hospitality. For example, Abe presented his favourite Japanese saké, Dassai, produced in his constituency, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to French President Francois Hollande when he visited Tokyo in June 2013. Given the fact that French wine is internationally highly evaluated and consumed, it was a strategic decision for the prime minister to present one of the best saké brands to the French president. The prime minister also presented Dassai to President Vladimir Putin in the event of APEC on 7 October 2013. The day was Putin’s 61st birthday. (9) Likewise, when President Barack Obama visited Japan from 23 to 25 April 2014, Abe took Obama to a famous sushi bar, Jiro, where the prime minister poured saké for Obama, indicating their amicable bilateral relationship. (10) Then, Abe presented Dassai to Obama as a commemorative gift.
Incidentally, Dassai has been utilised not only in political and diplomatic arenas but also in a variety of international business fields. Actually, Dassai has been used for the opening ceremony of a branch of UNIQLO, a Japanese clothing company, in Paris, Bangkok, New York, and Ginza. This is because Yanai Tadashi, the President of UNIQLO, was born in Yamaguchi Prefecture. (11) In the internationally famous Japanese animation, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dassai was depicted as the favourite saké of Katsuragi Misato, one of the main female characters in the series. The director of the animation, Anno Hideaki, was also born in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and for this reason, Dassai was sold even on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, decorated with characters from the series. (12) Dassai has been featured as a model case of Japan’s ‘aggressive agriculture’ export strategy promoted by the Abe government. With a financial support by the government, Asahi Shuzo Corporation has conducted Dassai tasting events around the world, and ‘expanded export destinations to twenty countries, with Paris as a base for its exporting activities’. The Dassai junmai daiginjo is now highly evaluated as a ‘world-class’ fruity saké. (13)
Needless to say, Dassai is not the only saké that the Japanese government has been promoting. During the G7 Ise-Shima Summit on 26 and 27 May 2016, the Abe government celebrated the opening ceremonies of the summit with other famous saké brands—Hanzo, Zaku, and Takijiman—produced in Mie Prefecture. (14) When President Donald Trump visited Japan on 5 November 2017, Abe entertained the president with a mix of Japanese and French cuisines at Ginza Ukai-tei. (15) The next day, Trump was entertained with Japanese red and white wine from Yamanashi and Nagano Prefectures, as well as the Japanese saké brand, Yuri, made in Fukushima Prefecture. (16) On 28 May 2019, Trump visited Japan and inspected the JS Kaga, a helicopter carrier of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. (17) Abe presented the Japanese saké brand, Kaga, made in Hiroshima, to Trump as a commemorative gift, symbolising Japan-US friendship based on the bilateral military alliance. (18)
Conclusion: The Future of the sake Diplomacy as Japan’s Soft Power
As discussed in this essay, the Abe government has sought to export Japanese alcoholic beverages to other countries where Japanese foods are already popular. Moreover, Prime Minister Abe has strenuously attempted to promote Japanese saké brands, especially Dassai, through various diplomatic events to celebrate the ceremonial occasions and entertain national guests, such as Hollande, Putin, Obama, and Trump. At this stage, the international market share of Japanese saké is only 1%. Paradoxically however, it signifies the fact that there exists a great business chance for Japanese sake makers, if they can enhance the international competitiveness of saké and develop their global market share. More importantly, Japanese saké is one of the integral parts of ‘soft power’. (19) In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis that has severely damaged the Japanese economy and trade, the Abe government is expected firmly to support domestic business, including saké makers, so that they can properly continue their businesses that contribute to the enhancement of both Japan’s economy and its soft power.
Article copyright Daisuke Akimoto.