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Why Japan has lost its MW

27 Mar 2014 by Guest contributor

1 May - Alder Yarrow responds to the article below with one of his monthly columns, An American perspective on Japan.

Ned Goodwin MW, for long a Purple Pager and the only Master of Wine based in Japan, holds dual Japanese/Australian residency. Here he explains why he has decided to leave Japan after 11 years. He still has an interest in a small wine-import firm Wine Diamonds and intends to return to Japan several times a year, but writes this from a beach in Sydney. Feel free to comment below.

I have lived in Japan for almost 11 years. The country has been good to me in many ways, otherwise I would not have stayed so long. My memorable time as an exchange student at 15 years of age in rural Fukui prefecture laid the groundwork to live in a country that is, for many non-Japanese at least, one of the most insular and odd places on Earth. Yet it's time to pack my bags, at least for a while.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster and its aftermath saw colleagues and friends move on. Worse for me is that Japan is once again shifting to the right. Abe and the stench of his familial ties wafts in the air. Teachers are being fired for refusing to sing the national anthem, smacking of a militarist past. A secrecy act has been promulgated, and there are other systemic endeavours to make Japan a 'proud nation' again, whatever that means. Textbooks are shuffled about the caverns of bureaucracy and paper shredders are employed to erase history, lining a road to nowhere. While this has nothing to do with wine per se, it does impinge on my enjoyment of it, on my family and on our lives.

During my time in Japan, I've been privileged to work as a buyer of wine and as an educator, to have consulted for private collectors, rock stars, embassies and airlines. However, since becoming Japan's sole Master of Wine in 2010, the real growth in work opportunities has come from abroad. With this, I've come to recognise that many aspects of the wine world are either unrealised in Japan, or simply pass it by. Of course Japan thrives on its own particular trends, which the Japanese perceive as 'unique', a word that has gained renewed traction under Abe in attempts to fend off the international currency of cultural homogeneity on one hand, but also as a means to curtail mention of the past and the embrace of the present. After all, if the Japanese have a unique taste, surely they also have a unique perspective on history and the status quo.

The myth of uniqueness is dangerous. It is the kernel of closed-mindedness and elitism. While many Japanese working with wine offer superlative service, revelling in an attention to detail and an assiduous approach to accumulating knowledge that is admirably and quintessentially Japanese, such a focus on minutiae often risks obfuscating wine's most essential role, which, to me at least, is to bring joy.

Japanese sommeliers twist wine foils into elaborate tabletop sculptures and wax rhapsodic about terroir, yet fail to introduce a curious consumer base to the pleasure that wine can bring as a delicious drink, lubricator of conversation and avatar of memories. Wine is not actively sold, but wielded as a vehicle to promote the self. Wine allows for preening - for the modelling of badges, fusty suits and elaborate ornaments. Every man, woman and their dog is a so-called sommelier, yet few title holders actually work with wine. The designation is merely an embellishment of a résumé in a culture in which titles are prized over merit or real talent. Moreover, critics do not exist in a culture that covets face and harmony over discussion and debate.

Nebulous descriptors such as 'classic' and 'natural' are tossed about wine circles, yet after decades of deflation, recession and fear of the unknown, the wines gaining favour are anything but. Falling prices in such a climate, allied with heavy discounting and the inability of salespeople across the on and off trades to suggest wines from areas that offer real value, result in sales of inexpensive, poor-quality wines from regions that are perceived as risk-averse.

Cheap Bordeaux for example, quite possibly the least attractive wine on the planet, is sold over southern Rhône, Spanish wines and a myriad others that give more bang for the buck and - potentially at least - serve to lure new consumers to wine. Subsequently, with the exception of certain mavericks, the wine scene is moribund. Consumption hovers around two litres per capita, as it has done for three decades.

Wine's potential to bring joy is often denied in Japan by those who work with it. Yet I'm told that failing to offer a second glass of wine to a customer drinking by the glass, or to refill empty glasses, is 'uniquely' Japanese. Similarly, failing to suggest an alternative bottle of wine to a group after the first bottle is finished, or to suggest to a customer a wine of far better quality that costs a little more money than the bottle selected, is from the same cultural coven.

