The Japanese National Tax Agency, which oversees all alcohol production in Japan, released a report on 2020 alcohol exports in February 2021. 

Coverage of exports has traditionally focused on sake’s long rise – increasing year on year from 2009 to 2019 – but there was much doubt over that trend continuing in 2020 as the pandemic forced closures or restrictions on bars and restaurants, choking the on-trade sales that are still very important for sake abroad.

The first page of the report looks at exports for all types of alcohol, which managed to rise 7.5% year on year despite various problems such as the pandemic and tensions with South Korea. It’s the 9th consecutive year of increases, rising since 2012.

Page 2 looks at export destinations in 2020, picking out the fact that the value of exports rose in 6 of the top 10 destinations. China was in the lead with JPY 17.3 billion (up 70.9% on 2019), followed by the USA with JPY 13.8 billion (down 11.6% on 2019) and Hong Kong with JPY 10 billion (up 59.5% on FY2019).

The rest of page 2 is taken up with a table showing the top 10 export destinations for all types of alcohol in 2020, followed by all other destinations, and the EU for comparison. 

I’ll put the figures for sake alone later, as they come up again along with some other data. 

Page 3 breaks down exports by type, noting growth for whiskey (up 39.4%) and liqueurs (33.9%). Sake exports grew by 3.1% on 2019, and accounted for 34% of total exports.

Page 4 is all about sake, celebrating the fact that not only exports by value but also unit price have increased continuously for the last 11 years. The trend in unit price in particular is very interesting.

  • 2010: JPY 617/litre
  • 2011: JPY 626/litre
  • 2012: JPY 633/litre
  • 2013: JPY 650/litre
  • 2014: JPY 705/litre
  • 2015: JPY 771/litre
  • 2016: JPY 789/litre
  • 2017: JPY 795/litre
  • 2018: JPY 863/litre
  • 2019: JPY 939/litre
  • 2020: JPY 1,109/litre

That’s a big jump from 2019 to 2020, and interesting to consider in light of the pandemic – has it started to move exports away from lower priced bulk sake and towards higher priced speciality sake? Is it a temporary or more permanent change in consumer behaviour?

Export figures for sake alone were:

  1. Hong Kong JPY 6,178 million (3rd overall) Up 56.7% on 2019, 25.6% share
  2. China JPY 5,792 million (1st overall) Up 15.8% on 2019, 24% share
  3. USA JPY 5,070 million (2nd overall) Down 25% on 2019, 21% share
  4. Taiwan JPY 1,430 million (4th overall) Up 5.3% on 2019, 5.9% share
  5. Singapore JPY 1,113 million (5th overall) Up 30% on 2019, 4.6% share
  6. South Korea JPY 979 million (9th overall) Down 28% on 2019, 4.1% share
  7. Australia JPY 491 million (8th overall) Up 11.9% on 2019, 2% share
  8. Canada JPY 429 million (not in overall top 10) Down 21.6% on 2019, 1.8% share
  9. Vietnam JPY 279 million (not in overall top 10) Down 25.8% on 2019, 1.2% share
  10. Malaysia JPY 278 million (not in overall top 10) Up 14.8% on 2019, 1.2% share

(Other JPY 2,626 million, down 17% on 2019, 8.7% share)

The total for 2020 sake exports was JPY 24,141 million, with exports to the EU valued at JPY 915 million. France was 6th overall for alcohol exports from Japan, but imported only JPY 213 million of sake, leaving it outside the top 10. Same for the Netherlands, 7th overall but only importing JPY 178 million for sake. Russia was in 10th place overall, importing only JPY 71 million of sake

I also wonder if the Netherlands (and France to a lesser extent) are listed as major European export destinations because they also have transport/cargo hubs. 

Page 5 is also dedicated to sake, this time unit price by destination with the top 10 among the top 20 export destinations.

  1. Macao JPY 4,067/litre (total export value JPY 179 million)
  2. Hong Kong JPY 2,350/litre (total export value JPY 6,178 million)
  3. Singapore JPY 1,619/litre (total export value JPY 1,113 million)
  4. Russia JPY 1,370/litre (total export value JPY 71 million)
  5. Switzerland JPY 1,323/litre (total export value JPY 67 million)*
  6. China JPY 1,214/litre (total export value JPY 5,792 million)
  7. UK JPY 976/litre (total export value JPY 215 million)
  8. USA JPY 962/litre (total export value JPY 5,070 million)
  9. France JPY 958/litre (total export value JPY 213 million)
  10. Australia JPY 935/litre (total export value JPY 491 million)
  • Other JPY 625/litre (total export value JPY 4,753 million)
  • EU JPY 632/litre (total export value JPY 915 million)

[* I regularly pay JPY 3,500 – 4,700 per 720 ml bottle, or JPY 4,860 – 6,530/litre here in Switzerland, I don’t know what everyone else is doing… must be the sale value to the brewery before transport costs, import and alcohol duties, wholesaler/retailer costs, etc.]

The report is based on trade statistics provided by the Japanese Ministry of Finance, which are subject to correction or revision at a later date, and figures are rounded which means percentages may not add up to 100%.

So some interesting ideas suggested, and also some interesting speculation on how badly European imports have been affected – Oliver Hilton-Johnson of Tengu Sake gave a rough estimate of a 40% drop. 

The Japanese government has set a target of doubling sake exports by 2025, so this also feeds into what their strategy might be. Whether or not and when the pandemic is brought under control is one wild card, but it’s worth looking at high volume and/or high value countries – particularly closer Asian neighbours – to hit that target. 


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