What is Wagyu?

In the second century AD, cattle were imported into Japan from China for the cultivation of rice. Japan was effectively isolated from the rest of the world from 1635 until 1854, so there was no possibility of the intromission of foreign genes to the cattle population during this time.

In the 1800s, they were used only as draught animals, in agriculture, forestry, mining, transport, and as a source of fertilizer. For cultural and religious reasons – the meat was not consumed. Cattle were highly prized and valuable, too expensive for a poor farmer to buy.

Between 1868 and 1887, some 2600 foreign cattle were imported. At first, there was little interest in cross-breeding these with the native stock, but from about 1900, it became widespread. It ceased abruptly in 1910 when it was realized that while the cross-breeds might be larger and have better dairy qualities, their working capacity and meat quality were lower. From 1919, the various heterogeneous regional populations that resulted from this brief period of cross-breeding were registered and selected as “Improved Japanese Cattle”. Four separate strains were characterized, based mainly on which type of foreign cattle had most influenced the hybrids, and were recognized as individual breeds in 1944.

Realizing the value of their unique product, the Japanese Government in the late 1990s banned further exports of Wagyu genetics and declared Wagyu a national living treasure. Zenwa is the Government held entity in Japan that oversees the WAGYU registry for Japanese Black, Brown, Polled, and Shorthorn.

In the U.S. Wagyu was first competitively exhibited at the National Western Stock Show in 2012. Some Japanese Wagyu cattle are cross-bred with American stock. Meat from this cross-breed is marketed as “Kobe Beef”, or “Wangus”, although many American retailers simply (inaccurately) refer to it as Wagyu. Other U.S. Wagyu breeders (like New England Wagyu) have full-blooded animals directly descended from original Japanese bloodlines and are registered through the American Wagyu Association.