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Thursday, Nov. 11, 1999

Japanese white lightning from a still in Tonga


By JONO DAVID

I admit it. I had to travel all the way to the Kindom of Tonga to learn about shochu. In my six years in Japan, I had simply not heard of it. Sounds ridiculous, but it's true. No, the Tongans don't make it, never mind drink it. They hadn't heard of it till recently either. In fact, most of them still haven't heard of it. But if Takahiro and Akiko Oitate have their way, shochu will become the newest popular spirit to hit the South Pacific.

Oitate, an electrician by trade, first came to Tonga about 10 years ago as a member of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV). He worked for the Tonga Electric Power Board. It was during his two-year service that he realized that Tonga produces a variety of root crops including kava, the root of the pepper plant; taro, a starchy tuber; cassava, the starchy edible root of the tapioca plant; and kumara, or sweet potato. (The biggest cash crop is pumpkins, air-freighted mostly to Japan and worth about $10 million a year.) Oitate's interests lay primarily in the latter two roots, from which shochu and other Japanese spirits are made.

"I had no idea how to make shochu," Oitate explained in his home-based shop. "I just thought it might make a good business."

Following his JOCV duty, Oitate returned to his home in Kagoshima where a chance meeting with the head of a Kyushu liquor company resulted in a job at the plant.

"I was really excited by the chance to learn how to make shochu," Oitate said. "I told the man I had lived in Tonga and that they grew a lot of kumara and that there is no shochu business there. When I asked him to employ me and show me how to make it, he was very surprised. But I convinced him and he employed me for a year."

During Oitate's apprenticeship at the shochu distillery, he met his wife, Akiko, got married and together they eventually packed their bags for a return to Tonga.

"We were on tourist visas at first, but once we got the business in order we were able to get temporary residency and work permits, which we could keep renewing so long as our business continues," he said. "But it wasn't easy at first. We came back with little money, a few pieces of handmade equipment, a couple of tanks my employer gave me and a limited knowledge of how to actually produce shochu."

Living in one small room was no honeymoon, but things have improved immensely since those early days. For one thing, the Oitates have made many friends. Also, they built their house themselves and now sell their products from there. The back garage houses the rudimentary distillery, which, on my visit, was out of operation.

Gesturing to a stainless steel tank still under plastic wraps, Oitate said, "I am getting this new tank set up. I have a Japanese buyer coming next month." He looked somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of work he was facing.

A 1996 interview for a Japanese television station was a lucky break for them. "We've sold about half of our production to a liquor shop owner in Fukuoka who saw me on TV. People in Kyushu love shochu. This owner has a friend with a nomiya [bar] chain. I am hoping he can get them interested. That could be big business," said Oitate.

Since their first sale about three years ago, some 2,000 bottles in all have been sold.

One would not expect a country as religiously devout as Tonga, where virtually everything shuts down on Sundays for weekly prayer and spiritual song, to be an ideal place to set up a distillery. The Mormons, followers of a Christian denomination who abstain from alcohol, account for some 15 percent of the population and are the largest and fast-growing religious group. Still, Tongans like their liquor as do the Japanese. A cold Royal beer is never far from reach -- except on the Sabbath, of course.

Currently, Southern Cross Liquors, the Oitates' company, distills three products: Malie, Cocoli and Shot-U. Malie, the largest seller, is made from cassava and kumara. Cocoli includes coconut juice and vanilla, and also comes in a coffee flavor. Shot-U is distilled for cassava only. From still to bottle, production generally takes three months. There has been a good deal of interest in these products by some Japanese buyers, but, lamented Oitate, "Their orders were too big and I had to turn them down."

In the meantime the Oitates sell their liquors, along with some locally produced handicrafts such as baskets and carvings, to the mostly Japanese visitors who stop in at their waterfront home/ shop/distillery called Malie. But tourists are too few and far between to provide a viable way for expanding the business.

Only about 400 Japanese visit Tonga each year, and only about half of them are true tourists.

"I am contacting suppliers for duty-free shops, especially to places like Fiji, Hawaii and Guam -- places where there are lots of Japanese," said Oitate.

We sat for a while in the Malie shop, chatting, sipping mugicha and wiping beads of sweat from our brows.

Said Oitate, "My dream is for people to love shochu, to make it famous and for people to know about it."

For more information, write to Taka- hiro and Akiko Oitate at Southern Cross Liquor Co., Ltd. P.O. Box 3053, Nuku'alofa, Tonga. Call or fax (676) 25-425, for information. Also, e-mail: oitate@kalianet.to or check out the Web site at: www.k-data.net/oitate.



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