Although the name already indicates its origins, ‘Wa’ means Japanese and ‘gyu’ means cow, the established theory is that the Japanese never domesticated cattle themselves. The original Japanese cattle consisted of Turano-Mongolian cattle, presumably originating from Korean Hanwoo Brown cattle and Cheju Hanwoo. Immigrants probably introduced these cattle in the 2nd century.
Religion prohibited the consumption of meat in Japan. The inhabitants of Japan used this valiant cattle for all kinds of purposes such as agriculture, mining, as pack and draft animals, and in warfare. The Wagyu cattle were selected on stamina and strength, making the Wagyu so strong that it has no problem moving around in Japan’s mountainous landscape. Villages were mostly isolated and wide-spread so that there was little interaction between villages and thus also between herds. Inbreeding was the consequence. Only large landowners owned meadows and could afford larger herds.
The Imperial court was the first to lift the ban on eating meat when it turned out that it made soldiers big and strong. The Emperor gave these Wagyu cattle a special treatment with beer and massage. The cattle were given beer because appetite declined during the summer (among humans as well as animals). Beer has the property of stimulating appetite. Massage was applied to prevent cattle from getting stiff and tense. Land was scarce and therefore expensive, so cattle were largely kept inside.
Under Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) Japan ended a long period of isolation and opened itself up to western influences, thus lifting the ban on eating meat. Local cattle were crossbred with foreign breeds to improve the quality of meat and milk. However, the cows became too expensive and breeders had been unable to maintain their cattle’s muscle strength. On the islands of Mishima and Kuchinoshima cattle have never been crossed with foreign breeds. The Mishima cow has been declared a national natural treasure and may not be exported. After World War I, the Japanese government introduced a new breeding programme with the aim of increasing meat and milk quality and improving muscle strength. In the past, cattle had been crossbred with foreign breeds, resulting in major differences in build, size, character, meat quality and meat yield. In 1948, Japan established a national breed registry in which regional breeding programmes were combined with the aim of combining the very best characteristics of a number of breeds. Since 1968, all cattle is assessed according to this programme, which has led to three major breeds of Wagyu, the most famous of which is the Black Wagyu. There are three bloodlines to which the Black Wagyu can belong: the Fujiyoshi, the Kedaka and the Tajiri line. These are the names of local herds, all three with foreign blood running through their veins, but also with authentic Japanese blood.
The meat that is called Kobe beef comes from Wagyu (Japanese black cattle of the Tajima bloodline) from the province of Tajima, now called Hyogo Prefecture of which Kobe is the capital. The production of Kobe beef has to meet strict production standards, traditional to this Prefecture. The beef is considered to be the most exclusive and is only available at very high prices. The legend most associated with Kobe beef is the manner in which Wagyu cattle are treated there. It is said that in Kobe, cattle breeders add beer to Wagyu feed. It is assumed that beer encourages the animals to eat more than usual, which is necessary during the hot summer months when the need for food naturally declines. Increased intake of food results in higher fat gain and fat retention, which contributes to the marbling percentage. Another part of the legend is that the animals are massaged with Sake (Japanese rice wine). It is assumed that treatment with sake softens the skin and coat and some cattle breeders believe this has a positive influence on the quality of the beef. Another explanation is that the Wagyu on Kobe have little space to move and that massage replaces the natural quantity of movement that the animals need. A further explanation is that massage helps relieve stiffness and stress in the animals, which has a positive influence on the quality of the beef. Kobe beef is protected by the Japanese government. This means that Wagyu must have been born in the Kobe region in order to be called ‘Kobe beef’.