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Nikkei Style has another interesting article about sake, this time based on its history and inclusion in the book 30の発明から読む日本史 (Japanese history seen through 30 inventions).

It traces the history of sake back to the Yayoi period (which is very useful as I’m about to hit the history section of the Sake Service Institute textbook) and specifically looks at the history of the word itself.

As you may already know, although sake (酒) is the name predominantly used outside Japan for the rice-based, multiple-parallel-fermented alcoholic drink made with the “national fungus” kōji and yeast, the word sake in Japanese means “alcohol”. What English calls sake is nihonshu (日本酒, Japanese alcohol) in Japanese. But where did the word sake in Japanese come from?

Sake is mentioned in the Kojiki and Nihongi, ancient and quasi-mythical histories of Japan compiled around 600 – 700 AD, where the divine Susano-o-no-mikoto uses distilled alcohol to get the monstrous nine-headed dragon/serpent Yamata-no-orochi drunk enough to pass out so he can kill it. (Yamata no Orochi Wikipedia article, or if you want a comedy abbreviated version, see the Miki no Mikoto promo video from about 4:34.)

A religious precursor of sake, kuchikami-sake (口噛み酒) – literally “mouth-chewed sake” was recorded in the Yayoi period (around 300 BC – 300 AD). The act of chewing in the mouth and mixing with enzymes in saliva was enough to allow the rice to be fermented by ambient microorganisms.

Three possibilities for the origin of the word sake put forward in the article are:

  1. 栄之水 (sakae-no-mizu) “glorious/splendid water”, where the sakae mutated into sake.
  2. 栄のキ (sakae-no-ki) “glorious/splendid offering of sake to the gods”, where ki is an abbreviation of 御神酒 (omiki, sake offered to a god or sacred sake) and sakae-no-ki became shorted to saki and then mutated into sake.
  3. Drinking sake was rumoured to help ward off illness and misfortune, and the verb 避ける (sakeru, to avoid) was appropriated as sake to name the drink.

Whichever one it was, it’s clear that sake was revered as something that brought good luck.

There’s more interesting information in the article so I will continue with it tomorrow!