Ei, Tsunekichi’s mother, passed away on November 2nd, 1923 at the age of 77, when Tsunekichi was 50. Her death brought him memories of how his mother trained him with rigor but with a loving gaze, and how his father never ceased to serve their local community. Tsunekichi could not help but look back at his younger self when he lived with his parents and the people who cared for him.
When Tsunekichi had to suddenly take over his family business at the age of 13, he mustered up his strength by telling himself to “hang in there” as he endured his apprenticeship. In the meantime, Tsunekichi received warm support from his neighbors and sought advice from other sake brewery owners in Fushimi.
Every fall, before the brewing season starts, it is customary for sake brewers in Fushimi to pay a visit to Matsuo Taisha Shrine (Arashiyama Miyamachi, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto), which enshrines the god of sake. Tsunekichi also joined this annual group visit for the first time when he was 14 years old, the autumn after he became the 11th head. He also joined a social gathering at a restaurant by Uji River, which was arranged after the shrine visit. Tsunekichi sat at the edge of the table - the seat with the least honor - and introduced himself timidly. At this moment, several representatives who were participating on behalf of their brewery owners were seated in better seats than Tsunekichi. The leader of the Fushimi Sake Brewers Association saw this, ordered the representatives to move down, and let Tsunekichi sit two or three seats higher. This kind gesture was extended to Tsunekichi out of respect; although still a young boy, he had, in fact, rightfully inherited his family business from the 10th Jiemon, who spared no effort to serve his community and Fushimi’s sake industry.
Seeing how the young successor of the Okura family was struggling, the people in town and fellow brewers were rooting for Tsunekichi. They gave him shade in the heat, and showed him light in the dark.
“I need to thank the people of Fushimi and my fellow sake brewers for the great kindness they’ve shown me.”
Three days after his mother’s passing, Tsunekichi funded the purchase of medical equipment and land to build the first municipal hospital in Fushimi. This donation was also his late mother’s dying wish. Tsunekichi continued to make generous donations for facility upgrades even after the hospital was established.
Tsunekichi’s donations did not end there, and pursued to make contributions to his community. In 1922, when a charitable organization founded a preschool (present-day Sumiyoshi-nishi Nursery School at Butaicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto), he equipped the preschool building with necessary equipment and provided learning supplies. Tsunekichi continued to support the preschool by paying for its expenses, and donating the land and funds to build extensions. Our ties remain close even today, as a representative from Gekkeikan is a member of the preschool’s board of directors.
Tsunekichi was also mindful of educating young people in the community. He began offering students of prefectural junior high and senior high schools with grants and scholarship funds in the early Taisho period. Former students who received support from Tsunekichi sent him thank-you cards and even letters with updates of themselves such as their enrollment into higher education and marriage. Tsunekichi also made frequent donations to an evening school specializing in commerce, and sincerely hoped for future success of the younger generation in his community, as well as the development of society as a whole.
Furthermore, in order to upgrade the community’s fire-fighting operations, Tsunekichi installed a fire pump on his property for his neighbors to use when necessary, since fires were common due to the frequent use of fire in sake breweries. Tsunekichi was known to be very strict toward his employees to be careful with fire. Hence, in 1931, he donated the west side of his company to establish a fire station, which still remains today as the Minamihama fire station of Fushimi’s fire department, where fire fighters and emergency staff are stationed.
Needless to say, Tsunekichi did not forget to give back to his fellow sake brewers who also supported him through the tough times when he was striving to get his business back on track. When fellow brewers were at risk of having to close down, he helped them resume their business by lending them money and sake-making facilities. Remembering the favors he owed to brewery owners of the previous generation and paying back to the next generation is how Tsunekichi made efforts to encourage the development of Fushimi’s sake industry.
Not to mention, in 1934 Tsunekichi paid for all the construction fees of a community center which was built inside the premises of Gokonomiya Shrine, which enshrines the ujigami (local guardian god) of Fushimi. Today, a stone monument stands in the front garden of the community center, where local events and town assemblies are still held. Erected in 1960 to honor Tsunekichi’s numerous contributions, it reads, “commemorative tree planted in remembrance of the outstanding virtues of Tsunekichi Okura”.
In this way, Tsunekichi’s identity as a social entrepreneur deepened while pursuing his main profession of sake manufacturing. Inheriting his family business at age 13, Tsunekichi dedicated his life into sake making and remembered all the warm support he received through times of difficulty, which then led him to be involved in social work as a means of giving back. How exactly did this feeling of gratitude develop inside him?
The Okura family had always held high reverence for Shinto and Buddhist deities. Tsunekichi naturally nurtured his faith toward the gods because he was raised in a religious home. By keeping his routine of visiting shrines and temples and making donations, his tradition of faith became a part of his identity, which influenced him to firmly maintain his attitude of self-discipline.
Moreover, the fact that his community and neighbors in Fushimi, Kyoto, became a cradle for him, providing him with protection and support, was what heightened his sense of gratitude. He was able to bring success to his business because of his community, which enabled him to have the means to make social contributions, and to give back in both economic and social aspects.
Tsunekichi’s philosophy is surely passed down to his succeeding generations. The 12th, 13th, and the current 14th head have all inherited the attitude of making social contributions, and have assumed many public positions, taking the lead to serve the community.
Tsunekichi Okura, the 11th head who restored Gekkeikan, died on November 17th, 1950. He was 77 years old. His memorial service was conducted at Shorin-in Temple (where members of the Okura family have been buried for generations) on the 25th of the same month. Tsunekichi’s passing was shortly before consumer demand for sake expanded significantly, as Japan entered a period of rapid economic growth less than five years later.
【References and resources】
- Ishii, Kyodo (23rd head priest of Shorin-in temple) (1935). Memoir of the Okura Family’s Tenth Head.
- Gekkeikan: 360 Years of History. (1999). Gekkeikan Sake Co., Ltd.
- Diary of Tsunekichi Okura. Gekkeikan: Historical Collections. (1999).
Gekkeikan Sake Co., Ltd.
- Historical Figures of Kyoto: Modern Age. (July 22 - October 8, 2017).
Commemorative Opening Exhibition of the Kyoto Institute, Library and Archives.
- Kyoto Prefecture - Fushimi’s Town Journal. (1929). Fushimi Town Office.
The ages of the people in this story are indicated in 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.