Kobe Beef History
Eating meat from four-legged
- animals was prohibited in Japan for more than a thousand years prior to 1868.
- This ban was especially strict during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Buddhist
- influences were primarily responsible for this dietary restriction, but other
- cultural factors and the need to protect draught animals in times of famine may
- have reinforced the taboo. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new leaders
- of Japan wanted, among other things, to reduce traditional social barriers and
- to encourage the adoption of beneficial Western habits. There may also have
- been a desire to weaken the power of the Buddhists. Lifting the ban on the
- eating of meat was a small step towards these objectives. Nevertheless, it must
- have astounded the nobility of the day to see the young Emperor Meiji eating
- beef. Meiji (1852-1912), emperor of Japan (1867-1912), born Prince Mutsuhito
- and the 122nd emperor in the traditional count, whose accession to the throne
- marked the beginning of a national revolution known as the Meiji Restoration.
Despite the formal rescinding of the prohibition
- against the eating of meat in the late 1860s, the consumption of meat remained
- extremely low for another century. Until very recent times meat (niku in Japanese) usually meant pork in eastern
- Japan (roughly from Tokyo to Hokkaido) and beef in western Japan (from
- Nagoya/Osaka to Kyushu). Historically, and even today, the people of the Kinki
- Region (Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka) have been the heaviest beef eaters.
For millennia the people of Japan lived on a diet
- of rice, vegetables, and seafood eaten with hashi
- (chopsticks). Although the meat taboo was removed over a hundred years earlier,
- by 1980 the average Japanese ate only 5.1 kg of beef (carcass weight basis). In
- some Western countries, where income levels are comparable with those in Japan,
- the average person commonly devours ten times this quantity each year. Although
- the younger generation has grown up with Western cuisine, knife, and fork, most Japanese still enjoy beef
- best when it is prepared as very thin slices, cooked in the traditional manner
- and eaten with hashi.
From about 1955 onwards, the mechanization of rice
- cultivation led to an increase in the availability of beef, as large numbers of
- draught cattle were fattened and slaughtered. At the same time the rapid
- economic growth, which started with the Korean War boom, was gaining momentum.
- People could afford the luxury of meat more often.
Wagyu in Cows in Matsusaka are bought in Tajima
- (Hyogo), Shimane and Shikoku. There is no breeding in Matsusaka.
The Origins of Kobe Beef
The creation of genuine Kobe (or Matsuzaka or Omi)
- beef is a mystical folk art which may have been practiced as an underground
- cult before 1868. Some sources claim that certain daimyo and even some shoguns enjoyed especially fattened beef from
- Hihone hab (now Shiga Prefecture, the home of Omi beef). Most Japanese believe,
- however, that the art of producing Omi, Matusaka, or Kobe beef cannot be traced
- back to feudal times.
Kobe beef traditionally comes from Wagyu cattle. “Wa” is a very old Japanese language term for Japan, or
- things Japanese, and one of the meanings of “gyu” is beef, with an “on the hoof” connotation. There are four
- commercial breeds of Wagyu.
These four breeds are now considered indigenous to
- Japan but are not genuinely native
- cattle. There are two isolated populations of native cattle in existence. The
- Mishima wild cattle on Mishima Island (located in the Sea of Japan off
- Yamaguchi Prefecture) have never been crossed with modern European breeds.
- While they represent a genuine genetic curiosity, as of 1983 there were fewer than 40 head. The second and more numerous
- are a group of wild cattle on Kuchinoshima Island south-west of Kagoshima Prefecture.
- The progenitors of both the Mishima and Kuchinoshima cattle were probably
- brought to Japan by the ancestors of the modern Japanese people more than 2,000
- years ago. Biochemical and genetic tests indicate that the native cattle are
- more closely related to the cattle of Northern Europe and Scandinavia than they are to the cattle
- indigenous to Taiwan, the Philippines, and other South East Asian Countries.
The four modern Japanese breeds are the result of
- a substantial infusion of European blood during the Meiji Era, together with a
- government-sponsored selection programme initiated in 1919. For several decades
- prior to 1910, there was a great interest in importing European breeds to cross
- with native cattle. The basic aim was to improve the native strains for draught
- purposes, but better meat production was also a consideration. Exotic breeds
- were extremely popular, and the price of
- pure-bred and cross-bred exotic animals often reached unreasonable levels,
- until the bubble burst in 1910. After this date, the importation of European
- breeds went out of fashion.
After World War I, the Japanese Government decided
- to encourage the selection and registration of cattle exhibiting superior
- traits of both native and foreign types. There was a considerable gene pool to
- draw upon, as a wide range of European blood had been introduced to Japan. This
- variation, together with the original differences among the native cattle,
- permitted selection according to different criteria in various parts of the
- country. After World War II, the National Government moved to rationalize the
- registration process and formally recognized three major Wagyu types or breeds:
- Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, and Japanese Poll. The National Wagyu Cattle
- Registration Association was established in 1948.
The Japanese Black breed included several fairly
- distinct types, and this is still the case today (e.g., Tottori, Tajima, and Hiroshima strains). The Japanese
- Shorthorn was not formally established until 1957.
After careful selection and breeding over the last
- five decades, there are slight differences in the concept of the true type of each breed, but many similarities. All
- four breeds have been selected for beef production alone for more than forty
- years. In all four breeds, the aim is to
- produce a medium-sized, beef-type animal. All of the breeds are humpless, but the bulls tend to develop a
- marked crest. While the ideal mature body weight and height at the withers
- differ marginally between the four breeds, the targets for the Japanese Black are
While it is hard to generalize, two traits of the
- Japanese Black often cited as disadvantageous are their narrow pin bones and
- their relatively poor milking capacity. The narrow pin bones create calving
- difficulties if the cows are crossed with bulls of the large-framed European
- breeds (such as Holstein or Charolais). The poor milking ability increases the
- costs of raising feeder calves since the calves often need artificial
On the other hand, the Japanese Blacks (in
- particular the Tajima strain) are noted for their capacity to produce beef with
- a high degree of fat marbling (or sashi).
- It is this characteristic more than any other which accounts for the steady
- increase in the popularity of the Japanese Black breed.
According to the website of the California BBQ
- Association, "In order to protect its domestic beef industry, the Japanese
- government imposed strict laws that prohibited the export of any living
- Japanese Wagyu cattle. However, in 1976, four Wagyu animals were imported into
- the U.S.: two Tottori Black Wagyu and two Kumamoto Red Wagyu bulls. Then in
- 1993, two male and three female Tajima cattle were imported, and 35 male and
- female cattle (consisting of both red and black Wagyu) were imported in 1994.
"Most Kobe Beef today is bred and raised in
- California and Australia. For example, Harris Ranch in California is contracted
- with beef producers in Kobe to breed and raise their cattle in California,
- where land and grain is relatively inexpensive. The cattle are raised and fed under the exacting
- specifications for Kobe Beef. When the cattle are
- almost ready for slaughter, it is shipped to Kobe, Japan, where its feeding is
- completed, and the cattle are slaughtered.