Japanese History – Part 1, pre-history to 710AD

Japanese History from pre-history to 710AD is covered.

Very often when I am looking for information on sake and sake brewing I run into references and comments about the period in which the particular aspect was developed or used. Having little knowledge of Japanese history the references are little help without much more digging into them. For this reason, I have decided to gather what seems to me to be some of the important background and narrative of Japan’s long history and, of course, where the history of sake lies.

For this, I will use the recognized periods of Japan’s history as a scaffolding for meaningful and or interesting aspects of the history of sake and how sake was an intrigle part of Japan’s own history.

Up to 300BC – Jomon Period

During the Jomon period, Japanese islanders where gatherers, hunters and fishers. Two types of alcoholic beverages stretch back to this period, kuchikami no sake (“mouth-chewed sake”) and wine; neither of which are related directly with present day sake. Kuchikami no sake was made primarily with nuts and grains. The nuts and grains would be chewed and spit into a container where it could be left to ferment. The mechanism at work here is that the saliva contains enzymes (amylase) that break down starch to produce sugar. Once the sugar is present yeast from the environment infects the “brew” to produce an alcoholic beverage.

Evidence for wine, comes from pottery from the middle Jomon period, somewhere around 3000BC to 4000BC. Earthenware pots found in Nagano prefecture are conjectured to be fermentation vessels for wine. These pots stand about 20 inches in height and had holes around the brim that could have been used to release natural CO2 from fermenting wine. Grape seeds were found in these pots leading to the conclusion that these vessels were used for fermentation.

Han-jin han-amon earthenware vessel with perforated brim
Han-jin han-amon earthenware vessel with perforated brim

Between 300BC and 300AD – Yayoi Period

Rice was introduced to Japan around 300BC or shortly thereafter. This rice was the short grained Japonica rice that was common in southern China and Korea. Rice farming started in the northern parts of Kyushu Island. From northern Kyushu, rice farming spread to the rest of Kyushu and then to the other islands of the archipelago. Before long, rice farming spread throughout Japan, replacing millets and other cereals to establish itself as the staple food of the country. This started a chain reaction, a shift from gatherers, hunters and fishers to farmers. Cultivation techniques were brought over from the continent. Land owners gained power as groups started uniting behind them. One such land owner was Pimiku, of whom Chinese travelers reported.

During this period kuchikami no sake methods expanded to include rice. However, as mentioned in the Gishiwajinden, a Chinese book of history, the “Wajin (Japanese people (倭人)) of all ages and sex are hardy sake drinkers.” It does not seem that the kuchikami method could keep up with such a demand. A story in “Harimakoku Fudoki” seems to demonstrate that use of koji was already understood.

Between 300 and 538 – Kofun Period

In this period large tombs (kofun) where built to pay homage to great fallen leaders.  A center of power around Nara began to solidify, becoming Yamato Japan by about 400AD. This state covered from Kyushu island in the south to the Kinki region in the north. Kinki, also call Kansai consists of 7 prefectures and includes Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Kobe as well as the Nada coast.

During this period, all throw the fifth century, the five kings of Wa (倭の五王) sent envoys to China to legitimize their status. Wa was the name for Japan at this time.

Between 538 to 710 – Asuka Period

The Asuka period was known for its fine art and architecture and was named after the area of Asuka about 15 miles south of Nara.

The Yamato emperor lost most of his power and largely became a figure head for the state and performing Shinto rituals. In 587, Soga no Umako, the Soga chieftain installed his nephew as emperor. Having lost favor with his uncle in 593, Soga no Umako had him assassinated and replace with Empress Suiko. One of Empress Suiko’s first acts was to appoint Prince Shotoku to regent.

In 604, Prince Shotoku, a regent, politition and member of the Soga clan, developed the Constitution of Seventeen Articles about moral and political principles. His effort made heavy used of Chinese ideals expressed through Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Sometime on or shortly after 538, Buddhism came to Japan. Like Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and the Chinese writing system also took hold during this period. Prior to this Japan did not have a written language. While Buddhism was popular with the elate it took longer for the common folk to accept it. This was largely because of its complexity.

A shift was happening as Japan was coming into its own. During the fifth century, the five kings of Wa looked to China for their legitimacy. By 605, China’s emperor, Yangdi sent a message to Shotoku saying:

“The sovereign of Sui (China) respectfully inquires about the sovereign of Wa.”

In 607, Prince Shotoku sent a mission with the reply message:

“From the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun (Nihon) to the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Setting Sun.”

The Chinese where not pleased with Japan acting as if they were an equal. During this period Japan changed its name from Wa (倭) to Nihon (日本).

In 645 the Fujiwara clan took power away from the Soga clan which had held it since they had wrestled it away from the Yamato emperor. Fujiwara power remained until 1068 when emperor Go-Sanjo abdicated but took control from behind the scenes. With the rise of the Fujiwara clan, came the Taika reforms in which the Chinese model was followed to bring in a Chinese style emperor, court and enable a new tax system. Beginning with land redistribution and breaking down the existing land owning system of the clans. This was also to destroy their control over domains and groups. What were once “”private lands and private people” became “public lands and public people.”” That is complete state ownership of land and people (公地公民 kōchi kōmin). With this land would revert to the state upon the death of the owner. Taxes were levied against both goods and labor. The country was divided into provinces, districts and villages.

Well before the end of the Asuka period, Seishu or modern day sake became the dominant alcohol. Stories of the importance, and dominance of sake in this period are given in both the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), the “Chronicles of Japan” published in 720, and the Kojiki (古事記), the “Record of Ancient Matters” also published in the eighth century.

One story told in both of these texts is that of a sake that was brewed by the gods to defeat and eight headed dragon. The method for brewing this potent sake is given. The first step is to create a mash and then strain out the fresh young sake. To this is added rice malt (koji) and cooked rice gruel. The new mash is left to ferment and the process is repeated several times, creating a strong sake.

In fact, sake had become so dominant that in 689 the department of brewing was established in the imperial palace. This was, I believe, a division of the tax office.

Between 710 and 794 – Nara Period

To be continued…

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