Roberta Lima in conversation with Maho Otsuka,
the Toji of SHOUTOKU SHUZO [Part One]

Roberta Lima: Why did you become interested in sake and why did you become the toji of a sake brewery? How did it happen?

Maho Otsuka: My first encounter with sake was during my college days. There were many opportunities to drink and I was drawn to the taste of sake and came to like it. I was worried about what kind of work I should do after graduating from college, but I thought that instead of a job in which I am researching something, I would be better suited to a job where I am making something with my hands. I liked sake and I wanted to make something. So it was clear to me that I should make sake! I went to many different sake breweries to find one that would take me on. At that time there were very few women involved in making sake so it was difficult finding a place that would take me on.

Lima: When was that?

Otsuka: It was the year 2000 so about eighteen years ago. Just before graduating university however a woman who was doing analysis work at the sake brewery here happened to go on maternity leave and there was a vacancy for one person. Analysis work of sake involves things like analyzing and testing the alcohol content and examining the weight and composition of various different sakes.

Lima: In the very male-dominated field of the toji, how did you gain trust and become a toji? And also why did you become interested in becoming a tojj?

Otsuka: The toji is a leader or conductor who brings together all of the workers who make the sake, so when I entered the company I didn’t even think about the possibility that I would become the toji. I entered with the single mind to become one of the sake workers and to be involved in the process of making the sake. At that time there were very few female toji. Sake is always brewed between autumn and winter. The first year I entered the company, every day until the autumn of that year I learned how to do things like handle clerical work, record receipts and do the bottling of the sake. I was very worried that I could actually be involved in sake making in parallel with this work. I started at the company in the Spring and until the autumn I continued to do this administration work. Even after the sake brewing started in autumn I didn’t spend much time in the storehouse making sake, perhaps about 2 or 3 hours in a day. I had to do the analysis work in parallel with the sake brewing and the administrative work would quickly accumulate too. So in that first year the number of hours in a day that I was actually in the storehouse making sake was very short. The first year was hard because of this.

Lima: You could only see the sake brewing process for 2-3 hours?

Otsuka: Yes, and it wasn’t the kind of sake making that I had imagined. There were times when I thought it would be better to look for work at other sake breweries. But I changed my mindset and decided to do what I could. At that time, old-fashioned “seasonal workers” came from rural areas and stayed at the company, starting work from early in the morning. My working hours were from 8:15 to 17:00, so in my own free time outside of these hours I got up early and watched the sake making process and made many notes. I started doing this from the middle of my first season and continued to do this for the first year. In the second year the toji at that time decided to retire due to his age. Nobody in the company knew the work of what the toji was doing, but since I had been carefully recording it, it was decided that I should do some of this work. From the second year onwards, the work in the storehouse gradually increased. Someone else took my place doing the administrative work and it became possible to focus on the work inside the storehouse. In the fourth year the next toji retired.

Lima: Was that toji a man?

Otsuka: Yes, he was a man. The next toji was the previous kashira, who is the person that works just below the toji. It always worked this way. A sake worker who became the kashira would then become the toji. In the fifth year after I entered the company, that second duo of the toji and kashira also retired and old-fashioned style “seasonal workers” no longer came to work at the brewery. The company switched to a new style of making sake in which the company’s employees made the sake. As the company changed to this style, I was interested in and wanted to take on the challenge of creating sake using a very authentic method called Kimoto. In the sixth year I proposed this idea to the president. He was interested and allowed me to try it. It was a method that had never been used at this brewery so no one knew how to create sake using this method. So during the summer, before the brewing season began, we went to other sake breweries and listened to the stories of the tojis who had experience in making sake using the Kimoto method. I read and studied old books that detailed the Kimoto method and we prepared for starting the brewing process in the winter. When the sake brewing actually started, I decided how to proceed based on what I studied and naturally, I started to direct people in to their roles. Usually the president of the company decides and appoints the toji, so I think my case is very rare. Somehow naturally, I became the toji.

“Sake-Making - Steam in the brewery”. Video stills. 2017 © Roberta Lima
“Sake-Making – Steam in the brewery”. Video stills. 2017 © Roberta Lima

Lima: It’s an amazing story. The first time I came to Japan in the summer of 2015 I actually met Yusuke Hashimoto, the director of Kyoto Experiment. He recommended that I try sake and I did and was deeply impressed. When I was asked to participate in Kyoto Experiment 2018 and create a new work I don’t know whether it was intuition or something but I thought I would start where we started. And that was sake. I started to research sake. At first I looked at documents online and various documentaries. The first thing I really noticed was the visuals of the process, the fog, the steam. These elements had elements of performance, like the transformation of bodies. I then started researching about the history of sake and became interested in the figure of the toji. I learnt that in the past women made sake and that seasonal workers would come from rural areas to make sake. I also learnt that currently women working in the sake industry in Japan were increasing. Despite all my research on Japanese sake and my interest in the figure of the toji I was however still worried that it was the right direction and I didn’t know if I would be really able to make a work with this theme. But when I came for my research in Japan, Yuya Tsukahara (contact Gonzo) had discovered this brewery and we came here first without an appointment. There we listened to Maho Otsuka’s story and then for a whole week joined in the sake brewing process. After that I was totally convinced.

*toji – master brewer

A sake brewery of Fushimi, Kyoto founded in 1645. The Kimuras, originally brewing sake in Rakuchu, transferred to its current location in Fushimi, famous for its water, during the mid-Taisho period. Shoutoku Shuzo believes that Junmai sake (no adding of distilled alcohol) is the true form of sake, and continues to brew only Junmai sake, following rules strictly where needed, and allowing change otherwise.


  • Roberta Lima, Embodiment of Water, 2018, Kyoto Art Center. Photo by Yuki Moriya.

    Roberta Lima

    『Embodiment of Water』

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  • Talk: Dialogue on Technique (Sessions 1-3)