The Scent of Sake by Joyce Lebra - Book Review

About Joyce Lebra

Joyce Lebra, a historian and recognized authority on the cultures of Japan, India and Asia/Pacific women, is professor emeriti of Colorado University.

She lived in Japan many years and authored twelve nonfiction books.

The Scent of Sake Book Summary

This is the life story of Rie, a Japanese girl born into the male dominated society of nineteenth century Japan, where women could not intervene in business. By unexpected turn of events, Rie ends up being the sole heir to the House of Omura, a venerable family of traditional Sake brewers, and has to deal with all kinds of repressive traditions to hold on to what is rightfully hers.

Rie is expected to turn over her family´s business to the inept playboy she´s been forced to marry and to raise her husband´s children by another woman (a geisha) so that they can eventually run the Omura enterprise. She is also denied the right to love for the sake of the business. While being confronted to all this misogynist injustice, Rie begins to understand the meaning of her mother´s advice: “kill the self, or your life would be too difficult to bear”.

Regardless of her maternal advice, Rie does not allow her family to set her aside and give up her inheritance. With courage, acuteness and brilliance, she is ready to confront every threat that arises before her: from prejudice and repressive tradition, to treachery and loss, to the insidious schemes of relentless brewer rivals. Against all odds, Rie´s audacious determination to forge a magnificent brewer’s dynasty leads her to succeed against all odds.

The Scent of Sake is an epic and breathtaking saga that spans generations as it sweeps through the heart of a century. Joyce Lebra´s flowingly written novel is a vivid and powerful entry into another world, and an unforgettable portrait of a woman who would not let that world defeat her.

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Historical Background

The Scent of Sake is situated in the 1830s, a time when the real economic strength from Japan was in the hands of the merchant class and, among them, the prosperous Sake brewers. Brewing is traditionally a masculine occupation and was, back then, a man´s world in a male dominated society. Women could not even enter the brewery for fear of “pollution”, but they would serve as valuable pawns to be used and sacrificed in the name of the best play for the business.

Brewers were well known for their attachment to tradition, for doing things as they had always done. This conservatism was natural. Brewing Sake was the oldest, the primal business in Japan. All Japanese knew that in every town and village throughout the land the Sake brewers were the most honored and respected of inhabitants. Their pride in brewing was legendary.


Historical Fiction and Japanese Ancient Traditions

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Marriage in Brewer Families

For Sake brewer families and for the merchant class in general, marriage was a matter of momentous importance. Brewer couples needed to provide a male heir to the house who could take on the brewery for the next generation. Even when the wife had only daughters and failed to provide a son, mistresses could always be found to provide a rightful male heir. Nevertheless, daughters were also valuable. Midwives announced the birth of a daughter by calling out: “It’s a girl, so the house will prosper!”

The selection of a spouse for a female heir was extremely relevant, for it gave the opportunity to select a potentially outstanding head of the house for years to come. This happening would inevitably affect the business and welfare of the entire house. The outcome could be either beneficial, if the selection was made wisely, or regrettably adverse if adequate care was not taken. Choice of a spouse depended on many factors, least among them the emotional preferences of the two individuals.

With a son you really had a gamble. You had to take what you got, and that could be a bright boy or a dull one. However, with a daughter, intelligent or not, you had a range of choices for an adopted husband. And for an important brewer’s house, there were plenty of excellent prospects. With a girl, the head of the brewer family (the father) got to chose who they would like to run the house when they retired.

Killing the self” meant that women could never behave selfishly. They should never lose sight of the welfare and interests of the house, which was their reason for being. Killing the self was the key to women´s survival and also to contentment in life, the satisfaction of knowing that they had done their duty and their best for the house.

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Joyce Lebra´s Inspiration

During one of her visits to Japan, author and historian Joyce Lebra became fascinated by the complexities involved in the conjunction of enterprise and family affairs in Japanese traditional businesses. She explored several of them and found that Sake brewers were the most ancient of these businesses, and also extremely familial and traditional. She then spent many months visiting breweries and documenting herself on the subject, focusing in their manufacturing process as well as the rituals and beliefs surrounding their trade.

During her research, Lebra found the case of a very successful woman in the brewery business that was considered an embarrassment to her descendants, who were extremely ashamed and reluctant to talk about her. Details of the family´s history were too intimate to talk about. As she couldn’t inquire any further, Lebra decided to write a fiction story based on how she imagined her life would have been like. That woman became the protagonist of The Scent of Sake.

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The Scent of Sake Glossary

Japanese Word
Definition
Kura
wooden structures where sake is brewed
Tokonoma
alcove
Butsudan
Buddhist altar
Shoji
a translucent screen consisting of a wooden frame covered in rice paper, used as a sliding door or partition in a Japanese house
Zabuton
cushion
Obi
belt
Koseki
family register
Yukata
bathrope
Ikebana
flower arrangement
Kurabito
brewers, brewery workers
Furoshiki
wrapping cloth
Bunraku
Japanese Poppet Theater
Samisen
a Japanese plucked stringed instrument with a long neck, an unfretted fingerboard, and a rectangular sound box
Koto
a Japanese musical instrument, similar to a zither, that has usually 13, but sometimes as few as 1 or as many as 17, silk strings stretched over an oblong box
Geta
Japanese wooden clogs

The Scent of Sake Unusual Vocabulary

If there is one thing I can critic Joyce Lebra for, is her careless use of strange Japanese words that the majority of her readers wouldn´t be acquainted with. The author uses them throughout the historical novel without a footnote or glossary to clarify their meaning.

All though the definition of these Japanese words can be many times inferred from the text and The Scent of Sake can be perfectly understood without this extra information, I imagined it would be nice, thoughtful and appropriate to include a glossary in which I define the Japanese words from the text for future readers.


Conclusion

The Scent of sake is an easy novel that takes the reader into the unique world of an ancient Japanese trade and its cultural intricacies. An entertaining story lead by a well built strong character that fights through life´s difficulties and social barriers, in a very intelligent way, to achieve her dreams. A lady who is victimized by circumstances but doesn´t play the victim nor surrenders.

You will enjoy Joyce Lebra´s well researched book if you:

  • Like to learn from different cultures and other times while being entertained.
  • Identify with survivor/fighter kind of characters that overcome difficulty and success stories.
  • Are interested in learning about women´s evolution in different societies and the oppressive worlds in which they used to live.
  • Are attracted by Japanese culture.
  • Would like to learn about the brewing process of Sake and the rituals it involves.
  • Take pleasure in reading history in a smoother way, avoiding hardcore facts, and learning it intertwined with a story.


My Rating

4 stars for The Scent of Sake by Joyce Lebra

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Comments on Joyce Lebra´s "The Scent of Sake" 2 comments

Irka Winniczuk 3 years ago

I am really impressed with you review and enjoying reading the book a lot


Claudia Tello profile image

Claudia Tello 3 years ago from Mexico Author

I am glad you liked The Scent of Sake, it is quite an enjoyable read written by a real Japanese culture enthusiast, as Joyce Lebra was. Thanks for your kind comments.

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