This is akin to technology or ideas that are embraced in Japan while either becoming defunct elsewhere or failing to find favour. This isolation dynamic is known in Japan as the Galapagos effect. Peering deeper, it's also synonymous with the large disparity between salaries and the roles of the sexes in Japan (despite women driving consumption and a higher quality of life), ATM machines that fail to take overseas cards, a regressive sommelier organisation, and hapless Japanese website design that provides lots of information without any straightforward directives on how to use it. Japan Airlines' site is a prime example, but there are many more.

This effect may be sociological and politically founded. However, it's largely detrimental, be it wine-related or otherwise. It manifests in an inability to see what's going on elsewhere, and a closed-mindedness that's steeped in ignorance and grounded in the tired old us-and-them mindset. This is only the more frustrating because most Japanese are neither poor nor uneducated. Most of all, though, this grinding insularity is founded in fear: fear of the unknown; of the foreign way; of foreign languages; and of losing face. Witness, for example, the recent All Nippon Airways ad that portrayed foreign customers with blonde wigs and long Pinocchio noses. The greatest fear, though, is of the possibility that alternative ways to those that are Japanese may well be better, even if they're foreign.

Indeed, many Japanese tastemakers are ignorant of winemaking, stylistic and drinking trends that occur elsewhere. This makes it impossible for them to share valuable information with the growing number of in-home drinkers, who would surely benefit from it. Worse, many of these tastemakers thrive on a set of tenets that serves to dismiss wine from anywhere but the 'classic' regions. These tenets are staples of the wine hierarchy here, particularly the Japan Sommelier Association. Again, they're founded on elitism, while fostering ignorance and poor communication skills. One only has to look at the number of pages dedicated to Bordeaux and Burgundy in the sommelier handbook to understand that other regions receive, at best, a token glance.

Nevertheless, I love many aspects of Japan, due to inextricable links to the country - spiritual and ineffable on many levels - grounded in what to this day remains the finest experience of my life, as a youth in Echizen Ohno. I remain a part-time resident of Japan because it's a very civilised place on many levels, despite an ingrained ethnocentricity and inability to take the risks that are often needed. It's also a safe and decent place to live, to which I raise a glass!

I look forward, however, to a time when wine is drunk in the context of social evolution: when the chimera of the bubble and its lost generation, as well as the recent scars of the earthquake, perpetual recession and drudgery that comes with it, manifest as a society that no longer feels compelled to hold on to the life raft of established norms that remain safe for the time being, but are fading into irrelevancy. I look forward to a society that nurtures opportunities for a greater quality of life: better urban planning, living spaces, an appreciation of leisure, fair working hours and salaries that reward talent rather than time; non-revisionist history; better policies for a cleaner environment; and a more visceral and pleasurable approach to drinking wine as a symbol of this progress rather than as a token motif of status or face, or something to dissect forensically while tasting with the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.

After all, wine is a beautiful thing and comes from many cultures and climates. Until one appreciates this, however, the simple maxim that wine is there to be drunk and enjoyed is difficult to grasp.

Comments

I’m a wine importer/distributor in Japan.  I've enjoyed living and working here for over 10 years.  I’ve also known and worked with Ned Goodwin during that time.  Ned’s original article was entitled The Galapagos Problem (reference to the Japanese coined phrase to describe pride in its isolation and uniqueness, for better or for worse; see 457,000 Google results!).  Ned speaks Japanese perfectly well and was involved daily in the wine business here as well as keeping abreast of other markets; and gained his MW while doing so.  I believe he had a reasonable vantage point for his opinions.  I found the piece insightful - with the potential to offend vested interests!  His article also hinted at the lack of self-confidence in the trade here, thus heavy reliance, particularly by the Sommelier hierarchy, on staples like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne (and for valid political parallels, see the fine works of Ian Buruma).  I’m apparently somewhat of a maverick here for focussing on the South of France and the Rhône in particular!  And I’m staying here still optimistic about seeing these regions in the mainstream!

