No one knows exactly where the word for the sake master brewer, toji, comes from, but theories offer insight into the beverage’s long history. Some say that the term is from the Chinese gods of alcohol, Yi Yi and Du Kang. Others point to the religious history of sake and say toji comes from the Shinto priests making sake as an offering to the gods. The most wildly-held theory is that toji comes from the ancient Japanese word for housewife, tonushi.
Sake is a delicate rice beverage, and one of the oldest drinks still enjoyed today. Housewives first made it, and men only recently took over the role of toji.
Many people think a female goddess discovered sake. Women made and sold sake until the 1600s. Today, some of the most successful sake-makers have been women in the male-dominated field. Let’s look at the long history of sake-making in Japan and the role women played in it.
Note: Although sake isn’t technically wine, it’s commonly called rice wine, so we’re including it in this series.
The Very First Sake
Sake has been brewed for millennia. Almost as soon as rice cultivation became stable, someone tried to make an alcoholic beverage out of it. The first record of the beverage is from the third century BCE. The drink wasn’t anything like the beverage we enjoy today. People would take rice and nuts and chew them until they formed a ball. They’d then spit this ball into a wooden tub and left it to ferment for a few days. The result was a thick oatmeal-like concoction used in religious rituals. It was eaten with chopsticks. The first name of this lightly alcoholic offering translated to “chewing in the mouth.”
Women’s role in early sake-making
One of the most prevalent legends of sake-making is that a female deity named Konohanasakuya-hime discovered sake. She was the first one to chew and ferment the rice. Initially, only women were allowed to make sake. They were natural-born brewers and the workers of the gods. Young teenage virgins often participated in spit festivals where they’d chew for so long that their jaw would hurt. The drink now was translated to “beautiful women’s sake.”
Created by Katsushika Hokusai during the Edo period. – Illustration of the goddess Konohanasakuya-hime from the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. https://harvardartmuseums.org/art/147592
Sake-making during the 800’s
As time went on, sake became more and more popular. No longer limited to religious rituals, men and women enjoyed sake whether rich or poor. Sake-making was still predominantly a woman’s job. The process became refined, and people enjoyed a filtered sake without chunks of chewed rice. There were two different types of sake: white and black sake. White sake is very similar to the sake we have today. We don’t have the recipe for black sake, unfortunately.
During the Hein period, there was a sake brewery in the emperor’s estate where only women worked. Brewers made sake in temples and shrines. The villagers still consumed the old-style sake. Women enjoyed the freedom to make, drink and consume sake in public without social repercussions.
Records of female sake makers’ success date back to this time. Women were sake-makers and money lenders. As time went on, the women’s sake became so successful that they were evading taxes and getting in trouble.
Women get pushed out of sake-making
Women thrived in this village-based economy and were depicted as outspoken businesswomen. But as the economy shifted to industrialization, things changed rapidly. Sake industrialization began and pushed women out of sake-making.
During Japan’s Edo period in the 1600s, women were banned from making sake professionally. Based on Buddhist and folk beliefs, women were not fit for the sake industry.
One folklore said the goddess of sake was female, and having another woman in the room would make her angry and jealous. Another legend said that women’s menstruation produced toxins that would ruin the fermentation. The saying, “when a woman enters the brewery, the sake will spoil,” was common. This belief is still common in Japan and is the excuse many use for why women shouldn’t be sushi chefs either.
Practically speaking, sake became industrialized and could no longer be easily made at home. Sake-makers frequently worked long hours that required physical strength and exposure to danger. People during the Edo dynasty could’ve argued this was no place for a woman. Sometimes even today, religious communities don’t allow men and women to work together. In Japan, this results in male-only sake breweries.
The Story of Tatsuuma Kiyo
Women lost their historical role of being the chief sake-makers to this day, but one woman changed the narrative. Tatsuuma Kiyo was born in the early 1800s to a family who had made sake for over one hundred years. Sake-making and business fascinated Tatsuuma Kiyo from a young age. She learned all she could from her family before marrying a son of another brewing house.
