Every so often I will get that person who tries to convince me that the sake that is exported to the US had been "treated" to meet FDA regulations. They say how sake tastes so much better in Japan, because it has not been treated. They then say that the proof is in the fact that breweries make different sakes for Duty Free sales at the airports. My typical response to them is "phooey!" (I have always wanted to type the word phooey.)
Seriously, the sake that you get is the sake that they get! I cannot be any more straightforward than that. It is the same. They DO NOT treat sake that goes abroad. Importing companies who tried to sell "untreated" sake as a selling point probably started this rumor. Firstly by treating they mean adding preservatives, and in fact up until 1969 they did add preservatives to some sake in Japan. But it was never a requirement by the USDA or the Japanese equivalent. For all intent and purposes it was a practice in Japan to keep sake from spoiling too early thus wasting potential income for large breweries. I recently exchanged emails with John Gauntner who reminded me of the fact that preservatives in sake became illegal in Japan in 1969 and it was the mega-brewery Gekkeikan who claim credit for this non- preservative movement.
Nevertheless the rumor exists, and as many of you who know me, know that I am used to doing wacky things with sake. So to lay this rumor to rest on my last trip to Japan in the fall of last year I brought a bottle of sake that was exported from Japan to the US back to Japan to its place of brewing. Along with several kurabito (brewery workers), the toji (head brewer), and the kuramoto (owner of the brewery) we opened this bottle side by side with a bottle from the same "batch" that had been released in Japan. This was quite rewarding to the makers because they wanted to test how their product had stood up to the trials and tribulations of transport. In the end the sakes were almost identical. The exported sake had a softer feel to it, because of the vibrations found in the moving process, but the flavors were the same. A smile for the brewers and a "see I told ya so" from me!
Sake may indeed taste better in Japan, but for reasons other than "treatments," such as time, place, and occasion and the fact that all boozes of the world taste better in the environment for which they have been made. Thus, and please repeat after me, the sake in Japan is the same sake sold in the US.