15 May 2014 12:29 by James Dunstan

Among those who intimately understand and have emotional attachments to Japan –Ned Goodwin and myself included–, the choices are either to be defensive for the virtue of its distinctive uniqueness (and excellence in many respects) or to advocate for whatever change needed to make its future relevant, competitive and more excellent.  Mine’s the latter.   When times were good in the 80’s, the rest of the world tried to learn and adapt to the way of Japan.  ‘Cool Japan’ of late is alright; it’s cute and admirable, but the world moves on faster than most people in Japan might think.  For better or worse, global standard rather than ‘Galapagos’ is inevitable in our age; firstly, genuine open-mindedness towards as well as understanding and conscious appreciation of all things great (instead of what your ‘authorities’ tell you is great), then knowing your competitive advantage and how to play to that strength are all the necessary means of survival in the future.  For the Japanese wine professionals and enthusiasts, it can begin with bringing vibrancy, excitement and joy of wine to themselves and their customers.  What Japan needs also is more robust discussions like this, such that will sharpen our skills to communicate in English and make us resilient, rather than take offense. 

14 May 2014 14:47 by Hiro Tejima

Orlando Gibbons' comment says it all.

2 May 2014 19:36 by Alex Bernardo

This is really a rant about Japan and justification for leaving.Wine is appreciated in Japan just as sake, whisky, beer and shochu are. Yes Japan is turning to the right but what about Australia? The proud champion of environmental destruction. If the author has had enough of Japan he should leave, there are plenty of sommeliers who can fill the gap  (read: people who can pour expensive wine while chatting) it is not like he fulflls an important role like a teacher or nurse or social worker. Spare everyone else the self-pitying rant about how Japan has gone wrong therefore he had to leave. Japan is just fine, the author doesn't want to live here anymore, so he should just leave without these sour grapes. 

28 Apr 2014 02:07 by Orlando Gibbons

Thank you Mr Goodwin for an unusually frank view of a most unusual country, often baffling, from an unusual point of view, wine. Your article fascinated me at many levels, but perhaps particularly because I feel a deep resonance with my own experience as a Frenchman who has lived in the UK for over 30 years and has learnt an awful lot of what he knows about wine here in London, the Mecca of serious, curious and open-minded wine lovers. As you very well know, I could never have learnt as much about so many wines from so many countries if I had stayed in France, where perhaps 6 % of wine drunk is non-French. But like wine drinking in Japan, it is growing ... slowly. And this imparting of knowledge is thanks to the tireless efforts of the English wine trade, most probably the most internationally knowledgeable , especially of course at the MW level.   I started being interested in Japan a long time ago – my first wife was working for the Asahi Shimbun and the first Japonese people I met were journalists who were fairly worldly-wise and spoke a reasonable English (that was in the 70s). What you say about some of the most unpalatable facets of Japan is right – the regularly resurfacing revisionist attitude, the negation of the fanaticism demonstrated at almost all levels of society during the 2nd World War, the mind dulling hyper consensual attitude pervading everything, even a foreign drink like wine. BUT there are also many remarkable things one can find in Japan; you allude to that when you say “spiritual and ineffable on many levels”. The few days I spent many years ago during a retreat in a very old Zen temple north of Tokyo will stay with me for the rest of my life. But let’s go back to our cherished subject, wine. It is one of the greatest gifts of the ancient Mediterranean cultures; an uninterrupted cultural link from Georgia to the Eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks, the Romans, the French, and now it has spread to almost the whole world. Never has there been so many good wines, and they can come from South Africa, Argentina, or remote parts of Spain or Italy, or even ... Japan or China, although they have a long, long way to go – it takes much time and knowledge, and a bit of creativity, to make a good wine. So there is hope, and do not underestimate the civilizing influence of wine. After all, a long time ago the British only drank mead and beer – like the French, I mean the Gauls.

