Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association | JSS


The Basic Guide Shochu in Japanese Tradition and Culture

Shochu in Japanese Tradition and Culture

Today, shochu is a largely casual drink enjoyed throughout Japan. However, it has also played special roles in rituals and celebrations. Shochu was a way to communicate with gods, welcome important guests, and to build communities with friends and family.

The First Drink Is for God

Symbolic rituals involving shochu flourished in parts of Kyushu and Okinawa. One custom involved pouring the first drop of shochu in the corner of the room or somewhere close when drinking outside. This was an act of offering the shochu to god, showing their gratitude for the drink. In Miyako, the first cup was called “kaminumun” which means “one for god.”

Festivals and Celebrations

Shochu played a part in various festivals and celebrations in Kyushu and Okinawa. In many regions, people celebrated the planting of rice seedlings and harvesting of rice with rounds of shochu. Also, in other areas, such as Iki, shochu was an integral part of the summertime bon celebration. The bon festival celebrates a time when the ancestral spirits are believed to come back for three days. In Okinawa, drinking parties took place at almost all important life events, including birth, marriage, late-life birthdays, and even the completion of construction of a new house. In many places, drinking meant celebration.

Welcoming Guests

Shochu also played an essential part in hosting guests. In Okinawa, the royal court of Ryukyu always kept a supply of aged 100-year-old awamori to properly host important guests. However, this practice was not exclusive to the royal court. Ordinary Okinawan families also kept a stock of aged awamori for guests at all times. On Iki Island, it was a custom for farmers to offer a cup of shochu to unexpected visitors.

Ecocycle and Shochu Making in Communities

Shochu making used to be a communal task in many regions. The practice of communal shochu making still occurs in Aogashima Island of Tokyo. Here, distillers in the community take turns making shochu year by year. Another interesting example is how shochu played a part in a sustainable cycle in northern Kyushu during the 1700s. People in the region discovered that the byproduct of sake production, sake lees, makes a great fertilizer when distilled. Farmers supplied sake breweries with rice under the agreement that the breweries keep the sake and the farmers get all the lees. They then made shochu and the resulting alcohol-free lees were used as quality fertilizer. In addition, byproducts of shochu production other than sake lees served as feed for the livestock.

Drinking Games

Across Kyushu and Okinawa, gatherings with friends and family often feature many lively drinking games. The most widely played games are variations of two-person games called “ken.” It follows a format similar to the children's game “rock, paper, scissors” but the loser has to drink a cup of shochu. There are many regional varieties including Kuma-ken in the Kuma region and Busha-ken in Okinawa.


In many regions, it used to be common to drink shochu with the same one little cup amongst all the guests. The host would go around the group and serve the drink to guests one at a time. This manner of drinking symbolized the unity of the group. However, nowadays, people usually have their own cup and drink at their own pace. One exception may be in Miyako Island in Okinawa through a custom called “otori.” Otori starts with the “parent” or one of the guests, making a toast and serving the guest one-by-one in a circle.


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