1990s Tokyo LifeWritten by Zachariah Smookler
The ultra-modern mega-city of Tokyo, Japan has long fostered a vibrant and booming sake scene, balancing Japan’s deeply rooted traditions and customs with the constant innovation one would expect from the world’s most populous metropolis. The recent HBO Tokyo Vice, set in Tokyo in the 1990s, is showcasing the city's energy and this energy. We thought we'd share a little about Tokyo and the sake industry—how it grew, as well as the challenges it faced in that decade.
Tokyo in the 90s was quite different from the futuristic mecca we have come to adore in the 21st century. Known as the “Lost Decade,” the 1990s were a time of economic turmoil and recession across Japan. Oddly enough, while many people were losing their jobs, technology was advancing at an exponential rate, which in return made even more jobs obsolete. These economic troubles had a noticeable impression on the sake industry.
Due to a historically large unemployment rate and fiscal stagnation, sake sales bottomed out, leaving many breweries in a vulnerable spot. However, even in Japan’s worst recorded economic depression there were some monumental occurrences that shaped the sake industry into the one we are so familiar with today. In 1990, a new quality labeling system was adopted to categorize different types of sake by their production methods. This major change happened alongside a period where sake production was continuously decreasing. To adjust to the ever-changing social conditions, owners of smaller breweries started to take over the brewing process instead of hiring a master brewer from one of the many guilds. This specialized production process led to the ever-growing trend of more “crafted” sake.
By the end of the 20th century, the framework had been set for a global sake industry that was conducive for worldwide export and the creation of sake breweries outside of the Japanese islands. The invention of key technologies and infrastructure made it possible for brewers to access markets they had previously been unable to. Tokyo in the 1990s has become very popular in pop culture, with those neon lights and bustling streets, along with stalwarts including Pokémon, Nintendo and Sony being forever engrained in the minds of those with an affinity for Japan. The new hit show on HBO Max “Tokyo Vice” does an amazing job of showcasing Japanese culture in the late 1990s and the underworld scene that had much of Tokyo by a choke hold until very recently.
Overall, Tokyo in the 1990s is a tale of a city gripping with economic stagnation, crime and the adoption of technology that thrust Japan into the 21st century. The sake industry went through some serious soul searching during this time period, and along with the adaption of previously said technology, modernized itself into the landscape we interact with now on a daily basis.
Check out our favorite Tokyo-brewed sake.