top of page

Sake: The Great Unifier

by Patrick Kaper-Barcelata

Senzan. (Japanese, 20th century). Sake Cup, 20th century porcelain. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Simon Kriger, 63.14.9

This sake cup, from the 20th century, is attributed to the Japanese artist, Senzan. Sake, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, has for centuries held deep significance in Japanese tradition and culture. Sake often plays a central role in religious rituals, offered to the gods at Shinto shrines before being communally enjoyed in feasts. Beyond religion, sake forms an important part of celebrations, social events, and work culture. Sake is intended to be enjoyed in the company of others, and it is customary to fill others’ sake cups as a show of conviviality, respect, and hospitality. While Japan has distinct social stratification determined by age and social status, the communal nature of sake drinking attenuates these barriers, acting as a unifier of people.

Made of porcelain and adorned with a blue and red glazed plum branch, this cup builds on a tradition of Japanese porcelain starting in the 17th century. Originally reserved for domestic elites and wealthy foreigners, porcelain products became more accessible as Japan industrialized production and began exporting greater quantities to the United States and Europe through the 19th and 20th centuries. The delicate material, limited volume, and small opening of this cup classifies it as an ochoko cup, ideal for sipping. Ochoko cups tend to mask the acidity of sake and bring forward its sweetness. Emphasizing a clean, crisp flavor over depth and complexity, ochoko cups are suitable for multiple types of gatherings but not usually favored for ceremonies or very formal events. They must be regularly refilled, contributing to a friendly and social atmosphere. Across contexts and through various mediums of consumption, sake has continued to connect Japanese across social strata.

Works Cited

“Japanese Porcelain.” Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland,

“Sake in Japanese Tradition and Culture.” Japanese Sake, Japan Sake and Shochu Makers


bottom of page