The People

The People
Kuramoto, Toji and Kurabito

Men at Work at Rihaku BrewerySake is produced by the kuramoto (brewery owner), the toji (head sake brewer), and the kurabito (brewery workers). In economic  terms, creating the product calls for land, finances and raw materials. The kuramoto is responsible for procuring these, while  the toji is responsible for the actual brewing and the hiring and  management of the kurabito. Moreover, since sake is brewed only in the winter, the toji and kurabito are essentially  “contract” workers.

The Toji System
The toji, or head brewer, is generally associated with one ryuha, or “school”  of brewing. These toji ryuha are tied closely to various regions throughout Japan, and there are perhaps 25 schools of toji  in existence now. Each school has its own style, to be sure,  and that style is evident in the sake they brew, but the differences between various schools of toji is not what it was long ago. Long  ago, it was all quite secretive, and the methods employed  and refined by one group were never disclosed to other groups. But, over the past several decades, toji and brewers from all over the country  readily share information in their shared desire to  make better sake.
men at work

In part, the toji system came about with a little help from the government. In 1798 the Shogunate formalized an economic  system based on rice. In  order to establish tight control, the government decreed that no sake brewing was permitted before the Autumn Equinox. Although not much could be done in the warmer  seasons  anyway, sake brewers now had to go into the boonies to get the farmers who found themselves with too much free time in the winter.

men at workToji for the most part are, in the  off-season, farmers and fishermen.  During the spring, summer and fall, they grow rice or work on fishing boats in their home regions. When the fall harvest is over, or the fishing season  ends, there is no longer any work in their  villages. This is the season when they head off to sake breweries to work. In Japanese, this traveling for seasonal employment is called  “dekasegi.”

The various toji schools are usually centered in the snowy  regions of Japan, like the northern Tohoku region and Hokuriku region. Although the dekasegi system of travelling far from  home for seasonal work was never limited to the sakeTop pf Pagebrewing industry, the  pay and status of sake laborers was always relatively higher than other seasonal labor jobs. In general, the  competition for jobs in the sake industry has thus been more intense than in other industries employing  dekasegi laborers. For more on toji schools, click here.

Learning the Trade
men at work
A toji basically learns his skill through on-the-job training. There are no texts,  and the only way to learn is by watching. In the old days,  no one taught anyone else by direct instruction; one was expected to watch and learn. This allowed one to develop  a very deeply embedded and strong sense about what to do in each situation. As  a result, if you gathered together 100 toji, you would likely find 100 different brewing styles. Indeed, the  Japanese saying Sakaya Banryu was coined to express this wide divergence in toji styles.

In modern times, however, this system of learning only by watching has changed somewhat. Today, the  government and toji unions encourage those wanting to become toji to formally study fermentation and chemistry.

A Typical Toji Work Day

What precisely does a toji do? Let’s look at a typical day during the high season of sake brewing. The toji, along with the other brewing craftsmen (kurabito), gets up about five in the  morning. The first thing to do is to check on the state of the koji. Koji development is an extremely important step in the brewing process, in which the  starch in the rice is converted into  sugars. Koji is created by propagating koji mold spores (called aspergillus oryzae in English) onto rice. To do this properly, the koji must be mixed regularly and have its temperature checked constantly. This  is the first  order of business in the early morning.

Next, toji check the status of the various tanks of fermenting sake mash. This mash, called moromi in Japanese,  is a mixture of koji,  rice, water, and yeast. The mash must undergo fermentation to yield alcohol, and the typical fermentation period lasts two to three weeks. However, premium  ginjo-shu sake takes longer (usually one month) to ferment.

men at work     men at work     men at work

During the fermentation period, the toji will check daily the status of each moromi tank. This often means making  a chemical analysis of the moromi to determine if various compounds are sufficiently  present. But the toji does not rely purely on chemical analysis. He relies on his experience and eyes to  judge the condition of the mash. He looks at the foam on the surface of the moromi, how  much carbon dioxide is emanating from it, the amount and appearance of the foam, and even the  sound of the foam as it churns and bubbles pop. The toji call this “talking to the moromi.”  It  ‘s like judging a baby’s health by listening to the baby’s  crying. Then, based on this information, adjustments are made.

For example, if the yeast is particularly active and the fermentation  is proceeding too quickly, he may cool  the tank down a bit to slow the progress of the fermenting moromi. Just how many degrees it needs to be chilled would be a decision based on the toji’s  experience. Before there were  any major technological developments, sake was brewed exclusively by these kinds of methods, but even today in the age of chemical analysis and  modern technology, these skills are just as  important as the analysis and modern equipment.Top pf Page

After checking on the moromi and koji, the toji eat breakfast. Following that, preparations are made for the sake that will be  brewed that day. This includes washing rice,  steaming large amounts of rice, cooling the rice after steaming, adding it to the correct fermenting tanks, and making koji.

