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Once a national treasure, Fukushima sake a victim of tsunami fallout




Taiji Watanabi shows a bottle of Kyoto sake in his Tokyo liquor store. (Rick Westhead)

TOKYO--Customers at Taiji Watanabi's liquor shop get something extra when they buy a bottle of sake made in Fukushima -- a safety certificate emblazoned with a yellow smiley face that promises the rice wine is radioactive free.

The peace of mind that the certificate purportedly offers isn't making much of a difference.

Watanabi said most of his clients have refused to buy sake made in Fukushima since the March 2011 tsunami swept away much of Japan's coastline and left a nuclear power plant in the prefecture seeping radiation.

"People know radiation gets into rice, gets into soil, and people are afraid," Watanabi said, standing in front of a fridge packed with no fewer than 60 varieties of sake, just one of which comes from Fukushima.

Made from short- and medium-grain rice that is polished, soaked, steamed, fermented, pressed, stored, clarified and pasteurized, sake is a point of collective pride here for more than 1,500 years.

It's used for both official and religious ceremonies alike--Shinto and Buddhist weddings are typically sealed with the betrothed exchanging and downing three cups of sake--and for many years, some of the best sake produced in Japan has come out of Fukushima, a stretch of eastern coastline where the temperate climate aided in the brewing of the national drink.

But Fukushima sake has fallen on hard times.

In the weeks following the tsunami, rice from hundreds of locations in Fukushima were tested, and in some areas, radioactive cesium was detected in the staple grain,leading to criticism that the government had not done its part to keep radioactive substances out of the food supply.

Beef produced in Fukushima was initially banned in other parts of the country, although the ban was later lifted. But Fukushima sake has had a tougher time bouncing back.

So on Wednesday night, Fukushima officials gathered in a five-star hotel in Tokyo to deliver this message to sake lovers through 50 or so local journalists: please give our brew another chance.

"At least 55 of our 66 brewers in Fukushima have been devastated," said Inokichi Shinjo, chairman of the Fukushima Sake Brewers Association. "We are struggling to overcome the negative rumours to provide tasty, delicious sake to consumers.

"After the tsunami, we didn't know what to do, where to start," Shinjo said, sitting on a podium a few metres away from a collection of two dozen new bottles of sake. "Someone told us to start testing for radiation.

Today, Thailand, the U.S. and Brazil accept sake imports from Fukushima, although South Korea and China don't, Shinjo said. "And our domestic sales are down, they are still affected by the rumours."

A government official stood up following Shinjo, and explained that workers had scraped 5 cm of dirt of the fields in Fukushima to remove radioactive residue, and had doused the earth with potassium chloride to prevent rice from absorbing radiation.

"We have checked 10 million 60 kilogram bags of rice and only 28 bags have exceeded safety limits," the official said.

The next morning, across the street from Tokyo University, Watanabi was asked when he thought customers might return to Fukushima sake.

He shrugged and suggested people instead try Eikun, a sake from Kyoto. "This one is much better," he said. "It's fruity, broad, with a deep taste and smooth."

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer with the Toronto Star. A former South Asia bureau chief for The Star, he focuses on foreign aid and international development. Follow him on Twitter: @rwesthead




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