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Number 1 Shimbun

Brewing Up Success: A Modern Woman in a Time-Honored Occupation

 

No1-2017-12 Midori Article

 

Brewing Up Success: A Modern Woman in a Time-Honored Occupation

By Vicki L. Beyer

Even as a primary school student, Midori Okazaki knew that her future lay in sake brewing. To some degree, her view was influenced by the fact that her father operated a sakagura – sake brewery – in Nagano’s Ueda City that had been in her family since 1665. More importantly, though, Midori is passionate about the craft.


Now in her early forties, Midori is the youngest of three girls and has no brothers. Once her sisters had chosen other livelihoods, Midori was the only one left to take up the family business, Okazaki Brewing, producing sake branded Shinshu Kirei or just Kirei. She could have followed the traditional route of marrying a man who was prepared to take over the family business, but instead, she decided she would become the 12th Okazaki to head Okazaki Brewing. And she took it a step further by deciding she wouldn’t stick to the business side but would learn sake brewing.


Midori’s journey to learn sake-making began at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, where she majored in fermentation science. She says she was a diligent student, working hard to learn the theoretical science underlying sake production. At the same time, it was through the university tennis club that she met Ken-ichi, who is now her husband and business partner.


After graduation, Midori gained some practical experience in the industry by working for a major brewer for seven years before returning to Ueda to apprentice under a toji (master brewer). He told her she had just four years to learn everything necessary to take over – as he was planning to retire. Ordinarily an apprenticeship can take as long as 10 years


Up to the end of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for a toji to oversee sake production for multiple local micro-breweries, acting as a so-called migrant brewer. Midori’s family had been engaging a toji in that way for many years. That is, they owned and operated the brewery, but did not oversee the sake production themselves. These days those migrant brewers who are left are getting older and looking to retire, so it was lucky for everyone when Midori’s chance for apprenticeship arose.


A female toji is unusual, even in these modern times. There are only about two dozen properly qualified female toji across the entire country. Forty years ago there were none.


Among the historical reasons why women have not been toji is the traditional belief that it is bad luck for a woman to even enter some parts of a sake brewery. Women were regarded as unclean and therefore potential contaminants, particularly during the crucial early stages of the fermentation process. (Even men working in a sakagura are to refrain from eating fermented foods such as natto and yoghurt during this period of the brewing process, lest contamination occur.) Back when the science of sake production was not as well understood, there was also a superstition that any woman entering the brewery would arouse the jealousy of the goddess of sake, who would, in her ire, spoil the brew.


Fortunately, those notions haven’t interfered with Midori's work. She says she has not encountered any male resistance to her role as toji. She attributes this to everyone’s knowledge of the Okazaki Brewery’s long history and the fact that she was taking over from her father and keeping the business in the family. The self-confidence she exudes surely also contributed.
Once a year Midori looks forward to the camaraderie of the annual meeting of the Kura Josei no Kai, a gathering of female toji and other women who work in or around sake production. The women are able to use their time together to air problems and offer each other tips and advice on everything from koji-kin mold production to raising teen-agers.


The most intense period of sake brewing takes place over the winter months, beginning from the end of October. During this period, the process of preparing the rice and causing it to mold so that it will ferment when mixed with water and yeast starter involves hard physical labor and working long and odd hours to tend to the mixture. Says Midori, “it’s almost like looking after a newborn infant.”


She should know. Midori is the mother of two daughters and a son. Her older daughter was born during her apprenticeship period 16 years ago. Midori considers herself lucky that the smells generated during the brewing process never made her feel unwell during her pregnancies.


The fact that the family home is “above the store,” on the same site as the brewery, helps with the long hours as Midori can more easily tend to the infant sake and still get some sleep.


During the busy brewing season, Midori is aided by her husband and two men who work at a local winery during the summer season but are free to work for her during the winter months. The four of them produce 250 koku (4,500 liters) of sake in 15 varieties. There have been times in the brewery’s history when its production was twice this amount, but Midori feels this is enough for now.


Shinshu Kirei is a well-regarded sake, having achieved first place in the Kanto Shin-etsu Tax Bureau Liquor Review Board 2015 rankings, underscoring the value of focusing on quality over quantity.


The brewery is situated in an increasingly trendy tourist destination known as Yanagi-cho, not far from Ueda Castle Park and about a 15-minute walk from Ueda Station. Midori’s father, now retired, was among the local businesspersons who pushed for tourism development of Yanagi-cho about 10 years ago, reasoning that its picturesque Edo period buildings and locally-crafted products would be an attraction. They were not wrong. While Okazaki Brewery makes sake at one end of the lane, soy sauce and miso paste are produced at the other, and there are bakeries, shops and other eateries in between.


Okazaki Brewery did not originally engage in retail sales, but in keeping with the development of Yanagi-cho the company has opened a small boutique shop at the front of the brewery where it offers tastings and sells its own sake as well as other locally produced sake and comestibles. Midori is very “at home” standing behind the counter pouring into a tasting cup while explaining the features of the particular variety.


Since the brewery has occupied this same location since 1665, Midori and her family have a strong sense of history, so they also have antique brewing equipment and a huge collection of Edo-period Hina dolls on display for visitors to enjoy. Unfortunately, they do not allow visitors to enter the brewery itself.


Midori and her husband share the responsibility for the operation of Okazaki Brewery, with Midori overseeing production while Ken-ichi manages the sales side. It's a good way to work, and it works well for them. Ken-ichi is a “city boy” who took the Okazaki family name and moved to Ueda from Tokyo when they married. A former employee of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, he seems to have easily made the adjustment to a provincial lifestyle.


Will her children follow in her footsteps? Although there is a glimmer of hope in her voice, tempered as it is with knowledge of the responsibility of taking up such a venerable family business, Midori says it’s too early to say what professions her children will chose.


Midori says there's been no particular crisis or problems during her tenure as toji, but there are the inevitable daily struggles of running a small family business. In that regard, even though she works in a time-honored occupation, Midori models the kind of modern working woman and modern working mother that the Abe government claims to want more of. She capably runs her business – traditional production that requires a great deal of care and craftsmanship – while, equally capably, raising her family. But she doesn't have to do any of it alone; rather she leverages a great partnership with her supportive husband and the help from others in her family. Isn't that modernity itself?

 

Published in: December 2017

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