In 1885, the year before Tsunekichi became the head of his family business at age 13, Japan’s population was 38 million. In just three decades, that population exploded to 53 million in 1915 - an increase of 15 million people from mid-Meiji to early-Taisho period. This dramatic increase was especially obvious in Tokyo, among urban salaried workers. Known as “salary-men” in Japan, they worked in government agencies and corporations, and applied concepts of education, hygiene, Westernization, and rationalization into their everyday environment. New products and services were developed in response to this new trend, and as it turned out, marked the beginning of today’s mass consumption society.
Drinking sake at home using mini-sized drinking cups at the end of the day was becoming the norm in many households – going to the local sake shop for refills of reusable bottles were turning into habits of the past – as salaried workers began to prefer drinking pre-bottled sake. Although barreled sake was still mainstream on a national level, Tsunekichi invested his efforts into producing pre-bottled sake, taking the initiative in order to adapt to the rapidly-changing market and demands.
As if encouraged by the modernization of the Meiji period, recovery efforts by Tsunekichi started to get on track about ten years after his inheritance. He managed to increase his scale of operations by acquiring the former palaces of daimyos and discontinued sake breweries. Centered on the Okura family’s main residence, he expanded his brewing facilities and named them Higashigura, Nishigura, Minamigura, and Kitagura (brewing facilities located on the east, west, south, and north, respectively).
As his business expanded, Tsunekichi emphasized the importance of accounting in order to efficiently track expenses and investments. He renewed his ledger in 1887 to record his expenses, and in 1894, 21 years old and mature, Tsunekichi began using Western-style ledgers while learning the system from Yoshitoki Miyakoshi, who owned a local insurance agency. In 1898, Tsunekichi started keeping his first Western-style accounting book, and was able to precisely settle accounts and clearly identify original costs, manufacturing and operating costs, and profit. As a result, he also managed to save on expenses and improve on budgeting, which then led his company to rapidly expand its amount of production by a hundredfold, from 500 koku (1 koku is approximately 180 liters) at the time of inheritance, to 50,000 koku.
“Gekkeikan” was first adopted in 1905 as a new name for the company’s sake brand when Tsunekichi was 32. Literally meaning “laurel wreath”, like those awarded to winners in the Olympic Games, the name is an expression of the company’s aspiration to become the “champion of sake”. While most sake brands were named after natural motifs such as the mountains, rivers, grass, trees, and flowers, “Gekkeikan” must have sounded modern and stylish among sake fans.
All the while, Tsunekichi continued to manage his sake business with focus and diligence. He was determined to somehow solve the frequent sake spoilage problem, and was eager to stabilize the brewing process in order to produce high quality sake that outperforms those made in rivaling regions. After countless trials and errors, bitter experiences, and more hours of critical thinking, he was finally blessed by a sudden burst of inspiration.
When Tsunekichi turned 34 in 1907, an engineer from the Brewing Research Institute founded by the Ministry of Finance, whose name was Chikashi Kanomata, came to Fushimi to survey sake breweries and provide information on brewing technology, and stayed at Tsunekichi’s Kitagura (Shimoitabashicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto) for 2 months. Tsunekichi developed a personal relationship with Kanomata through paying frequent visits, and was introduced to a variety of academic knowledge and the latest methods of research and analysis.
At age 35, after over two decades since assuming the role of the family head, the era of sake innovation began with the introduction of scientific technology. Tsunekichi had been feeling a personal and dire need to improve the brewing process, especially because of his childhood experience of sake making and knowing firsthand how hard it is. Thus, his newly acquired knowledge through Kanomata was shocking and inspiring for Tsunekichi, leading him to become determined to modernize the world of sake making. Tsunekichi’s friendship with Kanomata lasted even after his two-month stay, and he continued to receive support and honest advice, which became his guidance to begin the implementation of introducing scientific technology into sake making.
In November 1908, at the center of the Kitagura premises surrounded by brewery buildings with white plastered walls, a peppermint-green Western-style building was constructed. This was the symbolic building that housed the first research institute among Japanese sake manufacturers. In the same December, Hide Hamazaki, a classmate of Kanomata and a graduate of Tokyo Imperial University, was hired as the first engineer. Then, on January 10th, 1909, the Okura Sake Brewing Research Institute was officially established.
The research institute accomplished remarkable achievements right from the start. Having discovered a strategy to prevent lactic acid bacteria from spoiling sake batches, the institute also established the conditions for pasteurization with the use of science, and hence Gekkeikan became the first manufacturer in Japan to produce “preservative-free pre-bottled sake” in 1911, when barreled sake was still mainstream. Many manufacturers used salicylic acid as a preservative to prevent sake spoilages at the time, but due to concern of potential side effects to the human body, Tsunekichi went forward with his research and discovered a way of preventing sake from spoiling without having to use salicylic acid. Additionally, because sake barrels were difficult to disinfect, bottles had the advantage of being able to better protect the sake inside from contamination. “Preservative-free” and “pre-bottled” sake gained wide support among salaried workers who preferred Westernized, rationalized, and hygienic products, thus heightening Gekkeikan’s reputation in the market. The invention and success of this product led the company to invest in producing more pre-bottled sake.
