You've probably seen and perhaps even used those little light resin-scented wood cubes known in Japan as "masu" or "sake masu". But it is not certain that you know their true history. We'll tell you about it briefly, a chance to talk about rice, sake, lords and samurai!
The masu, from traditional object to marketing support
THE MASU IS A MEASURING TOOL
The masu is a handcrafted object made of cypress or cedar wood that has long been used in Japan as a measuring instrument. It defines a volume corresponding, in our system, to 18 cl. This unit, called "Ichi-go", has multiples of "Issho" for 1.8 litres and "Itto" for 18 litres.
Its origin has a direct implication with human nutrition, as the volume of an ichi-go masu was formerly considered to correspond to the dry rice needs of one person per meal (i.e. three masu per day for the three daily meals).
These measurements were also used to control, buy and sell grain and liquids, especially rice and sake, but they were also used when it came to collecting the annual tribute from the peasants by the local lords.
Collecting taxes from farmers: one can guess the use of an "Issho masu" that the farmer holds in his hand and an "Itto masu", on his back.
Rather cunningly, landowners would use a slightly larger masu when collecting, and a smaller masu when paying their contribution to the clan. So much so that during the Edo period, many of those who made or used improperly sized masu were sentenced to death, as this scam was considered counterfeiting. A rather radical way of achieving uniformity in a measurement system is as follows.
ONE THOUSAND MASU FOR A GOKU
Multiply an 18cl masu by a thousand and you get 180 litres, or one "goku". This unit corresponded to the one used for the remuneration of the samurai in the service of the shogunate, but also to measure the degree of territorial influence of a daimyô, the prestige of each one being affirmed by the number of its gokus.
A goku is also the standard size of a rice field, which corresponds to the quantity necessary to feed one person for a year. As a reminder: one 18 cl masu, times three meals a day, times 365 days a year... this makes about 180 litres, or one goku.
A goku, defines the standard size of a rice field and used to measure the territorial influence of the lords
Goku (one thousand ichi-go masu) is also used in the world of sake producers who still express their volumes in this unit today. To give an order of scale, the largest breweries can produce about 300,000 goku of sake per year (or 54 million litres), while smaller breweries are at less than 1,000 goku (or 180,000 litres).
Still related to sake, the unit defined by an ichi-go masu is at the origin of the different bottle sizes:
- Ichi-go: 1 go, i.e. 18cl, is a format that is not very common in France, but quite common in Japan, notably with the "cup sake" produced by certain major brands, or even the tokuri that allow sake to be served in a carafe.
- Yon-go: 4 times 18cl, i.e. 72cl, is the classic format of a bottle of sake (...and not 75cl as we are often told!)
- Issho : 10 times 18cl, i.e. the 1.8litre magnum bottles.
Today there are much more modern ways of measuring volumes and the masu object is necessarily less used in its original function. The masu is now used as a decorative element, as a marketing tool for breweries who brand it with their image.
The "mokkiri" service found in izakaya
But also as a serving cup during the Kagami-biraki ceremony or, more amusingly, in the "mokkiri" service found in the izakaya: a glass is placed in a masu and the owner pours sake until it overflows, proof of his generosity. The masu is then transformed from an instrument for measuring volumes into a barometer for evaluating hospitality.