03: All Sake brewers are good singers. Can it be true?

Writer: Tamaki Kashiwagi

We, the Japanese are normally serious and value silence. Have you ever watched a Japanese tea ceremony or Zen meditation on television? All these cultural activities take place in a quiet atmosphere. People are not allowed to speak or make noise. The preference of Japanese to silence can be found at workplaces also. Most Japanese perceive working while listening to music is a bad behavior. If you make a humming at your office, your boss would say “Work seriously!” Uncool, isn’t it?

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This is not for the case for making Sake. Brewers (called “Kurabito”) work while singing songs. Rather, they have to. If they don’t, their master (called “Touji”) would say “Work seriously!” Isn’t it funny? The reason why Kurabito have to sing is very interesting.

Timings are very important in the process of making Sake. For example, the timing of mixing steamed rice, Kouji-mold and water in the barrel is one of the key for producing quality Sake, and the duration of stirring them has to be precise. But long time ago, we had no clocks, so Kurabito sang songs to measure the length of their activities and timing, instead of using clock. In this way, they could count the minutes for the duration of stirring and mixing.

In addition, the singing helped Kurabito to remain awake in the hard work conditions. Since the Kouji-mold does not work for fermentation without a right temperature, Kurabito had to continuously keep their eyes on the temperature. When the temperature of the yeast became too hot, they had to make it cool. So they had to work without sleep during the peak of its production, and Sake was made only in very cold winter. The singing helped the workers to fight against sleepiness and coldness.

It is said that one of the qualifications to become a Kurabito was the ability to sing. Good singers were almost always cleared the assessment by the masters. I understand the intention of the masters. Nobody wants to hear bad voice during the work, correct?!

Nowadays, Sake is made throughout the year because of the mechanization. The temperature and timing are automatically controlled by the devices. So Kurabito don’t have to work without sleep under the cold weather. Now, Kurabito no longer sing the songs while working in mass production Sake factories. But, even to date, this tradition is carried out in small breweries, where Sake is still made in a traditional way. Some people started some movement to conserve the songs of Kurabito. Don’t you want to listen to the Kurabito singing the songs in a cold, empty Sake brewery in Japan during the sacred winter nights some day?