Wagyu around the World - Japan

The Wagyu breed (和牛) has modest origins in Japan and translates in English to “Japanese cow”. Cattle were raised for labour for 2,000 years and the selection pressure for draught capabilities resulted in this breed evolving to produce the absolute ultimate in the beef tasting experience – for which they are now renowned around the world. It was virtually only after 1867 that beef consumption commenced with Kobe beef and subsequently husbandry improved but by then the marbling in indigenous cattle in Japan had become entrenched.

Origins of cattle in North East Asia

It had been widely believed that all cattle breeds originated from three aurochs - Africa (T1), Near East (T2) and Europe (T3). The isolation of T4 haplogroup in Japanese cattle has led to the view that a "domestication" occured in North East Asia four to five thousand years ago and several thousand years after the auroch in West Asia. It is unknown if the extinct wild ox (Bos primegenius) was distributed through North East Asia or if there were other older sources (Mannen et al., 2004).

Wagyu is a Bos taurus breed. A high-density panel of SNP markers gave admixture coefficients for Japanese Black that was in the extreme for Bos taurus breeds from Europe. Because the divergence between Wagyu and those breeds exceeds the variation between dairy and beef breeds, the hypothesis of a North East Asia domestication is supported (McKay et al., 2008).

History of beef cattle in Japan

Historians record that cattle, pigs and chickens were introduced to Japan between the years 500BC and 300AD as domestic animals Photo of the origins of the Wagyu breed which was initially used for draught work in agriculture and transportfrom the Asian continent by early immigrants (McKay et al., 2008). This has been narrowed down to co-incide with the introduction of rice cultivation towards the end of the third century AD (Mannen et al., 2004). Cattle were used in mining, forestry, transportation and rice farming whilst horses were fundamentally used by the military (Minezawa, 2003).

Mitochondrial sequencing of cattle strains in Japan has identified that there was a second migration of cattle after the initial entry (Noda et al, 2018). It had been considered that the ancestors of Japanese cattle migrated from North China via the Korean peninsula to Japan around the 2nd century AD and then expanded from the western region to all of Japan. This cattle movement was accompanied by the introduction of rice cultivation. All mtDNA of the other Japanese Wagyu breeds (Japanese Black, Japanese Brown/Akaushi and Japanese Polled) belong to the common taurine haplogroup T. However, the ancestral native cattle of the Japanese Shorthorn, which is called “Nambu”, is considered to have a different origin to the other Japanese native cattle. Two old documents written in the 16th and 17th centuries, describe that hundreds to thousands of cattle and horses were imported from Mongolia and Siberia in 1454±1456 to the northern part of Japan. The cattle migration might have influenced the genetic material of the “Nambu” cattle. The shallow genetic diversity among modern Asian cluster Pc might be a result of a bottleneck effect by the cattle migration to the Japanese Islands. Therefore, it is probable that cluster Pc in Japanese Shorthorn was derived from a different lineage of Japanese native “Nambu” cattle, which had a genetic influence on the cattle descended from the northeast Eurasian continent.

Buddhist leaders prohibited the eating of flesh - especially from four legged animals. The native cattle became known as “Tsuru” and those in Okayama Prefecture were earning a premium in 1830 because of their physical prowess. Breeding was based on maternal traits as records were only kept of dams.

Lifting of the ban on eating meat commenced during the Meij Restoration which started in 1867. Selection of the native cattle had been on working performance and not for milk or meat production. Cattle were shipped from Kobe to Yokohama shortly after the port was opened there. The beef became popular with foreigners and was called Kobe Beef. Even after the consumption of beef was permitted, cattle were fundamentally reared for draught purposes though some feeding commenced.

A decision was made to increase body size and milk production by introducing improved breeds of cattle. Initially Shorthorn and Devon were imported in 1868. About 2,600 head from British and Continental breeds were introduced in a ten year period and crossed with the native cattle in the prefectures as illustrated (from Minezawa, 2003 and Namikawa, 1992):

Map of Japan showing origin of native cattle breeds and where imported breeds were used from 1878 to 1910

High prices were paid for the crossbreds at the turn of the century, but by 1910 they were considered to be inferior for work so all crossing ceased. There had been some improvement in size and milk yield, but productivity and meat quality had deteriorated.