After achieving dramatic improvement in the quality of sake through the incorporation of science and technology, Gekkeikan decided to enter competitions to discover how their sake would be evaluated. As a result, they won many major awards in the industry. One such competition is the National New Sake Tasting Competition (present-day Japan Sake Awards) hosted by the Brewing Research Institute of the Ministry of Finance, where breweries from across the country presented their shinshu (new sake) of that year. In their first competition in 1911, Gekkeikan was awarded the first prize, and seized the first, second, and third places in 1929 (sake are no longer being ranked today). Having been a local sake provider in Fushimi for nearly three centuries, Gekkeikan suddenly gained nationwide prestige as a major sake brand.
Tsunekichi’s success was not limited to the field of technology. He brought about the introduction of Fushimi’s local sake into the Tokyo market.
Fushimi, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara were previously connected by water transport systems until the Meiji period, when railroads were constructed. Kyoto and Osaka were connected in 1877, followed by the opening of the Tokaido Line in 1889, linking them with Tokyo. However, train transport remained costly at first, and because the railway network was not yet fully developed and therefore remained ineffective, sake was still transported by steamboats. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the railway system underwent a great deal of improvement, which made it more practical in terms of costs and efficiency. This development convinced sake brewers to distribute sake by rail, and because of Fushimi’s geographical disadvantage due to its inland location, the town was one of the first sake-producing regions to switch to rail distribution.
Gekkeikan was also creative in terms of sales and marketing. Tsunekichi had the idea of selling sake at train stations to pair with ekiben (boxed meals sold at stations), and therefore hired Sozan Sawada, a designer from Kyoto, in order to fulfill his vision. Sawada had just come home from the United States, where he studied craft design as a student of the Tokyo Fine Arts School (present-day Tokyo University of the Arts). The new designer brought in a fresh approach, and came up with the revolutionary idea of attaching an ochoko cup onto sake bottles, which the company registered as a utility model. This unconventional “Okura-style sake bottle with ochoko cup” was shortly adopted by the railway authority as their “station sake” and went on sale in 1910, when Tsunekichi was 37. It was a game-changing opportunity for Gekkeikan to spread its name across the country, along with the expanding railway network.
What factor contributed to the numerous innovations and creation of sake products, thus greatly expanding the company? Tsunekichi’s many accomplishments were not fulfilled overnight, nor were they achieved to reach a predetermined goal. His success was achieved through patience and endurance, after countless experiments, making use of each failure as a lesson to be learned, and adding revisions to tackle his challenges all over again.
Tsunekichi’s ability to sense problems, which was gained through his years of experience and hardships, was triggered through the people he met and the knowledge he acquired in the Meiji period. They inspired him to take on new challenges, including the establishment of his sake research institute and the incorporation of scientific technology into sake making. These developments are what led Tsunekichi to create new products that nobody had ever thought of at the time, and to successfully expand his business by a hundredfold during his life.
At Tsunekichi’s brewery, a notebook called the “cautionary notebook” was utilized among the workers to record mistakes. The front page of the “cautionary notebook” in 1921 (when Tsunekichi was 48 years old) states, “the following notes must be a record of facts, written with frankness and honesty.” The notebook is filled with things that workers noticed on a daily basis, in categories such as: “matters that require attention in order to prevent the same mistakes,” “matters that are easy to forget,” and “matters that need future improvements.” These are proof that the brewery adopted a system that turned failures into lessons to build upon in the future.
Momentum was rising among Fushimi’s sake manufacturers to surpass rivaling sake producing regions with their quality sake. Since around 1900, the sake brewers association was striving to improve morale and knowledge, and invited professors of brewing chemistry, law, technology, and science from the local Kyoto Imperial University, and held monthly study sessions.
While Chikashi Kanomata from the Brewing Research Institute of the Ministry of Finance still stayed in Fushimi, Tsunekichi invited one other expert to discuss the challenges of brewing technology. His name was Hitoshi Matsumoto, an Assistant Professor of Kyoto Imperial University, who researched sake brewing at Gekkeikan’s Kitagura. These heated debates directly inspired Tsunekichi to establish his own sake brewing research lab in January 1909. In October of the same year, the Fushimi Sake Brewers Association also established its own brewing research laboratory, perhaps stimulated by Tsunekichi’s new development. In addition to Hide Hamazaki, a graduate of Tokyo Imperial University, two graduates from the Osaka Professional School of Technology moved to Fushimi - one of whom was hired at Tsunekichi’s, and the other at the brewers association. It was perhaps unheard of at the time that as many as three engineers with academic degrees were working in a single sake-producing region.
Having accomplished quality improvement by the introduction of scientific technology into sake making, present-day Fushimi comprises over 20 active sake breweries in a single 12 square kilometer area. Despite how traditional the sake brewing industry is, Fushimi has become a melting pot of ambition, creation, and innovation, as if the town were an entrepreneurial hub. Thanks to this momentum, Fushimi’s sake industry made significant progress from the Meiji to the Taisho period, and deservedly joined the list of famous domestic brands. From the outset, Fushimi was a town of samurais and merchants, where people came and went, and those who arrived were not rejected but accepted, thus creating a free and easy atmosphere among the people over time. The openness of this town was integral to its sake industry’s development. Today, the Kansai region is one of the top sake-producing regions in the country, supplying over 50% of domestic production. The two main regions of Nada, Hyogo Prefecture, and Fushimi, Kyoto Prefecture, are where the sake industry is most concentrated. Tsunekichi played a significant role to mark the beginning of Fushimi’s thriving sake industry in modern times.
Tsunekichi’s challenges continue even in the later chapters of his life, although with a different approach.