It is not really in the interests of Japan's big two distillers to tell you too much about it but Japanese whisky had a prehistory.
If you listen to the official versions from Nikka or Suntory, Japanese whisky started with a bang in 1919 or 1924. They have slightly different versions of the creation myth, emphasising the role of either Masataka Taketsuru or Shinjiro Torii in bringing the gospel of authentic whisky from Scotland, but basically they agree: quite suddenly, out of the blue, Japan started making proper Scotch style whisky.
Whisky arrives in Japan? Perry`s list of gifts for the Emperor
It is not quite as simple as that. Japan had a long dalliance with whisky before Taketsuru travelled to Scotland or Torii opened the Yamazaki Distillery. I have not yet found any reference to whisky in the Edo period, when Japan had a policy of excluding foreigners, but it may well have made an appearance. Even when the country was closed, the Japanese kept close tabs on things foreign through their experts in "Dutch studies" and through Dutch traders given limited rights to trade.
What is certain is that whisky, or rather "whiskey", arrived simultaneously with Japan's opening to the West. When Commodore Matthew Perry came in his black ships to negotiate a treaty with Japan in 1854, he brought with him a barrel and 110 additional gallons of American whiskey as a gift for the Emperor and his subjects. (By all accounts, the Emperor's barrel was purloined by the Shogun's retainers and never reached the Chrysanthemum Throne.)
In the murky half century between that first introduction and the 1920s, numerous Japanese (and, perhaps, foreigners) had a go at producing whisky, in the broadest sense of a bottle with the word "whisky" on it. Indeed, some quite large companies seem to have entered the market. Olive Checkland, in her book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend (review here), wrote:
"Foreign liquors are known in Japan as 'yoshu'.... In general, spirit manufacturers emerged in Japan from chemists working in the chemist's shop. In 1871, the English factory at Yamashita in Yokohama was attempting its own manufacture of 'yoshu'. Later, Karakichi Takiguchi experimented making spirits at his own chemist's shop at Takekawa-cho, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo. By 1912, when the Meiji Emperor died, there were several companies manufacturing spirits. These included Kanseido, foreign drinks manufacturer of Takiguchi, Tokyo; Denbei Kamiya, a foreign drinks maker who also ran Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo; and Nishikawa who made foreign drinks in Osaka." (p.31)
Shinjiro Torii worked as a young man with the Konishi foreign drinks maker in Osaka, owned by his uncle Gisuke Konishi. From 1888, Konishi was making and selling "whisky" as well as beer and brandy . The Konishi company of today, most famous for its production of fine glues, traces its history back to those early days of Western liquor production. There is reason to believe that some of the whisky produced by these pioneers might have more in common with a firm holding glue than a proper whisky. Checkland describes Masataka Taketsuru's first job, as a chemist for the big alcohol producer Settsu, as involving producing "artificial spirits ... by judicious mixing of a wide range of alcohol, sugar, perfumes, spices and flavourings." Ew!
There was some importing of whisky but there was also quite a lot of Japanese-produced synthetic "whisky" masquerading as the real thing. The first appearance of Shinjiro Torii's legendary Torys brand came around 1919 on a bottle of "Finest Liqueur Old Scotch Whisky" ("liqueur" was sometimes used as a synonym for "blended" in those days). The label said it had been bottled by the "Torys Distillery". This was before any genuine Japanese distillery had been built.
This may, of course, may have been a genuine import suffering from a certain looseness of language but there were other clearer cases of fraud. On April 19th, 1923, the commercial supplement of the Japan Chronicle reported Scotch whisky being sold in Japan from "Leith, London".
That October, a month after the Great Kanto Earthquake had annihilated Tokyo and Yokohama with the loss of 140,000 lives, Shinjiro Torii bought land between Osaka and Kyoto to build the Yamazaki distillery. It is with Yamazaki and its first manager, Masataka Taketsuru, that the official history of Japanese whisky making begins.