Japan

For the tradition-minded Japanese, it's bad enough that fewer women wear kimonos these days, that geishas are going out of style and that public baths are disappearing. Now the people of Japan, in their relentless rush toward Western fashions, are turning away from sake.

Consumption of Japan's traditional rice wine has been declining for the past two years and in a single year, distribution from distilleries fell by an astounding 17 percent. Young people particularly are turning to beer and whiskey, shocking their elders. It is as if the German's were abandoning beer and the French were swearing off wine. Perhaps it is even worse, for in Japan the old days die harder than in most countries and sake is far more than an alcoholic beverage. It is a vital part of Shinto ceremonies, used to seal marriages and c console departed ancestors.

THE PEOPLE most concerned, naturally, are the ones who produce and sell sake and the man to talk to about all this is Tsunesuke Yoshimura, president of the Japanese Sake Association. A soft-spoken man who manages to retain his good humor amid depressing news, Yoshimura says his organization has been researching the causes of sake's decline and has come to some tentative conclusions.

"We investigated and we found out that the Japanese have some bad habits," he says. "We Japanese admire anything that belongs to foreign countries. It is not fashionable to like Japanese products."

Yoshimura's research also discloses that sake is too strong for young Japanese, especially young women, who have taken up the Western habit of drinking with their dates in bars and discotheques. To please their women friends, the young men also turn to beer and whiskey and nobody orders sake.

The obvious solution, Yoshimura observes, is to make a less potent sake, but merely diluting it with water spoils the taste. Nevertheless, some of Japan's more than 3,000 sake makers are marketing a version labeled "sake on the rocks."

Another problem is one of economics. Sake is made from rice and the rice farmers of Japan are among the most powerful of political lobbies. They have succeeded in inducing the government to raise the price of rice to very high levels. That, in turn, raises the price of sake.

"Ten years ago," recalls Yoshimura, "you could buy three beers for the price of one bottle of sake. Now, for what a bottle of sake costs you can buy six beers." Small wonder, then, that domestic consumption of beer has increased about 63 percent in 10 years. Whiskey use has gone up about 300 percent in the same period.

ALL THIS is another disturbing blow to Japan's rice growers. They are already beset by the basic problem of declining rice sales as more and more Japanese turn away from their traditional staple to embrace Western bread. Now their sales to sake producers are falling, too. "It's bad enough that Japanese are eating less rice, but for them to stop drinking it as well hurts," the Japan Times commented in a recent editorial.

Inheritors of an industry many centuries old, the sake distillers are determined to fight the trends.Last Sunday was designated Japanese Sake Day and hundreds of thousands of stickers were distributed urging imbibers to say kampai, or cheers, with a bottle of sake.

There was a big sake-drinking party in a downtown hotel and in the heart of the Ginza a massive display of some 1,200 sake bottles was erected. In Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, an intercollegiate contest of sake drinkers was arranged and far to the south, at Kumamoto, 2,000 young people were lured to a moon-viewing festivity with the promise of all the sake they could handle for 500 yen ($2.65) apiece.

THE PRIME MINISTER'S office and the Foreign Ministry have been induced to serve sake at all official functions and the minister of agriculture has used an official meeting of the Cabinet for a speech urging increased sake consumption as a kind of national goal.

In would be an exaggeration to say that the sake makers are engaged in a nationalistic campaign for their product but there is a sense that some important national tradition is at stake. One large poster carries the picture of a prominent Japanese rock star wearing a brooding expression under the legend: "Sake is the essence of our feeling."

Yoshimura is too practical to say that nationalism is involved. "But," he says, "each people has its own alcohol. Wine is France, beer is Germany. So this alcohol is the people itself. It has grown up with the people and they use it always and are proud to have it. It is like in any country. In Japan, we are losing this tradition and so our campaign is to bring it back again."