The Sakefan World app may seem like any other alcohol interest app like Vivino and Untappd, but it’s actually commissioned by none other than the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as part of the ongoing “Cool Japan” cultural effort.
Sakefan World is in essence, a two-pronged approach to promote Japan globally: to convey information about sake previously only available to Japanese speakers, and to showcase the beauty of the Japanese countryside where the breweries tend to reside.
Available as an app and a webpage, sakefan World is a veritable index for a variety of different sake-related information, designed with overseas audiences in mind. Can’t read Japanese? No problem. Scan the sake label in question using the camera on your smartphone, and you will be provided relevant information like its proper name, the brewery, alcohol content, rice used, rice-polishing rate, and other basic information and serving suggestions. It will first be available in Japanese and English, with multiple languages to follow.
Granted, you’ll find that a WHAT? SAKE app that was created in 2013, preceded sakefan World with its scanning feature, but WHAT? SAKE was a simpler app and ultimately was limited in terms of reach. In contrast, sakefan World also boasts professionally-shot video and photo stories about the brewery, its brewers and its locale, and more importantly, has the backing of the government.
It’s an interesting venture, and one that raises a few questions. Fortunately, we were able to get Kenichiro Oka and Kazuto Tsuchida, creators of sakefan World, to answer them.
Tsuchida is a sales manager at Takakuwa Art Printing Co, a printing company that does business with about 1,500 breweries in Japan, printing about 100,000 different labels. He understands the problem that non-Japanese speaking sake drinkers may have in identifying the myriad of labels out there. He also understands that breweries want to keep their own tradition, and may not want a label specially designed for the export market; and in the case of smaller breweries, the volume wouldn’t justify the added expense. Which is why the idea of sakefan World made sense. “This is something that we designed in the hope that while the traditional breweries can still stick with their tradition, we can help our international consumers get to know more about japanese sake,” said Tsuchida.
Unlike many other repository-style apps like Vivino for wine or Whiskybase for whisky, the information on sakefan World isn’t crowdsourced. Oka, who manages smartphone apps and web marketing design at BIGLOBE (a major Japanese Internet Service Provider), explained that breweries are by nature conservative, and they found that crowdsourced information isn’t completely accurate, and nor do they send the right message. The decision was made to have the breweries who want to be part of this project, supply the information themselves, so that it can be be conveyed to the global sake community.
What’s more, the project is an opportunity to standardise the vernacular or jargon, using terms created by the National Research Institute of Brewing so that there is consistency in the terminology used worldwide. They’re also looking into the possibility of standardising the descriptors of the flavours and aromas of the sake, such that it can be readily understandable by people the world over, especially by those involved in the wine industry.
As far as the ministry is concerned, they recognise that language had become a barrier to the growth of sake, at least from a global perspective. Unlike other varieties of alcohol, information on sake is relatively hard to come by, save for those with the tenacity for tedious bouts of research and Google Translate. The majority of the best sources of information are in Japanese, while reliably translated information are few and far between – though slowly improving with time – are certainly not enough to cover the full portfolio of Japan’s sake breweries.
So the question is, why is the government involved? As it turns out, the slowdown of the Japanese economy was instrumental. With electrical goods no longer a reliable backbone of Japanese exports, a change in direction was necessary. “We’re moving on to food and lifestyle, so we’re putting a lot of effort into these areas, and of course food and sake would be some of those items we’d like to promote,” said Manami Umetsu from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan.
Given the vast number of sake breweries that exist in Japan – 2,000 or so – only about 200 export their sake. But Umetsu isn’t too worried yet.
“First thing of course is we’ll be talking to those breweries interested in going overseas,” she said. “We’d like to talk to the rest, who up till now haven’t been exporting, and we’d like to ask if they are interested in doing any export business. This is what we’re trying to do: we try to encourage more breweries to come into the global market.”
There is a more immediate matter at hand, which Tsuchida points out: “We now have 19 (breweries) on board. The first thing for us to do is how to get all 200 on board. Next spring – that’s like next April – we’re looking at about 50 breweries.”
But the conservative industry will take some persuasion. Small breweries are only used to doing business domestically, and it may be a while before exports grow further. Umetsu acknowledges this, but also reminds us of the importance of not putting the cart before the horse. “Of course we’d like everyone to be more open to the growth market. We’ll still have breweries that are conservative, so what we’re trying to do now, is at least give a hand to those who are ready or eager, or want to go overseas, or are already exporting overseas,” she said.
The SakeFan World project is no walk in the park: because it’s not just a simple matter of listing brewery information, the size of the task becomes magnified. Tsuchida is adamant that they should not attempt to jump-start the project. “We want to do it correctly – the videos, all the information will be official, so that’s why it’s taking so much time,” said Tsuchida. “It’s not just about the breweries; it’s also about the region and tourist information.”
As you may already have guessed, there’s also a vested interest to promote inbound tourism. You may be surprised to know that the Cabinet Secretariat, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the National Tax Administration Agency, the Japan Tourism Agency, and the Japan Sake Makers’ Central Association are all collaborators on this project.
The prospects for tourism as a consequence, is perhaps part of the reason why the app is backed by the government. Umetsu admitted as much; the government would like to use sake as a channel to create an awareness for the countryside of Japan. While most people are aware of the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, few, apart from ‘Japanophiles’ will know of the sights that lie wait beyond the sea of all-too-familiar concrete. The proliferation of breweries all around the country makes it a viable platform to improve awareness about Japan as a whole with its lesser-seen sights.
Umetsu added that they would try to incorporate content on local food and handicrafts into the tourist and regional information sections of the app, but as of the moment, have no plans to go further in creating an business-friendly ‘ecosystem’ where app users can explore other offerings from the brewery locale – so for now at least, we won’t expect to see links to local businesses within the app. It is only a means to open the proverbial door.
As it stands, sakefan World is an interesting app that’s worth checking out if you love your sake. Right now it’s more of a novelty, but with time, will become an indispensable reference for any sake fan. It’s available worldwide on iOS, except for places that can’t import Japanese sake. Android users will have to wait a little longer, but you can be assured that it is in the works, albeit in the testing stages. It’s a little trickier with Android because of the many variants of smartphones in the ecosystem. “For Android, there’re many phone makers, and each phone maker is using a different camera; so we have to do a trial for each maker,” said Oka.
Understandably, the camera is a crucial element for the entire experience. For the iOS version at least, the experience was good, save for the limited number of breweries in the database. In a well-lit environment, we had no problems in scanning the labels – thanks apparently to a unique, special technology to read the characters on the labels. Their biggest challenge whilst developing the app, according to Oka, was overcoming the niggles of scanning text off a curved bottle. If there was a worrisome flaw, it certainly wasn’t apparent. Oka had a more candid view.
“Well, it’s not 100% perfect yet. Maybe we’ll tell you when it is,” he laughed.