Springtime in Japan begins with hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. Each year, under the canopy of fragrant, pink sakura blossoms, crowds of merrymakers converge in parks and temple grounds to celebrate with picnics, barbecues and late nights of karaoke, all fueled with spring’s first brew of saké.
Last spring, with blossoms forecast in the nation’s capital just two weeks after the disaster, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara issued a staunch decree of jishuku, or restraint, discouraging hanami revelry and the consumption of alcohol out of respect for the deceased and suffering in the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged Tohoku, or northeastern prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. Parks across the nation followed suit, canceling official events.
To the hard-hit Tohoku saké industry, this appeal for restraint posed a second devastating setback when many were already desperate to maintain their livelihoods. Kosuke Kuji, the fifth generation owner of Nanbu Bijin, a prominent Iwate saké brewery that had also sustained severe damage, was determined to encourage the nation to continue its hanami tradition and keep Tohoku businesses afloat.
Kuji, like most people in the Tohoku region, lost countless friends and colleagues in the disasters. “Witnessing so many of my friends pass away, I felt as though I was obligated to live,” he said. “Being griefstruck and dwelling on the past wouldn’t do justice to all those who died. Those of us who were left to live needed to rise up for the future of Iwate, and all of the Tohoku region.”
“At first, I just sent out a Twitter message,” Kuji explained. “‘If you’re going to drink, have a glass of Tohoku saké. If you’re going to eat, consider just one item with ingredients from Tohoku. This will lead to supporting Tohoku,’” he tweeted.
Inspired by an overwhelming number of retweets, he filmed a simple, two-minute YouTube video addressed to the people of Japan. “We are, of course, so grateful for your donations… and supplies…” he explains on video, “and while those of us here in Tohoku are in no situation to be drinking saké right now, if things continue the way they are [in this country], we are certain to face a secondary financial crisis.
“Saké revitalizes and comforts a person’s soul,” Kuji continued. “We ask that you support Tohoku by drinking our saké… For all of us here in Tohoku, your taking part in hanami will help us more than exercising restraint on our behalf.”
As the video rapidly went viral, Kuji was stunned to see it achieve more than half a million hits.
“All across Japan,” he said, “I knew people were compelled to help but were guilt-ridden by the limited amount of money, goods and time they could devote. Through our YouTube message, I feel we were able to create a new model for consumer support.”
To strengthen the message, he recruited three more regional breweries to create similar YouTube messages. By May, his campaign boosted sales to a point where many affected breweries sold out their remaining inventories. The success has offset some of the devastating losses from March and April, but since saké cannot be replenished immediately, he urged the need for continued support.
“As our coastal industries reconstruct,” Kuji said, “it is the public’s commitment to continue to drink and eat Tohoku products that will be key to their survival.”
To read about what saké insiders and volunteers are doing to help the community get back on its feet after the devestating earthquake, click here.