Friday, June 12, 2015

Japan moves to protect "sake" -- but there's a catch

The best "sake" is made by hand in Japan
Like Champagne, Tequila and many other regional products, Japan's government is planning to protect the name of its national beverage, sake.

In theory, members of the World Trade Organization -- this is just about every country -- would have to abide and not allow businesses to use the protected name for anything other than a beverage brewed in Japan with Japanese rice.

You can see why Japan's Finance Ministry would want to do this. Sake sales are rising sharply in the U.S., but breweries in Japan aren't the main beneficiaries, as more than 75% of the sake we buy is produced here (albeit almost entirely by Japanese-owned companies.) And purely on an aesthetic level, the best sakes made here don't rise to the quality of good sakes from Japan. "Gallo Hearty Burgundy" -- not a bad drink, but, well, you know -- is a pretty good analogy for U.S.-made sake.

But there's a big catch. In Japan, sake is called "Nihonshu," which literally means "Japan liquor." It's not clear to me whether the term "sake" by itself would be affected.

I've been reading the Japanese media on this issue but it's complicated because 1) Japanese media uses the term "Nihonshu" in the stories, thus avoiding the issue, and 2) Japanese media are famously, frustratingly, vague and non-confrontational. Some U.S. newspaper* is going to do a better story on this than even Japan's best newspaper; that happens all the time.

* (You might ask if that newspaper story will be done by me. Probably not. I may qualify as an expert on sake, but not on international trade law, which is what's needed here.)

Doesn't say "sake" in English
There is a parallel in the protected name "Burgundy," which is not what the region is called in its native language. Both "Bourgogne" and the English translation are protected in theory. But the U.S. calls "Burgundy" (and Port and Sherry and some others) a "semi-generic name" and continues to allow its use in some instances, particularly when the company was using the name before.

However, the English translation of "Nihonshu" is not sake; it's "Japanese sake." Here's a story in the English-language Asahi Shimbun which uses that term while completely ignoring the importance.  English-language media in Japan has its own issues; it's likely this story was simply translated and copy edited without any original reporting, because a native English speaker would ask the question I'm asking here:

What term will be protected: "Sake," or "Japanese sake"?

If the latter, the venture seems pointless. I've never seen "Japanese sake" used to promote sake not made in Japan.

If the former, there's another issue that California wineries will be very familiar with. Let's assume U.S. manufacturers like Oregon's SakéOne will be grandfathered in. What about new producers who want to make "rice brew?" Can they say "sake" without "Japanese" is a semi-generic name for a category of beverage? If so, what's the point of protecting the name?

If nothing else, perhaps this gives Japan a small chip to use in trade negotiations. In this new era of Chinese dominance, Americans have probably forgotten how much U.S. lawmakers used to publicly beat up on Japan. Japanese haven't, believe me: it's still a front-of-mind issue. Japan's ruling party Jiminto may have decided that even if there's no real point to protecting the term "Nihonshu," it's worth seeing if that small chip is worth holding.

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