Sake and the Samurai


The samurai warriors of medieval Japan are among the most coopted figures in history. Their legend has been used to do everything from rally popular support for military regimes to sell French fries. Marketing aside, samurai are rightly considered among history’s most legendary and fascinating warriors.

The first samurai were warriors who served wealthy landowners in Japan between 800 and 1200 AD. The moniker “samurai” implies service to a master. However, samurai were outside Japan’s ruling class until 1185. 1185 was the year that political power passed from the emperor to the shogun, a military dictator. The shogun, in an effort to consolidate power, began to formalize the title and prestige of the samurai, a process that took place over the coming decades.

By the 16th century, Japan was still ruled by the shogun. However, the dictator’s power had been slowly eroded by the machinations of landed elites. The real power and authority within Japanese society rested with these local strongmen, called daimyos. Like Europe a continent away, the shogun struggled with a fundamental question of the era: How can an agrarian society field an army in an era when warfare was high-tech, expensive, and professionalized? The medieval shogun had to field mounted, armored troops, trained in the most modern battle tactics, despite ruling a land whose economy centered around growing rice.

The shogun solved his problem just as the medieval Europeans had: through a system of fiefdoms and tributes known as feudalism. In medieval Japan, a samurai would be granted a fief from his lord in exchange for a commitment to provide a certain number of armed men. Of course, the samurai had to maintain a high level of martial skill himself. To maintain the commitment of men to his lord, the samurai would distribute more land to subordinate samurai. This warrior class used the productive economies of their fiefdoms to raise the capital needed to outfit themselves as modern warriors. An unfortunate side effect of this system, as both the kings of Europe and the shoguns of Japan discovered, is that when your subordinates control most of your troops, you tend to lose your leverage over them.

Thus, by 1500 AD, Japan was firmly in the Sengoku, or “Warring Kingdoms” period. Dozens of fiefdoms exercised total independence as they made war on each other. Factions constantly splintered and divided as a result of internal intrigues and civil war. Like the knights of Europe who, regardless of loyalty, were (ideally) supposed to follow the code of chivalry, the samurai were also bound by laws of conduct, honor, and ritual, collectively known as bushido.

At its core, bushido espoused fealty to one’s lord, honor, and self-control. Some bushido rituals were grisly, such as the practice of beheading defeated enemies and presenting the heads as trophies to a victorious lord. Other rituals involved an idealized view of warfare, in which the heads of the armies formally greeted one another with elaborate introductions. The armies might even engage in combat in gradual waves, with pre-arranged duels, and engagements occurring in seniority order. Another set of rituals governed pre-battle activities. These included prayer and a ritual meal, one that included, perhaps unwisely, three cups of the famous Japanese rice wine, sake.

Sake is generally believed to have originated between 1000 and 500 BCE, as this is around the time rice cultivation began in Japan. Unlike other ancient alcohols like wine or mead, rice has no sugar. To achieve fermentation, the starch in rice must first be converted to sugar. To early Japanese sake makers, human saliva was the most accessible way to break down rice’s starch. The earliest sake brewers actually chewed and spit out rice in order to create a mash for fermenting. The process of chewing rice to make sake was so widespread that it actually became an integral part of Shinto religious ceremonies. The mash was left to ferment, and then the sake was extracted from the mash using a canvas bag.

Over time, the process grew more refined. The Japanese discovered a fungus called Koji, which mimics the starch-to-sugar effect of human saliva. They also added the process of polishing, which removed the rice’s outer shell and oil. Finally, the addition of yeast allowed the sake to ferment faster. Early sake was initially produced in the home or by monks, but by 1300, the process was dominated by professional brewers.

Modern sake contains almost 18–20% ABV, surpassing wine and beer. It benefits from industrialization and modern brewing practices, though a considerable number of sake brewers still rely on the traditional ingredients of polished rice, Koji fungus, and yeast.

Sake is traditionally consumed from small ceramic cups called o-choko, and poured from a ceramic flask called a tokkuri. It can be served hot, cold, or room-temperature depending on the season and occasion. In modern times, sake is regarded as a drink best shared among friends and family. When drinking with others, tradition dictates one should never pour one’s own cup of sake; instead, friends pour for each other.

Unlike sake, the samurai were on the decline by the mid-15th century. Slowly, the ideals of the old way of war began to fall apart. The legendary warrior Uesugi Kenshin allegedly drank himself to death in 1571. New technologies also began to change the way of war. Where originally a mounted samurai was the ultimate force on the battlefield, the rise of the matchlock, an early form of firearm, spelled the end for the samurai.

In 1542, Portuguese travelers on a Chinese ship were blown in a storm to the Japanese islands, making them the first Westerners to visit Japan. They had with them three firearms, which the ruling daimyo promptly purchased. The Japanese were able to reverse-engineer the devices, and ultimately produce a working version of a matchlock. This proved to be a game-changing event, as now a peasant with a musket could match a powerful samurai with years of costly training. Other simple, mass infantry formations, such as foot soldiers armed with pikes, proved able to thwart the samurai. The growing economies and populations of the kingdoms increased the availability of manpower, and armies surged from the thousands in the early 1500s to the tens of thousands in the late 1500s.

The nature of warfare had changed radically in a few short decades. Soon, the most powerful daimyos developed volley fire, creating a wall of metal no mounted samurai charge could penetrate. Using these new tactics, Tokugawa Leyasu defeated his rival warlords and unified Japan. The Tokugawa period followed, and the era of the Warring Kingdoms came to an end. The Tokugawa government banned firearms, and closed Japan’s borders. They installed the samurai as a ruling elite, turning the anachronistic warriors into landed gentry. The traditional way of life persisted in isolationist Japan for 250 years.

The tradition of sake, however, was already firmly entrenched, and brewers continued their work, evolving Japan’s signature alcohol into the sake available around the world today.

If you are drinking sake, it is best to keep to tradition and serve it straight. However, modern mixologists have continued the evolution of sake with a variety of mixed drinks. Here’s in interesting take on the Blood Mary called the Wasabi Mary:

Wasabi Mary

2 Parts Sake
3 Parts Tomato juice
1 Dash Worcestershire sauce
2 Dashes Tabasco
Pinch of wasabi
1/4 Part fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt and pepper

Build all ingredients in a shaker tin. Shake for 15 seconds. Strain, pour into a tall glass with fresh ice, and garnish with a celery stalk.



Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.