Her husband controlled the family sake-making, and she went on to have six children. When she was 46 her husband died, and she became widow with young children. Determined not to lose the sake business, she found a loophole to let her run the sake business without breaking the law. Tatsuuma Kiyo hired a male clerk to be her deputy in public events. She trusted him implicitly to be the face of the business while she worked behind the scenes.
Kiyo’s sake business
And work she did. Tatsuuma Kiyo had an eye for business. She was the first sake maker to send sake to Edo. She started her own shipping company to send her product there and created insurance companies to protect her sake from the unexpected.
As a marketing genius, she learned the power of branding and started purchasing sake from other brewers when her yields were low. She experimented with different blends and labels. Some of her strategies are still used today. Although breweries didn’t allow women inside, Tatsuuma Kiyo found ways around this and actively supervised workers. Some records say she’d wash the containers herself to ensure they were up to her cleanliness standards.
It wasn’t long before Tatsuuma Kiyo’s brewery, Hakushika, grew. It became the leading Japanese brand, producing three times more sake than any competitor. Tatsuuma Kiyo worked hard to ensure her sake empire lived on, marrying off her children to other prominent sake-makers. Her sake branch families worked, and her brand is still active today.
Tatsuuma Kiyo died in 1900 at the age of 91. She’s buried in a nondescript plot, and her story is relatively unknown. This could be because traditional Japanese culture doesn’t look up to the business accomplishments of a woman. In some cases, it brings dishonor to a woman’s family. Whatever the case, Tatsuuma Kiyo showed that women could be excellent sake-makers even during industrial times.
Women in the sake-making industry today
Sake-making is still very much a man’s club in Japan today. With 1500 licensed sake breweries in Japan, women only run 50 of them. Menstruation remains taboo, and many male sake-makers still believe that a woman’s cycle will mess up the sake-making. The cultural belief that women aren’t clean has deep roots in many areas, and many sake breweries don’t allow women to this day.
This is slowly changing. Women now work in and own sake breweries throughout Japan – and the movement is growing. Only 20 years ago, there were five female sake-makers. Now there are ten times that. The future looks bright for women in the sake industry.
1000 – 500 BC: The first sake is brewed. According to legend, a female deity discovered the beverage. It was likely a woman temple attendant.
794 – 1185 AD: Hein Period of Japanese history. Sake is commonplace, and women make, sell, and drink openly.
1603 – 1867 AD: Edo Period of Japanese history. Due to religious and cultural prejudice and the changing economy, women are forbidden from brewing sake.
July 16, 1809: Tatsuuma Kiyo was born. Tatsuuma Kiyo grew her sake business to the largest in Japan in a period when she wasn’t allowed to step foot into the brewhouse.
1962: Miho Imada was born. Miho Imada is the first head of a sake company and one of the few female toji or sake brewmasters. Her sake is world-renowned. She was listed as one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2020.
Wine Pairing Recommendation
This Women-Owned Sake Company Is Paving the Way for Female Brewers. Anthony Berteaux. March 3, 2022 Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. Mallory O’Meara. October 19, 2021.
The Story of Sake. National Research Institute of Brewing. January 2014. The Return of Japan’s Female Sake Brewers. REINA GATTUSO. DECEMBER 10, 2019 The Ancient, Female Origins of Booze. ANNE EWBANK. MARCH 28, 2022.
The reason why sake breweries became “Nyonin Kinsei”. Hiroshi Minato. July 25, 2018. The reason why sake breweries became “Nyonin Kinsei”. Hiroshi Minato. July 25, 2018. Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. Mallory O’Meara. October 19, 2021.
12 female sake brewers team up for project to promote their woman-made sake. Casey Baseel. Feb 23, 2018 The Return of Japan’s Female Sake Brewers. REINA GATTUSO. DECEMBER 10, 2019