There are usually several types of sake being brewed at any one time, each  calling for different types of sake rice. Toji must be very careful to keep their rices separate. Also, sake that has completed  its fermentation period and is ready will be pressed to separate the  clear sake from the remaining rice solids to give what is called genshu, or pure undiluted sake. This process can take all day and  last into the evening.

After dinner, they take a break prior to the late-evening check and mixing of the koji. They go to sleep about ten o’clock, with the same work awaiting them the next morning.

Today, scientific theories and systematic testing provide viable explanations for the fermentation process, and the toji craft has lost some of its “magic and mystery.” Yet,  we must still admire the toji,  for they are dealing daily with a fermentation process that involves microorganisms too small to be seen by the naked eye. Some of these microscopic organisms  are floating around in the air, and  although some are beneficial to sake production, others are detrimental. Just how to balance the effects of these organisms is something the toji does  not with his eyes, but based on his  experience, his sense, and his intuition. And in the end a great toji creates a great work of art that science alone could never achieve through  automation. Making sake is indeed deep and complicated  work. It may seem that a toji’s work is one of simple repetition, but each day he works with nature, not against it, to seemingly  control organisms he cannot see, based on what could be called “the eyes of his heart.”

Decline in Number of Toji

Along with a general decline in the  number of sake breweries in Japan, the number of toji as well is declining owing to advanced age, the lack of successors, and the utilization of mass-production  techniques. The  average toji age is 65. Successors are hard to find, as more and more Japanese youth prefer the excitement and opportunites of the big cities to life in small farming and fishing  villages.  The toji take pride in their work, but they also know it is hard work on a seasonal basis and thus in general they refrain from forcing their children to follow in their footsteps.The number of toji is expected to decline rapidly in the years ahead, but some kuramoto are working to remedy this situation. Some are moving away from “contracted” seasonal labor and  offering more  permanent employment opportunities. Others are attempting to automate certain operations, like bottle transport, which do not require a “handmade” touch. Some are  introducing computers and  new technologies to “simulate” — via fuzzy logic — the experience and intuition of the toji. Although many smaller brewers are experimenting with ways to  combine automation  technologies with  centuries-old hand-made brewing techniques, their objectives remain quite different from the large-scale mass producers of sake. The objective  of the small brewer is not to produce greater volume,  but rather to continue producing unique “hand-made” sake with technologies and employment practices Top pf Pagethat ensure its future survival.

Famous Toji Schools
There are about 25 toji ryuha throughout Japan. The largest three  are by far Nanbu toji from Iwate, Echigo toji from Niigata, and Tajima toji from  Hyogo. Their names come from the old geographical names for their respective regions. As might be  expected, Nanbu toji were centered around Tohoku, Echigo toji near Niigata and Kanto, and  Tajima toji in Nada and Fushimi. Other examples include Akitsu toji from Hiroshima, Yamanouchi toji from  Akita, and Tanba toji, also from Hyogo.

Although consumer demand has often   come to dictate style more than in the past, some semblance of regional distinction remains.  Sake made by Echigo toji is quite often “tanrei karakuchi,” or dry and clean. The soft  and mellow sake of Nada and Kyoto is indicative of that made by Tajima toji, and Nanbu toji sake is  generally simple, straightforward, but well pronounced; a personal favorite as far  as styles go. Others recommendable for their distinction and memorability include the sake of Hiroshima’s Akitsu  toji, and that of the Izumo toji of Shimane, albeit a bit harder to find

.As the number of kura (sake breweries) has drastically declined, naturally so has the number of toji in most ryuha. The number of  Echigo toji has dropped to one-third what it was at the  beginning of the Showa era, and the number of Tajima toji, the largest at the beginning of the Showa era, has dropped to one-tenth the number of  members. Only the Nanbu toji have  retained strength in the ranks, having maintained the same number of members for the past 40 years or so. This may be due to the training and strict qualifications  testing provided.  Amongst prize-winning sake, the Nanbu toji names are appearing with increasing frequency.

With the convenience of modern transportation systems, the toji are venturing farther and farther from home.  They very often  travel together with the same crew of kurabito (workers). For example, Nanbu toji and their merry bands can be found as far south as Kansai. They have come to naturally fill  the voids left by  the decreasing number of Echigo toji.
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As interest increases in the factors that go into brewing good sake, the name of the toji, and where he or she is from, is  often listed on  the label. Paying attention to toji helps develop a sense for the particular styles and distinctions of the various regions.