Throughout history, human beings have formed an inarguably fascinating relationship with alcoholic drinks. From the moment we started foraging for fermented fruit on the forest floor, mankind has taken some wild and unique approaches to quench a universal thirst for this addictive substance. In a bizarre way, alcohol has become part of our culture and (for some groups of people) an essential part of philosophical and spiritual practices. Perhaps one of the best examples is the beautiful country Japan, a cluster of islands that has perfectly blended with America. While Western influence is huge in the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japanese have still held on to tradition. Where else can you see a geisha walking onto a bullet train in metro Tokyo? However, one ancient tradition that has still held fast is the practice of drinking sake, a sacred rice wine. Let’s take a closer look at the spiritual and social significance of this pungent drink in Japanese culture.

National Liquor of Japan

UNDERSTANDING THE SPIRITUAL AND SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF SAKE IN JAPANESE CULTUREWidely known as nihonshu (“Japanese liquor”), sake is an artisan alcoholic drink that is produced through the fermentation of white rice. Overall, this beverage has become a national icon for Japan and is commonly consumed during national holidays, traditional ceremonies, and special events. As part of the serving process, the wine is poured from a tokkuri (a tall bottle) into a sakazuki (a small porcelain cup).


Fascinatingly, the production process of sake actually predates modern Japanese history, so researchers are not entirely clear as to when the drink was invented. However, accounts from China (500 B.C.) detail the crude brewing process for rice wine, where people would chew and spit the grains into a tub (where the drink would ferment thanks to bacteria from human saliva). Later, this unclean process was abandoned after the discovery of koji, a mold enzyme that aided fermentation.


Initially, the Japanese government controlled sake production until, at some point during the 10th Century, the drink was crafted in temples and shrines, which would serve as distilleries well into the 1300s. However, during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), civilian brewers could not craft sake. Later, during World War II, shortages of rice led to producers adding pure alcohol and glucose to the mixture, the process that is still used today.

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