Kagoshima: Islanders adapt traditional drinking ceremony to avoid cluster infections

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The new style of Yoron Kempo is put into practice as people drink out of individual glasses on Dec. 16 on Yoron Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.

YORON, Kagoshima — A ceremonial custom unique to parties on Yoron Island is for everyone to share the same sake cup when drinking shochu. This custom is now being updated due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Known as Yoron Kempo, the custom was practiced at parties as people drank brown sugar shochu. This is a spirit distilled from brown sugar, a specialty of the Amami Islands, including Yoron Island. Partygoers would pass around a single Japanese sake cup. One had it filled with shochu and takes a drink after saying a few words, and the next person did the same using the same cup.

However, as many people grew concerned about possible cluster infections, a new method of using individual glasses has gained traction, and the island seems to have accepted it.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sayuri Tabata, the owner of a Japanese-style pub on Yoron Island, shows a sakazuki Japanese sake cup on a tray that was traditionally used during Yoron Kempo.

Making the switch

On the evening of Dec. 16, the new style of Yoron Kempo was put into practice by patrons of Hyokin, a local Japanese-style pub in central Yoron Town.

Even though the pub was crowded with its regulars, there were enough glasses to go around.

“Let’s keep Yoron Kempo alive for the future,” said one patron, and then drank their shochu to a round of applause.

The tray that held the glass was then passed to the next person and shochu was poured into a new glass.

According to Sayuri Tabata, the owner of Hyokin, a vermillion sakazuki — a Japanese sake cup that has a diameter of more than 10 centimeters — was normally used during Yoron Kempo, and each pub on the island has its own special sake cups and trays, including Hyokin.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The new style of Yoron Kempo using individual glasses is said to have started around summer 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Yoron Kempo is an important way for people to connect and communicate,” said a 39-year-old islander. “I don’t mind if the style changes, but I can’t bear the thought of [the custom] completely disappearing.”

Causes cluster?

The kanji for “kempo” in Yoron Kempo means “dedication.” However, there is a theory that the word is derived from another Japanese word that is read the same way, meaning “constitution” or “top law.”

According to Yoron Folk Village, a museum that showcases the lifestyle and culture of the island, Yoron Kempo spread as a way to greet tourists after World War II. Shochu was offered to visitors, with the words, “Please drink, as it is in our constitution.” Thus, kempo, meaning “constitution,” may have been applied to the naming of the custom.

Yoron Kempo became so engrained in the culture that tours were organized to allow tourists to experience it. However, two cluster infections occurred on the island in 2020. With a population of only 5,000 people, 109 islanders were infected, mainly at eating and drinking establishments. Some patients had to be transported off the island due to a lack of hospital beds.

A Kagoshima prefectural government task force concluded that Yoron Kempo was the root cause of the cluster infections, leading the municipality to urge residents to ban the custom.

The ban was a huge blow, not only to pubs, but also to the local economy. Arimura Shuzo Co., which is the only distillery on the island and is famous for producing the brown sugar shochu brand Shimayusen, saw its sales drop by half as a result of the ban.

“Until the coronavirus is brought under control, I hope the new style of Yoron Kempo continues,” said Yasukazu Arimura, president of Arimura Shuzo.

On Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture, there is a similar custom of drinking awamori — an Okinawa specialty spirit distilled from rice — on special occasions that includes passing around the same sake cup. However, that also shifted to a new style of using individual glasses.

“It seems that many people prefer drinking with a few friends rather than with a large group of people,” said an official of the Miyakojima Tourism Association.