After graduating from the literature department of the prestigious University of Tokyo, he tried his hand at writing for a living before becoming the eighth head of the brewery with its “phantom” brand Aramasa, perpetually sold out even with the decline in consumption of sake.
The event organiser, restaurant owner Kenta Saino, remarked that although there are any number of “phantom” sake, Aramasa was special when it came to the dedication of its fans and added that many of them probably idolised Satō’s lifestyle. And the man himself is called by many epithets, such as “revolutionary”, “defiant knight”, “new leader”, “idol”, even “the Steve Jobs of the sake world”.
The Aramasa brewery was founded in 1852, at the end of the Edo Period. Yeast has a far-reaching effect on sake, and after WWII the National Tax Agency created an impartial system where they cultivate yeast found naturally in breweries that they recognise as producing good sake. They allow all brewers to use these yeast varieties in the name of increasing the overall quality of sake. One of these selected yeasts was taken from the Aramasa brewery in 1930, and was named in sequence as Kyōkai (Association) No. 6, or No. 6 for short.
No. 6 drives powerful fermentation, producing mellow and clear aroma and tanrei (淡麗, light and refreshing) flavour. But like most things in Japan, yeasts come in and out of favour and at the moment very few breweries are using No. 6.
Born the eldest son of the brewery, Satō had no intention of carrying on the family business. Desperate to get away, he entered the department of commercial science at Meiji University in Tokyo, but never developed an interest in the subject and eventually stopped attending classes altogether. The only class he liked was Marxian economics, it just clicked with him and he devoured Das Kapital. Turned into a bookworm, he stumbled across Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes’ science fiction story about a boy with a mental handicap. He decided to study psychology and dropped out of Meiji University. He technically worked at the Sundai Preparatory School while between universities, but there were almost no lectures so he mostly studied alone.
Satō had vaguely felt for some time that he wasn’t like other people, and was maybe a bit crazy. When he tried to do something he wasn’t interested in, he couldn’t work up any enthusiasm and almost immediately lost the ability to focus. He often fell asleep in classes despite sleeping well the night before. He kept giving up. He left almost everything behind. He couldn’t manage his own time. Double-booking were a fact of daily life.
On the other hand, if he was interested in something he could concentrate and remember to a frightening degree. He memorised every song by the Beatles, who he adored, and had a complete memory of any other Western music that took his fancy. He could easily stay up all night listening to his favourite music. The same applied to his studies – he ignored the subjects he didn’t like and put everything into the ones he did. But he realised that just doing what he liked, the way he liked it, wasn’t getting him anywhere.
He remembered nothing from the pun-based mnemonics in his English textbook, but remembered every word when he wrote this own. For his essay for the second exam for the University of Tokyo, he made clever use of all the song lyrics he’d already memories and breezed through. He didn’t really care where he studied psychology, it just happened to be the University of Tokyo.
Looking back, he sees that drifting rōnin period between universities as a formative period. Before then, he had always tried to get along with people while doing something. That didn’t go well for him, and always left him wondering. Finding his own way of studying and being successful with it let him escape that way of thinking.
Satō’s interest in psychology was partly in order to understand himself and why he was different from other people. But when he got into the university lectures, he found it to be an extremely basic, marketing-oriented subject exploring what people were thinking – something he had zero interest in. Disillusioned, he transferred from psychology into literature in an attempt to discover his true self.
His favourite author was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but he also felt a kinship with science fiction and beatnik novels that weren’t seen as literature at the time. He backpacked around south-east Asia, India and South America, which is when he decided to take over the family business. Although he still had no idea who he really was.
After meeting lots of friends who were like him and talking about being different from everyone else, Satō saw a doctor and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), a type of developmental disability. Looking back, he could see it in his past self. Some developmental disabilities bestow abilities different from the norm, with many famous historical figures suspected of having one.
Asked about being called a genius, Satō denies it – saying that being a genius requires making some kind of contribution to the world and that he is, by contrast, useless. He believes that everyone has a way of doing things that’s perfect for them and that if they find and adopt it they’ll be successful. But too many people are able to accomplish most things reasonably well, so they never think of turning away from what everyone tells them to do and finding their own way. He constantly failed, so had no choice but to find his own way of doing things. Which led him to brewing sake.
He also commented that he can concentrate endlessly when doing something he likes, going without sleep with no problems and spending far more time on it than the average person. He has to work around his ADD, still experiencing symptoms when he’s tired or has too much work. But it’s this thorough attention to detail and passion that produce the “phantom” sake with its legion of fans.