World’s youngest sommelier is 10 years old

02/03/2012
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TOKYO (majirox news) — Akane Niikura, a cute fourth-grade student, is an ordinary girl, except for one special accomplishment. It is so special that nobody as young as she has ever done it.

At 10 years of age, she is Japan’s youngest certified sake (Japanese rice wine) sommelier.

If this brings to mind images of elementary school children staggering down the sidewalk, it is important to note that the test to become qualified as a sake sommelier does not involve drinking, tasting, or even smelling the bouquet of sake.

There are six levels of rankings under the system devised by the Sake Study Institute (SSI). The test is entirely written. At 8 years of age, Akane passed the fifth level and became a celebrity. Television crews moved in, magazines and newspapers featured articles about her throughout Japan.

She may be far younger than Japan’s legal drinking age of 20 years, but she is mature when it comes to marketing. Last year, she and her mother, a restaurant owner, published three cooking books on cooking using sake. “Someday in the future, I’d like to operate a stand-up sake bar of my own,” Akane said.

Quite a few people are unhappy about the way Akane is being used to push alcohol.

“Research has very clearly shown that young people have the highest interest in advertising and publicity about alcohol. It doesn’t matter whether (she) touches a drop of alcohol or not, I’m opposed to letting people below legal drinking age take this test,” said Dr. Higuchi, the head of the Alcoholism Treatment Center of the Kurihama National Hospital in Yokosuka. “I would advise them (SSI) to rethink their position.”

On the other hand, some see it as a good thing. A long-established sake maker in the Kansai area said, “Sake making is a craft and tradition, which is passed from generation to generation within a family. The future head of the sake brewery is running in and out of the sake brewery from the time they can walk, and, among other things, is learning from the taste of the sake lees how to brew sake. Speaking as one who supports this traditional regional industry, I think we should welcome her certification.”

At 8 years of age, Akane seems to be relatively comfortable with the publicity she is receiving. And the sake industry needs all the publicity it can get.

Along with the kimono and Mt. Fuji, sake is considered to be a quintessential image of Japan, Nevertheless, it is rapidly declining in popularity with the Japanese people. The fall is nothing short of catastrophic for sake makers.

The Sake Brewers Association, reports that, in 1990, approximately 1,370,000 liters of sake were shipped. By 2000, this number had decreased by 980,000 liters yearly. Further, by 2010, a mere 630,000 liters of sake were shipped. If there was ever an industry in crisis, it is in the sake industry, as the Japanese increasingly turn their backs on this most Japanese of all beverages.

The Sake Brewer’s Association blames the collapse in sake sales on the much more widely available (and cheaper) choice of alcoholic beverages, the reduced opportunity to drink sake, because the custom of company workers going out to drink together nightly has faded away, and insufficient advertising and publicity. Overall, sake has an old fashioned or unfashionable image in many ways.

Recently, based on the publicity that Akane has garnered, the SSI has started “Chibikkosake tests” during the annual sake tasting that the association holds. They are written tests and events aimed at children to teach them about sake. Akane has taken part in a number of these events.

“We had a lot of misgivings about giving underage people sake sommelier certifications,” says Masayoshi Itaba, the head of SSI. “But, given the way consumption of sake has continued to fall, it is indispensable that we do something to appeal to the younger generations.”

Even with exports to the United States, where “Chizake” that is locally made sale seems to be taking hold and becoming a quiet boom, and the rise of young sake sommeliers, such as Akane, sake brewing, a tradition that has existed for perhaps as long as Japan has, is in real danger of dying out. Unless there is a deep and enduring change, particularly in the way that Japanese view sake in the foreseeable future, the industry could disappear entirely from the Japanese way of life.

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