“Here’s Looking at You”:
Re-imaging Saké Locally and Globally

Patricia Yarrow



This study examines the relationship between local and global identities associated with Japanese saké as reconfigured in the processes of globalization. Methodology includes visual analysis of saké labels and websites as touchstones to the renewal of cultural identity. Interviews with brewers, promoters, and store owners give personalized insight into the local, regional, and international issues involved.


In this paper, I will situate saké in early Japanese literature and myth, and in the emperor ordination ceremonies, in which marriages of saké and food in sacred rites symbolize the union of the new emperor with the people, land, and kami of Japan. As the Miyako/Kyoto control of Japan established a system of shrines and temples on tax-free land, the local population, property, crops were tallied and taxes collected in the form of rice, which was shipped to storehouses, and led to early banking operations. Accumulated rice converted into saké became a much more efficiently stored, traded, and shipped commodity.


The modern era brought bottles, labels, and competition with imported liquors and food. Saké and Japanese food had to share the plate and cup with others. While saké production and farms decreased, increased technological control resulted in more refined products. Another form of saké consumption is through viewing the labels, which communicate information about the sources and producers of the products. The consumer symbolically travels to the place of production through looking at a label.


Saké producers and sellers often support local artists, farmers, and food producers by showcasing their products. Local saké associations include several guilds. Regionally, several saké associations and centers continue to display saké and form primary associations for Japanese saké makers and business. Then, taking this outside of Japan for scrutiny of others is the challenge. Strategies include re-localizing products for consumption outside of Japan.


This study suggests that saké producers make use of carefully cultivated images. They have established a dialogue between rural and urban indenities by emphasizing the elements of nature and the local dynamics of production on their labels, while situating the products in modern urban settings. The success of that dialogue is now being tested on the plates and cups of the world.


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Patricia YarrowPatricia Yarrow has enthusiastically lived in Japan on and off for over ten years, largely in Tokyo. She currently inhabits Ryogoku. Her areas of research careen between exploring the world of saké, including the business and the brewers, the qualities of “shitamachi” old-fashioned living, and “Engrish”, the weirdly misapplied English found in Japan on written surfaces. She teaches English and writing at Meiji Gakuin, Kanto Gakuin, and the National Defense Academy. Her master’s thesis, completed in 2005 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was a visual analysis of the iconography of saké labels.  Since the Symposium, she has gained another title: travel blogger, with her adventures in “Shizuoka Travels With Patricia”.