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Blogger Isseki Nagae, publishing on the Blogos site, goes against prevailing wisdom by warning that there’s no big business to be had exporting sake, or at least that it’s not as easy as it might look.

The post is a response to an article on the Horiemon site (tagline: “Work is fun. Work is wonderful.”) titled “Why Horiemon lost it with someone who wanted to start a new business based around sake – ‘People who say they want to make 100 billion yen are the ones I hate the most!'”. (Yes, Japanese loves long, long titles.)

So this is partly a reaction against someone who seems to just want to get rich, which Nagae admits annoys him too. The person who attracted all this anger sent a question to the Horiemon site, saying they knew some brewers in Mie and Akita prefectures and were thinking of starting a sake export business. The questioner had previously been told that commercial activity introducing sake to other countries was still small-scale and so had growth potential, and wanted to know what countries had real demand. He also wondered if he should export sake as a product to be sold overseas, or set up a dedicated e-commerce site and sell directly to overseas buyers. Now in his early 20s, the questioner was also mindful that Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son had built up a JPY 100 billion war chest in his 30s.

First putting the questioner in the “young and knows nothing” box, Nagae proceeds to answer the question in his own way. (He pulls little if any punches.) A brief glance at the export market figures for sake show that even with its recent double-digit growth it’s still only JPY 14 billion, far short of any JPY 100 billion fantasy. You’d have to export almost all the sake available in Japan to make that much profit. Someone hasn’t done their basic research.

Nagae then refers to a TV ad (does anyone in Japan know about this?) where an elderly sake brewer (or sake retailer, it’s not completely clear) opens up an online shop and gets more orders than he knows what to do with… which was taken off the air. Why? Two reasons. First, you need separate licences to sell sake from a premises and to sell it online or by mail order. Plus exporting food products overseas isn’t so easy as every country has its own strict regulations. A potential exporter might have to produce a stack of documentation on additives, ingredient analysis, even the bottles used. And in the local language too. Our would-be entrepreneur has a lot to learn.

I’m going to stay with article for a few posts, firstly because it’s so much fun to read! Also because it has a lot of information in it, as Nagae proceeds to systematically demolish the idea that exporting sake is easy money. And thirdly because I’m short on time to produce these posts at the moment so I’m going to make a few meals out of this article.

Click here to read part 2 of “Why you won’t get rich exporting sake”!