|The purity of rice is very important to Japanese consumers|
I visited 10 breweries and Nanbu Bijin owner Kosuke Kuji was one of the few to address the issue, but he's also a professor at Tokyo Agricultural University.
Kuji buys most of his rice from a local co-op in Iwate prefecture. The location is important: Iwate prefecture is northeast of Fukushima.
Wind flows west to east over Japan, so the great majority of breweries, more than 90%, can shrug off the radiation question. We're more likely to have radioactive particles from Fukushima in California than they are in Kyoto or Fukui or even nearby -- but due west -- Niigata. Sake brewers assume we're smart enough to read a map, but of course we aren't. I asked this question in Yamaguchi prefecture, at the far southwestern end of the main island of Japan, and the brewer laughed at me.
Unfortunately one of my favorite sake prefectures, Yamagata, is immediately north of Fukushima, though take a look at the map: rice in Yamagata grows along the sea of Japan side to the west, because the area just north of Fukushima is mountainous.
Miyagi, Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures surround Fukushima to the north and south, and they're both east and right in the path.
Iwate prefecture is about 300 km north of Fukushima, and it is to the east. Lots of rice comes from there. It's a big political issue: Tokyo consumers no longer trust their government (if they ever did), but they don't want to stop eating rice either.
Kuji also says that the government will not publicize this program because it fears that would put thoughts of radiation in consumers' heads. In fact, immediately after the nuclear disaster, people stopped drinking sake from the entire Tohoku part of northern Honshu (the main island) for a time. Kuji worked on a Youtube video that explained to Japanese people that the sake industry, which has been shrinking for 40 years, would be devastated and might disappear like so many other traditional Japanese arts. He showed his own radiation testing regimen. The video went viral.
Sake sales in Japan last year actually rose for the first time in 40 years, and Nanbu Bijin sells out, perhaps because everyone in Japan knows Kuji has his own geiger counter.
I know this won't make some brewers happy, but I would be a little squeamish about sakes from Fukushima, Miyagi and Ibaraki. Fortunately, those were never my favorite sake regions anyway, and you would really have to look hard to find sake from there in the US. I believe in the government's testing program, because for once the usually compliant Japanese media has been making a big deal about it, sometimes testing rice and other agricultural products on their own.
Sake from the rest of Japan, I feel very confident in.
Is there a chance of radiation? The chance might be higher in Oregon. Seriously -- just look at the wind path.
But you can scare yourself that way if you want. If you want to say the chance is greater than zero, there's also a chance that a cursed video will make you die of a heart attack exactly seven days after watching it, and a dead girl will crawl out of your TV screen to make that happen. I love "Ring," one of the best horror movies every made. Now that's scary. Japanese sake, that's not.