Women Warriors is a series that shines a light on Japanese women who have broken down barriers by following their passion or through sheer force of will. From ancient battle masters like Nakano Takeko, to modern day fighters like Kanako Urai, there are so many Japanese women who deserve to be recognised.
Miho Imada deserves to be on the list as well for her contribution to the world of sake and her journey to becoming one of Japan’s most successful toji (master brewers).
Running the family business
Through her work at the Imada Shuzo brewery in Akitsu, Hiroshima, Imada has earned a reputation for making some of the finest sake in the world. The brewery is known for producing Fukucho ginjo sake, which won the platinum award for junmai sake at Kura Master 2017. Imada has expressed her reverence of the brewery in an interview with Umami Mart.
“The village of Akitsu in Hiroshima Prefecture, where the Imada sake brewery is located, is a quiet place facing the Seto Inland Sea. Since long ago, it has been famous as a village from which many toji and kurabito (brewery workers) come, and sake brewers from this region can be found at breweries in the village of Saijo in Hiroshima, known as the local “sake capital,” as well as all over the country.”
“Akitsu was also the home of Sanzaburo Miura, a brewing expert that, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, taught many brewers how to brew with soft water and make high quality ginjo-shu. This is why people say that ginjo-shu was born in Hiroshima. Our name, Fukucho, was given to our sake by Mr. Miura. He is someone I consider to be my inspiration and mentor.”
But although she was born into a sake brewing family, it took Imada a while to return to her roots. For years she worked in Tokyo in noh theatre but came back to the world of sake at the age of 33, when her father asked her to continue the family business. She studied under the previous toji for eight years before finally assuming the role herself and running the business full time.
Now, the brewery produces up to eight different sakes per year, all with unique flavours and profiles. Imada runs a small, dedicated team and is utterly devoted to her craft.
Standing out in a male-dominated industry
Imada’s toji status is inspirational in an industry that has been traditionally seem as the domain of men. According to Atlas Obscura, of Japan’s 1500 licensed sake breweries, less than 50 are run by women.
Yet women have played an important role in sake production for centuries. There’s a famous story of kuchikamizake (mouth-chewed sake), being made with the spit of virgins from as early as the 3rd century BC. The chewing and the saliva helped to break down the starch from the rice into glucose, while airbone yeast transformed the glucose into a basic form of sake.
Since then, sake production has become far more sophisticated. Though the story highlights how crucial women have been to crafting Japanese alcohol. By following her family’s legacy, Imada has helped to revive a tradition that’s slowly returning to the sake trade.