TOKYO - Move over cars and high tech. Japan, long renowned for its innovative autos and gadgets, now hopes to turn sake and other local spirits into export hits as well.
Tokyo looks to make its traditional rice wine part of national growth strategy, aiming at an overseas marketing push to help bring tourism and investment to struggling rural areas.
The plan is a brainchild of Economics Minister Motohisa Furukawa, who had a eureka moment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he witnessed sake's popularity among the attendees.
This led him to set up the "Enjoy Japanese Kokushu (national alcohol)" project, whose six-member advisory council met in late May for the first time.
Its brief: to enhance international recognition of sake and shochu, distilled spirit made from grains such as barley or potatoes, and promote their export.
Sake experts gave the idea a cautious thumbs up.
"Things that are really valuable to countries are ones that are clearly unique to that particular country, which is certainly truly for sake," Philip Harper, a master sake brewer from Great Britain.
"I think it makes a lot of sense as a national strategy to promote sake in that way.
With a history of over 2,000 years, sake is as much a part of Japan as sumo wrestling and sushi. But a loss of popularity at home in recent years, as more drinkers opt for wine, beer and cocktails, has led many brewers to turn their eyes overseas.
They hope to show Japanese consumers the popularity of their national drink in places like the United States, hoping to reinvigorate the demand for sake in its homeland.
Harper himself provides a good example of sake winning prominence among non-Japanese. A sake that he produced was presented to British Prime Minister David Cameron when he visited Japan in April.
But sake has a long way to go before gaining the export clout of French wine or Scottish whisky, and government participation is essential since many breweries are too small to market their products overseas by themselves, Harper said.
Still, even without government efforts sake exports have doubled over the past decade to hit a record of roughly 14 million litres last year, bringing in some $110 million, according to Finance Ministry data.
Still, that's just a fraction of domestic consumption that totalled just over 600 million litres in the past fiscal year, according to industry data.
Export revenues are also nowhere near what, for example, Britain brings in from whisky sales. Overseas scotch sales hit a record $6.6 billion last year, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.