Gekkeikan The Life of Tsunekichi Okura

Chapter Two: Nurturing Ambition

“Hang in there, you’ve got this” 
- plowing through with grit and perseverance

The death of Tsuneyoshi’s older brother, followed by his father The death of Tsuneyoshi’s older brother, followed by his father

The 10th Jiemon (hereditary name among the heads of the Okura family until the 10th head) of the Okura family was born in 1837. He protected his family business with nerves of steel amid the chaos and confusion of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and through a period of drastic change as the Tokugawa Shogunate was coming to an end. The 10th head believed in simple living, and was always dressed in cotton kimonos and traditional sandals made with straw. Although he adopted an extremely frugal lifestyle for himself and his family, he was known as a person of religious faith who did not hesitate to offer help when needed. Whenever the Uji River flooded in Fushimi, the 10th head would head out on his small boat and give rice balls to his neighbors. Because of his selfless acts, he was deeply trusted by his community.

“Memoir by the 10th Head of the Okura Family”
“Memoir by the 10th Head of the Okura Family”

Tsunekichi Okura was born on January 28, 1874, at the Okura family’s main residence as the second son of the 10th head. In the eyes of Tsunekichi, the 10th head was a very strict father. He did not expect much from Tsunekichi, and as Tsunekichi later recalls himself as “a less able child,” he was always compared against his older and brighter brother. However, despite high expectations for his older brother to inherit the family business, he died abruptly in July 1886. Deeply saddened by the sudden loss of his eldest son, the 10th Jiemon also passed away in October of the same year.

As his father mumbled, “what can someone as useless as Tsune (Tsunekichi) ever achieve” after the passing of his older brother, Tsunekichi was not the type who was known for his intellect. And this “useless” boy was the one who suddenly had no choice but to take over the family business as the 11th head at the age of 13*.

  • *Tsunekichi was 13 years old according to kazoedoshi, the traditional method of reckoning one’s age by counting newborn children as 1 year old, and adding a year to their age at each New Year.

A 13-year-old lad assumes role as the 11th head A 13-year-old lad assumes role as the 11th head

Like many families, Tsunekichi was also faced with conflict over his inheritance. Two younger brothers of his father (Tsunekichi’s uncles), who were adopted into other families, jumped in and began negotiating about running the family business after the passing of the 10th head. Ei, Tsunekichi’s mother, however, rejected their proposals and was adamant on letting Tsunekichi be the successor. She had gathered support from close family friends who were monks and sake brewery owners to create a path for the 13-year-old Tsunekichi to become the next head of their old-established family. In compensation for making such a decision, Ei had to bear a very heavy responsibility for having Tsunekichi take over at such a young age, working herself to the bone in order to teach and protect Tsunekichi along the way.

Ei, Tsunekichi’s mother
Ei, Tsunekichi’s mother

Witnessing the hardships his mother had endured, Tsunekichi made up his mind to face his destiny, and invested in himself to overcome one adversity after another. Usually, sake making was entrusted to the toji (master brewer) and kurabito (brewery workers), and brewery owners were in charge of keeping accounts. However, having been raised in a samurai family, Ei had a strict and thorough approach to train the 13-year-old Tsunekichi and assigned him to work inside the brewery.

Gekkeikan’s sake brewery during the Meiji period
Gekkeikan’s sake brewery during the Meiji period (1868-1912)
(Kitagura Brewery at Shimoitabashicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto)

Surviving tough times with earnest efforts and diligence Surviving tough times with earnest efforts and diligence

The death of the 10th head, combined with inheritance disputes, had caused the family to drop sake making for the fiscal year of 1886. Many of their workers had also left. Regardless, customers kept coming to their shop for sake, which kept the family from closing their shop in order to keep up with demand. In an attempt to resolve this situation, the family asked a senior sake brewer in the same neighborhood to hand them a year’s worth of shinshu (new sake) to sell at their shop. They sold about one koku, or about a hundred isshobin (1.8 liter bottle of sake) per day, by pouring refills into kayoi-tokkuri (reusable ceramic bottles of sake shops) in exchange for cash. Even after hours, every worker was brought together to count coins until the end. In this manner, a typical day in the life of young Tsunekichi was an extremely busy one.

Sake sold in measured volumes at a sake shop
Sake sold in measured volumes at a sake shop

Sake making was resumed the following year. Tsunekichi worked desperately alongside other brewery workers as an apprentice in order to gain experience. And on his first trip to the rice dealer, he and his mother went together to make their first purchase.
Observing the struggles of mother and son, an old sake brewery owner and close friend of the late 10th head had offered to help in any way he could. Grateful for his kindness, Ei and Tsunekichi had him accompany them to purchase rice and also received guidance on rice polishing.

For the rest of his life, Tsunekichi never forgot how the people in town were empathetic toward him, helping him to restore his family business.

The ability of noticing problems through setbacks and failures The ability of noticing problems through setbacks and failures

Scientific technology had not been incorporated into sake making until the late 19th century, and just when Tsunekichi was fighting to bring his business back on track, sake spoiled frequently due to lactic acid bacteria. In order to prevent sake spoilages, Tsunekichi made sure to always pasteurize his sake batches. Determined to come up with a solution, Tsunekichi was the first to wake and worked late into the night. His struggles continued even after the winter’s sake brewing season, and with the toji and kurabito workers back at their homes during the off-season, Tsunekichi was held responsible to keep working with the few workers who stayed behind.

Diary of Tsunekichi Okura
Diary of Tsunekichi Okura

During his later years, Tsunekichi kept a diary where he confessed his feelings of when he became the 11th head at the age of 13. “I told myself to hang in there, because if a child is passionate enough, there’s nothing he cannot do that an adult can. I’ve got this, even if I have to bite into stone.” One small step at a time, Tsunekichi managed to build on his experience through countless setbacks and errors, which, in turn, nurtured his ability and instinct to detect problems. His self-acquired skill of sensing problems and willpower - “hang in there, you’ve got this” - later became his source of determination to lead his family business to bloom as sake brewing entered an era of modernization, which eventually led to future challenges, creations, and innovation by Gekkeikan.

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