The brewing industry has become one of the most typical businesses in Niigata Prefecture. The reasons are the presence of a favorable environment and groups of skilled sake brewers called ‘Echigo Toji.’
The oldest brewery in Niigata Prefecture reportedly launched its business around 1550. In those days, ‘Saigoku toji’ (western brewers) were invited from the Kaga and Osaka areas, and ‘Echigo toji’ (sake brewers from Niigata) were influencing their power with diligence, which is one of the unique characteristics of the people of Niigata, in addition to their expert skills. Local brewers were employed as ‘kuroudo’ under brewers from the western part of Japan and trained. They gradually improved their techniques while working in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures until they came to contrive a unique way suitable for the climate and environmental conditions in Niigata. Including ‘toji,’ those ‘kuroudo’ were called ‘saka otoko’ (sake men) and from the end of Edo Era to Meiji Era they would go working in groups inside and outside of Niigata Prefecture, in twenty-six prefectures, Tokyo and Central areas. Some say that the number exceeded 20,000.
Inside Niigata Prefecture, there are four main areas that produced many Echigo toji’s: Yoshikawa (now Joetsu City), Kubiki toji from Kakizaki area, Kariba toji along upper and middle courses of the U river, Sabaishi river and Shibu-umi river, Mishima Echigo toji from Tsukano-yama, and Iwatsuka in Nagaoka and Raigo-ji, and Mishima-nozumi toji from Teradomari.
Leaving their hometowns to work outside of Niigata Prefecture, while engaging in hard-labor day after day in the severe freezing weather, toji brewers also created many sake making songs. They were sung during the sake making process for counting time or even harmonizing their actions with each other, and so on. Moreover, there were some schools based on the birthplaces of toji groups, with different kinds of songs, having varied lyrics and melodies. It was so indispensable for the tojis to have a satisfactory singing ability that there is a saying, ‘han ua kyu kin,’ meaning, being a poor singer would get you only half the pay. However, mechanization of the sake making resulted in disappearance of these sake making songs from the breweries. In 1999 (Heisei 11), a society was formed in order to hand down this precious culture of singing sake brewing songs. Currently, they perform on various occasions like ‘Niigata Sake no Jin,’ or Niigata Sake Festival, etc.
Since the introduction of industrialization reduced the necessity of working away from home, the number of ‘saka otoko’ (sake men) declined due to mechanization of the process. The number of toji dropped to as few as 922 in 1968 (Showa 43) and 251 in 1999 (Heisei 11). Naturally, the population of Echigo toji is aging. Thus, with the aim of transmitting sake making skills fostered by toji in Niigata, the Niigata Seishu (sake) School was established in 1984 (Showa 59), in which the Niigata Prefectural Brewing Union worked in coordination with the Niigata Prefectural Brewing Laboratory, with an aim to train younger generations. Being a pioneering endeavor in the nation, the school marked its thirtieth anniversary in 2013 (Heisei 25). With over four hundred graduates and over forty tojis working in Niigata Prefecture, they maintain a strong bond among themselves. Thus, they have kept supporting sake brewing in Niigata.