Lately, it seems like restaurants and foodies everywhere have begun revering the ultra-marbled, decadent Japanese beef known as Wagyu. Although it may be brand-new to many Americans, Wagyu has a long history that traces its roots back over decades in Japan. In this guide, we're covering a brief history of Wagyu to help you understand why this special beef is so highly revered.
- Pre-1868: Cattle Bred to Work. There is some evidence to suggest that Wagyu we know today trace their genetic strain back over 35,000 years. For centuries in Japan, cattle were used primarily as a draft animals in agriculture, bred mainly for physical endurance.
- 1868. The Meiji Restoration Popularizes Beef Consumption. Until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, cattle in Japan were used exclusively for work and, due to Japan's isolated island status, crossbreeding with non-Japanese cattle was rare. At the same time, due to religious reasons, meat wasn't commonly consumed in Japan until 1872. That was the year emperor Meiji publicly ate meat for the first time, causing beef production to spike by 13 times.
- 1990. Crossbreeding Becomes Popular. After decades of crossbreeding Japanese cattle with foreign cattle, four major cattle breeds were determined superior and became the predominate breeds into the 20th century. These four breeds - Kuroge (Black), Aakage (Brown), Nihon Tankaku (Shorthorn) and Mukaku (Polled) - are the ones we consider Wagyu today. The Kuroge cattle is the breed most often used to produce highly marbled Wagyu beef.
- 1976. Wagyu Bulls Brought to the U.S. In 1976, four Wagyu bulls were imported to the United States from Japan and were subsequently bred with the American Angus and Continental breeds. It wasn't until 1993 that American farmers were able to import Japanese Black females, allowing them to breed the first full-blood Wagyu cattle in the U.S.
- 1988. The Japanese Meat Grading System is Developed. The current grading system used by the Japan Meat Grading Association (JMGA) was devised in 1988. It set forth standards for yield grade (A, B and C) and meat quality grade (1 through 5), allowing Japan to take full control of the quality of Wagyu beef and designate the best of the best.
- 1997. Japan Enacts an Export Ban. In 1997, Japanese officials declared Wagyu cattle a "national treasure" and, in order to protect this status, enacted an export ban on live Wagyu cattle. This has helped keep authentic Japanese Wagyu exclusive to Japan, but since the Wagyu bloodline was already introduced in the U.S., American Wagyu beef - Wagyu crossed with American breed cattle - gained interest.
- Japanese and American Wagyu Today: Though the Japanese closely guard Wagyu and want to keep it bred exclusively in Japan, they have loosened regulations on export of the beef itself. Nowadays, authentic Japanese Wagyu beef can be shipped throughout the world. Thanks to new shipping technologies, consumers are able to obtain fresh Wagyu relatively quickly. American Wagyu beef is widely available at butcher shops and restaurants throughout the U.S. as well.
Tender, tasty and decadent, this class of beef is beloved throughout the world for its fine-grained, fatty marbling. Thanks to centuries of breeding and careful honing by the Japanese, Wagyu remains a true delicacy like no other kind of meat.