Rainy season is finally over and we’ve gotten into true summer humidity down here in Kagoshima. My last piece was on the history of Satsuma-imo, which started in the middle of the shochu story. Now I take a deeper look at the history of Japanese shochu and Satsuma’s role, starting at … the beginning.
The very beginning, actually. Some scholars believe the first primitive form of distillation was developed by the Babylonians. Modern authors generally agree that early distillation was theorized by ancient Greeks. Verified mention of stills come from Alexandrian chemists after 100 AD. Following the mention of distillation in the Arabian world, the technique was also documented in early China.
Theories of Distillation’s Arrival in Japan
Though several theories exist, distillation is thought to reached Japan via trade with the Ryukyu Kingdom. Early stills found in Yunnan Province, China, resemble those found further downstream of the Mekong River in Siam (modern Thailand). These stills found their way to Ryukyu (modern Okinawa), where the locals began making awamori possibly as early as the 14th century.
This rice-based spirit quickly made its way to Kagoshima through the Satsuma Domain’s trading links with Ryukyu, just as our favorite sweet potato did later. Historical documents indicate that in 1410, the 7th head of the Shimadzu clan, Shimadzu Motohisa (島津元久), presented the 4th shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimochi (足利義持), with 10 earthenware pots (壼、つぼ) of nanbanshu (南蛮酒, “southern barbarian alcohol”) and sugar, along with other extravagant gifts. Scholars believe nanbanshu may have been an early form of rice shochu.
In addition to the robust trade between Ryukyu and Satsuma, there was unofficial trading happening at the northern end of Kyushu as well. Japanese fishermen from Fukuoka Domain were avid traders with Korean fisherman on the island of Tsushima, which is situated midway between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula in the Sea of Japan. It is possible that distillation technology arrived nearly simultaneously in different parts of Kyushu through trade with Ryukyu and Korea. There is also the possibility, though more remote, that direct illicit trade between the fishermen of Kyushu and fishermen of the Chinese mainland brought distillation to Japan. The truth is we will likely never know as the officials of the time did not seem interested in this fledgling industry so no written documentation has been discovered.
Japan’s Native Distillate
The first written mention of Japanese distillation comes over 135 years after the Shimadzu clan’s gift to the shogun. In his report “Affairs Regarding Japan,” Portuguese merchant Jorge Álvares noted that locals in Satsuma’s port town of Yamakawa drank a rice-based orraqua (Portuguese for the Arabic araq, or distilled liquor). This 1546 document was commissioned by the missionary St. Francis Xavier, and is the oldest written record of distilled spirits in Japan. The report became the basis of much of Xavier’s knowledge of Japan prior to sailing from Goa and docking in Kagoshima, his first port of entry, in 1549.
Álvares’ account tells us that a rice-based distilled spirit existed in 1540s Satsuma, but does not record its local name. Was this rice shochu? Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing believes that it was. We know that the word shochu had entered the Japanese lexicon by 1559. The earliest known written documentation of shochu (焼酎) is graffiti on a wooden rafter at Koriyama Hachiman Shrine (郡山八幡神社、こおりやまはちまんじんじゃ) in Isa City, Kagoshima. The 400 year old graffiti was uncovered when the shrine was dismantled for renovation in 1954. Two carpenters scrawled their complaint that during construction, the priest was so stingy that he did not offer them any shochu to drink.
It’s surprising that this earliest record of the word in all of Japan suggests Kagoshima may have been the birthplace of rice shochu. The workers’ grumble suggests that it may have been a payment or bonus provided in return for work well done. Given that rice was the primary taxable commodity during this time, it was quite valuable. Just as sake was traditionally a drink for imperial or ceremonial uses, pots of shochu were precious enough to be sent as tribute to the Satsuma lords and Tokugawa shoguns from the Ryukyuan kings (the term “awamori” was not recorded by Satsuma’s bookkeepers until 1671). It seems rice-based alcohol may have been a precious commodity that it was largely limited to the upper classes.
So how do we get to Satsuma shochu being made from Satsuma-imo instead of rice? Recall the first part of this shochu story, with Riemon’s introduction of sweet potatoes to the mainland in 1705. Satsuma-imo had proven to grow better than rice in the rain-soaked volcanic plateaus of southern Kyushu. Eventually some enterprising folks began using the more abundant, and untaxed, Satsuma-imo to make their alcohol. Although it spread throughout the region by the mid-1700s, imo shochu really took off nearly a century later. But why?
Stay tuned for the next part of the story!