16 Apr 2014 01:56 by Michel Bernard

It is a pity that the Japanese people could not let him understand what Japanese culture is. It is a shame that the Japanese people were not able to communicate with him in English. As a Japanese who loves to drink wine, I would like you to allow me to explain some of misunderstanding and write some comments. As to the universality, do we need the universality of wine or alcohol? Is there the universality of wine? When I was in Sheffield, UK, people recommended me to drink beer rather than wine. There were a plenty kind of beer bottles even in the convenient stores. But, further surprisingly, space for Champagne were twice of that for still wine. I imagine that English may love bubble? When I visited at Ovied, Spain, people recommended me to drink cider rather than wine. I could enjoy both cider and Rioja wine with tasty Spanish food. When I visited at Berlin, I tried Berlin curry hotdog with a glass of cheap Riesling. The fresh smell and good taste of Riesling was impressive for me. When I visited at San Francisco, I could enjoy California wine. There are many kind of restaurant in Japan. If you go to French restaurant, they recommend you French wine. If you go to Italian restaurant, they recommend you Italian wine. How about Spanish restaurant? You can drink Spain wine. Go to Indian one, you can try Indian wine. Do we need Mcdonald wine list? Nay. We would be happy if they recommend us fitted wine. What is the fitted wine for drinker? I prefer food and wine matching. But, if you go to authoritarian restaurant, you can find authoritarian people flock together to drink authoritarian wine. I think that it would be universal in the world.  As to Japanese sommeliers, yes, it is. Every man, woman and their dog is a so-called sommelier, yet few title holders actually work with wine. The Japanese people love culture lesson. Since childhood, people go to variety of culture lessons, such as flower arrangement, chirography, swimming, piano, or how to write a novel. To become a sommelier, they drink and buy wine and get familiar with wine. Did you mean useless?  Twenty years ago, to just get a California wine was also difficult. Now, I know a Spain wine shop where many good wine are introducing, an American wine shop where good Oregon wine are introducing, and a New Zealand wine shop where Kusuda wine is importing. There are more specific wine shops. Further, there are many Chinese restaurants where you can enjoy wind and food matching. There are many Okonomiyaki houses where you can enjoy several types of wine. (Okonomiyaki has been introduced as an Osaka soulful food in BA in-flight magazine.)  We could not imagine a situation like this twenty years ago. In 20 years, situation would be changed further.  Previous study reported that 85% of Japanese carry an atypical liver alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The frequency of ADH polymorphism is identical with the reported frequency of alcohol sensitivity in the Japanese population (Am J Hum Genet. Nov 1975; 27(6): 789–796.). Therefore, it is not a good idea to excessively recommend another glass of wine to a guest. Even though they seem to enjoy the meeting, some of them might suppress their feeling. It would be difficult for foreigner to understand what they mind.  In that case, also it is not a good idea to recommend another bottle of wine.   I think what he is saying is partially true. But, it is only a part of Japan. Finally, he should not have mixed the story of wine and politics. The story of politics, there is a front and back. Position changes, the story also changes. Hope he could understand what the Japanese culture is and what the Japanese wine drinker want. 

12 Apr 2014 08:53 by Miho Kusuda Furue

We can find the people or trend which Ned describe in his article. But I believe his article doesn't represent general situation. There may be significant number of people as he described in front of him as a obstacle for his activities much more than average. But today number of these people are decreasing.However, I got the same impression of Ned 20 years ago when I back from France for studying Sommelierie and Marketing. Since then I am trying to change the wine industry and trend of consumers.  Still today, my challenge is on the way. Fortunately I am convinced that more and more professional and wine lover share our feeling and try to influence to their partner, customer and friends and I am sure we are progressing.30 yeas ago, wine consumption per capital was about 500ml. In 1990 when we enjoy bubble economy like China these days, it is our first experience to achieve 1 little. And today, we drink wine 5 times more than 30 years ago.But still wine represent just 2.4% of volume of total alcohol beverage and 7% of value. We have a large choice other than wine ,You also should know that regular drinker of wine represent about 1.5% of adult population. But since 15 years, number of occasional drinker drinking wine more than 2 times a month improved and now it represent about  25% of adult population.Our market and consumption style is evolving.But we will never become like a Australia, France, Italy, US and UK. Because we have different environment, history, culture, geography and physics.So try to implement their culture to Japan is like to plant Cabernet Sauvignion to Piemonte. Some will be happy but don't expect all the terroir accept Cabernet Sauvignion in Piemonte.I am sorry that Ned left Japan. But don't be afraid we are still here. Many wine lovers and professional try to improve by ourselves. We will take time but improve our life with wine which will fit to Japan. One point we should improve is English speaking ability of the people in wine industry to show and explain about our market. If Master of wine exam is made in Japanese, I am sure that we will have one of the biggest number of MW for sure.  

