Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Japanese Whisky History (1980s) - Keizo Saji and the Kumaso scandal

Jurassic Period // Unlocking Scotland I // Unlocking Scotland II //Whisky and war// Whisky and war II // Pioneer of Single Malts // Kumaso scandal

There are still people in the northern part of Japan who will not let a drop of Suntory cross their lips. In fact, there is at least one baseball stadium in the North where no Suntory products are sold at all. Why? The biggest gaffe in the history of Japanese distilling, made by our friend Keizo Saji, the legendary head of Suntory.

In the late 1980s, there was a lot of debate in Japan about moving the capital from Tokyo. Tokyo was crowded, labyrinthine, and Narita airport was a nightmare to get to, people said. There were various ideas for alternative locations but the two main groups of campaigners came from the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) area, site of the old capital and a huge conurbation itself, and from Tohoku, the Northern part of the main island.

The Kansai campaign was nothing new. Kansai people have never quite got over the loss of capital status to the upstart Tokyo. When the Emperor left at the start of the Meiji era, he kind of sidled out without really admitting he was going and they have been trying to get him back ever since. In 1923, immediately after a catastrophic earthquake wiped out Tokyo and Yokohama, Kansai people showed indecent haste in suggesting days after the disaster that it might be best if the capital came back to them. Only an Imperial edict shut them up.

The Tohoku campaign, however, was a bit of a novelty, like Cornwall suggesting it might be a good site for a relocated capital of the United Kingdom. The proponents were deadly serious and they could claim good communications and the possibility of a completely fresh start, unlike the Kansai brigade. Anyway, when Saji, a native of Kansai at the head of one of Kansai's greatest companies, was asked on television what he thought of the Tohoku idea, he responded: "Tohoku! That's where the Kumaso come from! They have a low level of culture." The Kumaso were a hairy indigenous tribe who held out against the Japanese crown in the 8th century. It didn't help the reception of Saji's comments that he had got his facts wrong. The Kumaso were from the southern island of Kyushu. There had been a similarly hairy tribe of Emishi who valiantly resisted in Tohoku. It was a bit like someone objecting to the idea of the Cornish capital on the basis that there had been an awful lot of smelly Picts there.

To cut a long story short, Tohoku went completely bonkers. Suntory adverts were banned from the local television stations and replaced with public service announcements. The entire drinking district of Sendai city completely emptied itself of Suntory products. The vice president of Suntory had to do a tour of the North, visiting governors to solicit their forgiveness. Many of them blanked him. Eventually, Saji himself had to go to each governor for a series of teary apologies. Despite all this abasement, some Tohoku people have never forgiven the arrogant Kansai Sassenachs. They prefer Nikka, Suntory's main rival, with its distilleries in the big Tohoku city of Sendai and on the northern island at Yoichi. This is particularly unfortunate for Suntory because northerners consume far more whisky per head than anywhere else in the country.

(The photo of the bearded man comes from the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan. It is actually from an old guide to Hokkaido and therefore depicts an Ainu, who are believed to have been related to the Emishi peoples on the main island. Of course, the Kumaso, Emishi and Ainu were not united in their "hairiness", it just seems that way in the derogatory depictions of the Yamato Japanese.)


Unknown said...

Thanks for some very interesting new information.
Always a pleasure to get new knowledge.

Unknown said...

Nice, i enjoyed reading your columns.
they are very informative.

if you don't mind, i'll use some excerpts from your passages for usage targeted towards korean whisky enjoying audiences in Seoul.

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