While I have no particular desire to be controversial or confrontational, a recurring topic regarding sake’s foray into foreign markets has got me somewhat perplexed. As you may well already know (if you’ve found this site you probably do) sake exports are booming. While sales of sake in Japan are relatively sluggish, breweries have discovered the prosperous markets of Asia, USA, Europe and Oceania as being a new avenue to keeping their business alive. Of all sake produced, the lion’s share is still by far consumed domestically, however the lure of the foreign market has proven undeniable to many and is seen as one of the pillars of strength for the future of sake. So along with this movement comes the obvious question of how to approach the market and promote sake to a foreign audience. And this is where it gets murky.
For many (including Japanese native speakers), the first hurdle to understanding sake is the vocabulary. Indeed, there are seemingly an endless amount of words one must learn in order to understand and appreciate sake.
Except there isn’t.
A bit of a caveat; yes, I can speak and read Japanese quite well and have some seventeen years of experience with the culture and language so I may have a head start on most but I still believe anyone can learn sake jargon if they have a few minutes to spare and the motivation. I’m so lazy I’m not even going to count them, but I’m going to throw it out there and say there are about twenty (at the most!) new words you will need to learn in order to understand the basics of nihonshu. This doesn’t include the names of brands nor the myriad of rice varieties. Aren’t there more than twenty? Of course there are but I’m talking about the basics of understanding what’s in the bottle and on the label. Twenty words really isn’t a lot. Sit down for a weekend and read a book on sake or by all means take a browse of the sake basics link on this site. That is really all the average drinker needs to know to order a glass of sake with some relative confidence in a restaurant. If you want to be an expert it will of course take a little more than that but for the 99% of folks who have a passing interest or just want to expand their drinking repertoire beyond wine and spirits this is plenty of information. I can say from experience that if you were to try and get your head around old world wines from France, Italy, Spain or Germany by comparison sake jargon and labeling is quite easy to understand and pretty straight forward.
Which brings us to the next hurdle of understanding sake, the names. This is an interesting phenomena where for some reason there is this faction of consumers, retailers, sommeliers and producers themselves who believe that the names of sake makers need to be translated into English in order for foreigners to appreciate the sake in the bottle. I have written before on the common kanji used in sake brands and their meaning and am guilty of occasionally direct translating names when the translation is simple enough. It can be fun and definitely interesting but by no means do I believe it is necessary. A non-Japanese speaking American recently remarked to me that the names of sake brands have no meaning or resonance with him. In reply I say, walk into your local liquor shop and have a look around. Do you know what Stolichnaya means? Krug? Bourgogne aligoté Bouzeron? Tanqueray? Laphraoig? No?
Or perhaps some Australian winery names will make more sense, Wirra Wirra? Torbreck? Toolangi?
Still nothing? I am being a little facetious but my point is these names despite being made up of the English alphabet have no meaning whatsoever in and of themselves to most people outside of being the name on a label of booze. Therefore why is it that a Japanese label such as Rihaku seemingly requires a translation in order to connect with its market? Is it really any harder to pronounce than any of the other names listed above? Is it merely a refelction of current society’s short attention span that if the product is not instantly recognizable it will be forgotten? Some may argue that it is merely smart business strategy on the part of the brewery in taking a short-cut into the consumers’ consciousness by giving them an English name to grasp onto as in the above case, marketing Rihaku as “Wandering Poet”. Not a direct translation as such by the way; Rihaku doesn’t actually mean wandering poet, it is the name of the poet referenced in the English label. However by promoting sake under these pseudonyms it further perpetuates the idea that sake is something that cannot be easily understood by westerners, that it’s something that requires translation on every level. This is simply untrue and honestly, a lazy excuse to not explain the sake and its provenance. Bear in mind I am not referring to the romanized English labels. Of course non-Japanese (and many Japanese themselves) cannot read the characters/kanji on the sake labels so to write them in roman English for the foreign market is common sense but it’s the sometimes nonsensical translations and in some cases the complete re-labeling for the foreign market which I struggle to comprehend.
The side-effect of this movement toward English translated labels is the creation of a split market. To approach the domestic and foreign markets as completely separate from each other may not be a terrible idea however it falters in the inability to cross-over. A drinker who has paid their dues educating their palate with such sake as Black Dragon, Roots of Innocence, Dragon Shaped Plum Trees or Otter Festival may be surprised to find these sake seemingly unavailable in Japan by those names. Likewise, I have been in the reverse situation and been unable to make head or tail of a sake list in a restaurant back home in Australia because the list consisted of forced English translations when the Japanese name would’ve often been shorter and simpler to remember. As I said before the story behind the name of a sake can be interesting and it can be fun to translate the names into English when a direct translation is possible but it shouldn’t be considered something necessary in order to break into the English speaking market.
Finally the other reason the forced translated names irks me is simple; it’s lazy. Even in 2017 there is still an underlying feeling in Japanese society that local customs and culture are impossible for a foreigner to grasp or understand. Make no mistake, some things in Japan are downright weird but food and drink is a fairly universal concept and clearly something that people are interested in. However some producers and exporters/importers can’t be bothered explaining to the customer what their product is and what it’s about so they opt for re-labeling their sake with an awkward translation that ends up sounding like a bad Bruce Lee film title in hope customers will pick up their sake based on familiarity. Furthermore, given the high quality of sake being exported these days it’s not unfair to expect sommeliers, bartenders, retailers and importers to dedicate a decent amount of time to learning about sake as well….including the names.