2 Apr 2014 06:35 by Keisuke Itoh

I am afraid that I have had a very different experience of the wine world in Japan than you. I was actually shocked that this rant was published on Jancis' website, as it is quite biased, unfair and somewhat vitriolic in tone. I also do not see the link between your dislike of Prime Minister Abe and his politics and the sale and enjoyment of wine in Japan. Every country, especially those that do not have a history of producing wine, go through their own evolution of learning about and appreciating wine. Hence, in years past, Japan concentrated on classic French wines. However, it is far, far different now! As Mr. Nozawa comments, there is a vast array of wines available now- from all over the world, of varying prices and qualities. I worked for several years for a wine importer in the Kansai area (Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka) selling Austrian and Italian wines. I did very well, and met many well-informed Japanese sommeliers, restaurant owners, chefs, etc., who were very interested in all kinds of wines and excited about new and interesting food pairings, trends, etc. As for the general public, in wine tastings and dinners, people were very open to learn about new wines and tastes. Obviously, per capita consumption here is low, but it is rising. Which is interesting to note, considering that in France, of all places, it is going down. So from my point of view, Japan is an exciting, vibrant place to deal in and enjoy wine!

2 Apr 2014 02:05 by Mercedes Dobler

I'm a wine maker in JAPAN. Certainly, up to the end of Red Wine boom, we were respecting too much the "Classic Wines" from the regions such as Bordeaux, Bourgogne ,Toscana and Piemonte". And it seems also having same tendency now in many Asian countries such as China, Korea, Indonesia and etc. But after the bubbling economy has disappeared, the regard to the wine has changed in JAPAN. We are now focusing to the tremendous kind of wines from New World, cheap wines of good cost performance and quality, natural wines(such as bio) and finally Japanese wines(such as Koshu). Now we have a obvious tendency to spend more time at home in family or with friends especially after Tsunami disaster. We can easily find good restaurants where people can feel at ease and find good list of wine from all over the world and certainly of more Japanese wines. They are using Japanese ingredients for cuisine thus it goes well with Japanese wines and lighter style white and red. However, it is not the case when people live in JAPAN in English spoken environment. It maybe rare to find a wine list in English in a reasonable restaurant but it may be easier to be found it in a traditional restaurant such as French or Italian. So what we should do before the Olympic Game 2020 in Tokyo seems to be clear, we have to welcome foreign peoples in English! And certainly better if we can have Japanese wines in each restaurants!

29 Mar 2014 13:18 by Taka Nozawa

Thanks Ned for a very insightful article. I have travelled to Japan with wine (marketing and education) since 1980. I believe there is great contradiction when it comes to wine. Many restaurants are very adventurous with wine and generally younger people (often young women) are most interested to learn more about wine and to try a wide variety of styles and the regions of the World. I am fortunate that I have many trade and consumer friends who have sought wine education and are keen to explore. I believe that you are spot on in suggesting where the problem lies and I wish that those in more "formal" roles would relax a little and smell the roses (and the whites, reds etc.). They are stifling many of those who they are able to influence. Wine is fun, it is sensual and people should approach it with confidence, It is a great beverage to enjoy with fine food and good friends and there is plenty of both in Japan. I can't wait to get back there to enjoy the food and wine with my adventurous friends and hopefully add a few more to our circle.   

29 Mar 2014 10:47 by Tony Devitt

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