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A different side of Hidetoshi Nakata - Championing Japanese crafts, sake and culture

ICCJ had the opportunity to interview Mr Hidetoshi Nakata, soccer great and pioneer of promoting Japanese culture - especially crafts and sake.

ICCJ: How did your interest in promoting Japanese art begin? Are you more interested in modern or traditional Japanese art?

Nakata: First, I left Japan for Italy when I was 21, and that time I did not know much about Japanese culture and Japanese traditional art - I have only been playing football all along. After I went to Italy, very often friends and acquaintances would ask me about Japan, and I would not be able to answer their questions. After my football career ended in 2006, I started to travel around the world to visit new countries. However, surprisingly enough, even there people always asked me about Japan and its culture. This surprised me at first but I finally understood that everyone, everywhere, always saw me as a Japanese representative in a sense. 
Since 2009 I travelled all around Japan. I travelled all 47 prefectures. I started visiting craftsman, farmers, sake breweries, everywhere: temples, shrines, restaurants, hotels, ryokan, to learn more deeply about Japan. I’m finishing my first tour this November in Hokkaido. I much prefer to learn through hands-on experiences.
What is incredible is that there are so many artisans reproducing over and over again the ancient handicraft techniques. For instance, in pottery, there are still artisan making raku after fifteen generations, and they still preserve the traditional way of creating that incredible pottery, even though they would save time and efforts using machinery and modern procedures. But the result, the pottery itself, is deeply different even if it created with the same technique. When you observe samples of pottery from the 1st generation all through the 15th, they are all different, even though they are made in the same exact way. Therefore it’s difficult to answer whether I prefer modern or traditional art.
I: You organise a gala to promote Japanese arts and crafts. What is this year’s topic?
: Every year we pick a main theme for the gala: in the past editions, we did ceramics, Japanese paper, and bamboo. This year we will focus on lacquer. Every year we make five teams, and every team has a leading craftsman, which this year is a lacquer artisan. So each team has a leader, and a collaborator – it can be two - who usually is an architect or a designer, aiding the leader to realise the project of the artisan. There is also the advisory board, with members consisting of experts across various fields who have agreed with the purpose of the projects, appoints craftspeople, artists and designers in the chosen craft type for collaboration. Finally, each team realises something employing the material or the technique chosen for that particular edition. For last year edition, they created a stunning bamboo chandelier. That was so beautiful, and huge. It was around 2 meters and 40 cm. This year, we will create lacquered bracelets, in collaboration with a NY artist and Tasaki, which is a company well known for pearl jewellery. 
I: Why sake? Why did you decide to produce your own sake brand and what is the learning process behind the final product?
: As I lived in Italy for a long time, I used to drink wine, and not sake. If I have to put it in figure, it would be about a 90-10% in favour of wine. Truth to be told, I love Italian wines. It was only after I started travelling in Japan and I started vising Japanese breweries that I learned about the process of sake making. There I discovered that sake it is good too, as much as wine is, and there are so many different types of sake, as much as there are so many different types of wine. 
Now, sake is starting to be consumed also outside of Japan: foreigners have learned to appreciate Japanese sake in Japanese restaurants. However, still little is known about sake making, outside and inside in Japan. I wanted to change this, and this is what prompted me to create my own sake brand, “N”. At the same time, the sake industry has some problems: 20-30 years ago, there were 3000, 4000 Sake Breweries, but recently, many of those small produces have closed their activities.
Also, there is no branding: people do not know about any names or information of sake. As a consequence, sake is not marketed. I wanted to change that, and make something that people would understand: so I started making my sake which is expensive but with the best-quality to be recognized worldwide. If people start recognising one brand, then they will look for other a second, and a third brand too. For me it is not a question of making money, but more for creating a market for other Sake Breweries. This is why I do not need an industrial production of my sake. I only produce 1,000 bottles per year and I sell only out side of Japan. Then, sake culture will be probably take off.
I want to educate the world about sake. I am not a sake maker, and I am not the seller. I am in between. I create the platform, put the elements together, and spread the know-how of marketing and branding. Craftsmanship is important, but marketing is important as well.

I: The bottle’s design is very unique!
You know, Japanese bottles do usually have writings all over. But foreigners do not really understand Japanese language: so I told to myself that labels were not going to do the thing. I kept the design simple, so that would be easy and immediate to recognise it just by looking at the bottle. With this bottle, people will not throw away after they have drunk the sake. It will be something people would keep in itself.
I: How did you come up with the App: Sakenomy idea for the sake?
: Even though I can read Japanese and I have visited so many breweries, I cannot remember all the names of sake myself. Can you imagine how hard it is for a foreigner? You can take a snapshot of the sake label and retrieve all the information on the net. Maybe, you will also use it to learn more about the sake, the producer, and which food goes well with that kind of sake. 
We have launched the App with English, Japanese and Italian, but we are planning to expand the list of the languages available up to ten, adding Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic… the App will be free to download, so please enjoy it!
I: Are you also collaborating with some restaurants, in order to promote sake awareness? 
: I would love to. I believe Italian restaurants would be very interested. In Milan, I collaborated with some Italian restaurants, which started to use sake. Indeed, many Italian restaurants serve raw fish, crudo, which would perfectly match with some kind of sake. If only Italian chefs knew more about sake, I think that the result would be the birth of something unique. 
I: You have travelled a lot around Japan, and you visited some many people and producers. Have some stories that deeply touched you?
: What really impressed me is how all those craftsmen I met kept working in a face-to-face manner. I believe that personal communication and interaction plays such an important role in an era where everyone proceeds so fast and smoothly through life. Even though their job is more physical and requiring man power, they are real human beings, as they have to face Nature. This is why I feel extremely happy to work with them, and this makes me think that, as long as I spend time with them, I will always be happy. 
A lot of me has changed after meeting these extraordinary people. Their repeated contact with nature made them –and me – realise that since you cannot defeat nature, you have to learn how to deal with its almighty power. They are ready to accept things that happen to them, and the people around them as well.


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