SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

YEH Wenchang “Japanese sake and Taiwan Shaoxing rice wine”

I was told by SGRA (Sekiguchi Global Research Association) in 2018: How about having the Japan-Taiwan Forum (we had the Forum in Taiwan in the past) in Shimane Prefecture in Japan this time? I thought it was all right first if the forum would be in my field. However, SGRA asked me if the forum theme would be understandable for predominantly liberal arts (not STEM) members. (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) They are asking me “about the integration of “liberal arts and STEM””. STEM people are asked to understand liberal arts people under “cultured”. A lot of liberal arts people, on the other hand, do not try to understand STEM’s words. Is it strange?


As it cannot be helped, I tried to think of any theme that everybody could enjoy. Key words are ‘Shimane’ and ‘Taiwan’, ‘integration of liberal arts and STEM’ and ‘craftsmanship’, which I can enjoy. Shimane Prefecture is proud of ‘Tatara ironmaking’ and ‘Japanese sake’. When I got a job at Shimane University, I read “Satetu no Michi” (The Way of Iron Sand) by Ryotaro Shiba, paying honor to the craftsmanship of Shimane. I have tried to enjoy Japanese sake.   

And I found ‘Sake’ can integrate liberal arts and STEM. Then, how about Taiwan? There is old sake, as a recent trend in Japanese sake. Japanese sake, which features freshness, is matured for several years, and when I tried sake, I found similar factors with Shaoxing rice wine. That is to say, its main raw material is glutinous rice. And I decided the theme of the forum to be “Japanese sake and Taiwan Shaoxing rice wine”.  


It is said that ancient Chinese poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, advanced their intellectual creation for sake. In Matsue City (in Shimane Prefecture), Chinese poetry has been flourishing since the Edo period. I invited a lecturer who can speak about Chinese poetry in Matsue from the Edo to the Meiji period in order to understand it multidimensionally, hoping the intellectual creation of audiences will flourish. 


The ingredient of sake is alcohol. In order to get alcohol, it is necessary for sugar to ferment yeast. In the case of wine, the sugar of the grapes is fermented by yeast. On the other hand, as rice is starch and does not contain sugar, we cannot make alcohol with yeast. So, it is necessary to change sugar from starch. There is ‘kuchi-kami sake’ all over the world from a long time ago. It is a liquor made by chewing with one’s mouth. It means human saliva saccharify enzyme. However, in the case of Japanese sake and Shaoxing rice wine, saccharification is made by yeast. We call it ‘multiple parallel fermentation’ in which starch, koji(mold) and yeast are mixed. Why do we call it multiple fermentation? I think it is fermentation in a broad sense, because its saccharification is due to microorganisms. In short, both Japanese sake and Shaoxing rice wine are fermented parallelly and multiply from rice.


I had several tours of Japanese sake breweries. The fermentation room is the most important point in sake breweries, and it is built of hinoki (Japanese cypress). Why do they use hinoki, not stainless? It is said that, in order to make ferment, they take advantage of the normal bacterial flora of hinoki. It is the same idea with the Japanese secret sauce of eel restaurants or Taiwanese Lo bah png (minced pork rice). I could have an expert say “It’s great that a pan is not washed for a hundred years. And foods that are cooked using such frying pans would be good.”


Do first-class chefs leave their taste of dishes to the dices of gods? It cannot be right. Do factory workers in cutting-edge technological semiconductor factories not clean room saying gods dwell in the rooms? No! It cannot be right. If I tell those two fables to sake drinkers, I will be accused. I am not criticizing hinoki rooms or secret sauce. Tradition is important. I think it is unnecessary to change such a tradition if they make foods nicely and profitably. However, I feel a sense of romance in craftsmanship that does not rely on gods. They aim for a taste by trusting a mix of bacteria, like 1+2=3, not entrusting it to gods. In the case of Japanese sake brewing, traditional predecessors have followed the rational and efficient path through the Edo period (‘kimoto’ yeast starter), the Meiji period (‘sokujyo’: quick fermentation), and after World War II (non-foaming yeast).


Then, how about Shaoxing rice wine? I visited Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL), where Shaoxing rice wine is produced for the preparation of the forum. Their process is very similar to that of Japanese sake by the reason that both factories adopt parallel and multiple fermentation system. It was surprising for me that fermentation room was made by Hforoki. They do not use the words ‘kimoto’, ‘shubo,’ and ‘moromi’, but, when I explain the meaning of those words, they could understand. Then, what is the difference between Japanese sake and Shaoxing rice wine? And what is the difference between Taiwan Shaoxing rice wine and Chinese rice wine? Taiwan Shaoxing brewery has been converted from Japanese sake brewery in Japan rule age by Chinese craftsmen of Shaoxing rice wine who came from China. Then, what is the difference between Taiwan Shaoxing wine and Chinese Shaoxing wine?


I do not reveal the answer here. Please come to the forum and find the answer by listening to the lecturers’ speeches and enjoying the differences in taste with your five senses.  



SGRA Kawaraban 743 in Japanese (Original)



YEH Wenchang: Researcher of the SGRA Research Team (Environment and Energy), Professor of Shimane University (Physics and Engineering)



Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English was checked by Sabina Koirala