Toasting Diplomacy with Japanese Wine and Sake

Politics Culture

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been holding seminars recently on Japanese wine and sake for diplomats stationed overseas and their spouses. The aim is for the participants to better understand these beverages and incorporate them into the receptions, banquets, and other overseas events they host.

A Country with Plenty to Offer

The seminars, which began in 2011, are held at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo once every three or four months. The impetus for the ministry to get involved in promoting Japanese alcoholic drinks dates back to 2007, when the International Wine Challenge competition decided to add a category for sake. Since then, the ministry has been encouraging Japan’s embassies to showcase Japanese sake at various events in order to encourage exports and promote Japanese culture.

The ministry has been emphasizing the outstanding quality of Japanese wine and sake, encouraging its diplomats to make greater use of these products. For example, the banquet held for the 2000 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit hosted by Japan included the sparkling wine Novo, produced by the Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi Prefecture. And the Japanese red wine Kaze no Rouge, produced by the same winery, was served at the dinner hosted by the wife of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo at the 2008 G8 summit in Hokkaidō. These wines drew favorable attention from the world leaders who attended the events. This is similar to the efforts that China has been making for some time at its overseas embassies to promote Chinese wines.

In December 2007, as a trial initiative, the Foreign Ministry served Japanese wine at receptions held at several Japanese embassies to celebrate Emperor Akihito’s birthday. This created a positive buzz in the countries involved. Ever since then, a growing number of embassies have expressed a desire to make use of Japanese wines for their events. In 2012, the ministry sent 3,120 bottles of Japanese wine to embassies and consulates in 31 countries. 

Diplomats hosting events where Japanese wine or sake is served need to be able to offer a clear explanation of the products to their guests, should the need arise. Such explanations are an opportunity to promote the products. It was in response to this need that the ministry set up the seminars for embassy staff and their spouses.

Exports Have a Long Way to Go

I recently attended a seminar to find out more. On the first day, the focus was Japanese sake. Around 40 people attended, including newly appointed ambassadors and consul generals, as well as those who will not immediately be posted overseas but still wanted to learn more about sake. The instructor was an employee from the National Tax Agency. The topics covered during the seminar included the origin of Japanese sake, the types of rice used to produce it, basic information on production methods, and the differences between varieties of sake (such as  ginjō, junmai, and honjōzō). As I looked around, I could see the other participants enthusiastically jotting down notes during the seminar. We learned, much to our surprise, that total exports of Japanese sake in 2011 (of around ¥8.8 billion) were only just over 1% of France’s exports of wine during the same period. 

A tasting session during the two-day seminar.

The tasting session that followed was led by the president of a sake brewery. During the session, participants tried small samples of six different varieties of sake, along with small dishes of inarizushi (rice stuffed in fried tofu), cheese, prosciutto, pickled vegetables, chocolate, and a dab of marmalade. We tried these items along with the sake, while listening to our instructor. Some of the things we learned were that the fruity ginjō type of sake tends to be popular among foreigners; that sake suits a wider variety of food than wine does; and that cheese in fact goes as well with sake as red wine. Our instructor also made us aware of how well sake goes with citrusy flavors, like the marmalade we tried. And the chocolate we tasted was the perfect match for aged sake.

One participant asked about methods to store sake after it is opened. In response, the instructor said that due to the higher alcohol content and the capacity to be heated, sake does not oxidize as quickly as wine. This means that an opened bottle can keep for up to a month or so. Another participant suggested that the sake producers should package their product in smaller bottles to better suit overseas needs.

Japan’s Wine-making Tradition

On the following day the discussion shifted to Japanese wine. The participants again listened to an introduction provided by the instructor, and then sampled five different varieties of wine. We learned that the white Koshū grape native to Japan is low in iron content, so even when served with seafood dishes it will not take on a fishy flavor. Another characteristic of Japanese wine is its mellow acidity.

Because of its weak “attack,” Japanese wine is the perfect accompaniment to a wide range of food dishes. Fujii Akihiko, Japan’s consulate-general in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was impressed by how much he learned at the seminar, and said he would think more seriously about how to make use of Japanese wine, drawing on the popularity of wine among people in Thailand. 

Currently, there are 13 wine-producing countries in Asia. Japanese wine enjoys a favorable position because its own tradition dates all the way back to the Meiji era (1868–1912). In contrast, other countries in Asia have only been producing wine since the mid-1990s, relying on foreign investment and technology. Over many decades and with much trial and error, Japan has improved its soil cultivation and grape varieties and learned a great deal from wine-producing nations about fermentation methods.

Attending the seminar made me hope that events featuring sake and wine will make a positive contribution to Japanese diplomacy by increasing the number of fans of these products outside of Japan.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 9, 2013.)

diplomacy Ministry of Foreign Affairs wine Japanese Sake Megumi