Why Japan has lost its MW


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.