The core breeds which collectively became known as "Wagyu" had evolved. They are derived from native cattle that had been crossed with imported breeds to improve size. There are only two isolated populations of native cattle in existence but they are not classified as Wagyu in Japan. The wild cattle on Mishima Island (located in the Sea of Japan off Yamaguchi Prefecture) have never been crossed with modern European breeds. They are small in size with a good temperament. The herd of 350 succumbed to rinderpest in 1672 but after re-introduction from the Chugoku Region on the Japanese mainland the Mishima herd had built up to 433 by 1739. They were protected as a natural monument by government decree in 1928 as their numbers were dwindling from a peak of 568 in 1917. They numbered 100 in 2000 (Nagamine, 2008). Semen is used on Holsteins on the mainland to produce renowned "Ken Ran Gyu". The second group of wild cattle is on Kuchinoshima Island south-west of Kagoshima Prefecture.
Properties of the Japanese beef breeds are described in the Wagyu section.

In 1919 the government introduced registration and selection of the “improved Japanese Cattle” but each prefecture implemented their own objectives as a legacy of the feudal age. The government rationalized the registration process in 1944 and formally recognized three major breeds. The Japanese Shorthorn was not formally established as such until 1957.

Breeding unions were started at village, town and county level. The committee determined which sires were used on each dam by visual assessment. Soft and elastic hide, fine and soft hair, fine textured horn and clean cut face were favoured.

After mechanization reduced the demands for draught after the 1950s, the focus on beef production changed. Until then selection had been for body size and growth rate. The correlation of height at withers with body size was established and this produced an increase in body size. Performance and progeny testing was started in 1968. Young bulls with good growth had their progeny performance tested. Subsequently it has been established that the marbling index improved 0.05 points each year in three prefectures in response to these practices. There had been no improvement during the previous period when breeding decisions were made on visual assessment alone (Sasaki et al., 2006).

Performance data was used for selection decisions without consideration of meat qualities so beef quality suffered. In 1998 carcasses were cut at the 6th  to 7th rib section Photo of Mishima cow and indigenous beef cattle breed in japan which is confined to Mishima Islandand this enabled progeny testing to be implemented nationally in the field. BLUP analysis gave breeding value estimates for both sires and the dams. Marble score improved by 0.15 points annually in three prefectures (Sasaki et al., 2006).

The inbreeding coefficient of Japanese Black is 0.217 in Hyogo prefecture and 0.069 in Tottori prefecture. Breeding stock in Hyogo has been maintained almost as a closed population, whereas calves in Tottori are produced from AI sires from various prefectures. In 2000 the proportion of calves in Tottori from Tottori sires was 75.8% - down from 98.4% in 1988 (Shojo et al., 2008).

As a consequence to high inbreeding overall the effective population size of Japanese Black is only 17.2 (Nomura et al., 2001).

Inbreeding is estimated to be between 0.51 and 0.60 in Mishima. Despite this, there are no indications of inbreeding depression of reproductive traits. Heterozygosity measures genetic diversity and is recorded to be 22.9% in Mishima. Japanese Black is 48.8% while Japanese Brown is 61.2% (Nagamine et al., 2008).

Since 1953 there has been a national show every five years. It is called the “Wagyu Performance Show” and attracts a worldwide audience. The last was held at Nagasaki in 2012.

Abundance of performance and carcase records with pedigree information enables detailed breeding information to be analysed and reported. The performance of sires at the major abattoirs is readily available.

Heritability estimates have been documented for Wagyu. Generally reproductive traits for all cattle breeds have low estimates and this is the case for Wagyu (Oyama, 2011). The exception is gestation length which indicates genetic control. Some estimates are tabled below and carcase heritability estimates are presented on the Marbling page:

Table of heritability estimates for growth, weights and reproduction for Wagyu

Improvements in quality have been the most significant over the past thirty years and the future of the major Japanese beef breeds as a source of the best quality beef in the world is assured.

Revered care of cattle

Over centuries, cattle have been treated like members of the family as only a few head were raised on each farm. When housed for protection against the elements, the sheds are well ventilated and the floor covered with saw dust. Fresh water is crucial so always provided. Exercise is not encouraged. Cattle are carefully brushed with a stiff brush to improve blood circulation and to keep the coat in good condition. The belief is that the fat is evenly distributed through brushing. Some producers brush with Sake (beer) to improve the appearance and softness of the coat. Massaging is another indication of the closeness the farmer has to their precious cattle and is carried out to relieve stress and muscle stiffness.

In the hottest months Sake beer is fed to stimulate appetite.

No scientific explanation substantiates the physiological benefits from these practices but it is considered that the constant handling of cattle ensures that they are relaxed so never exposed to stress. High fibre foods – like hay, wheat bran, corn and soybean by-products are fed for prolonged periods and the average daily gain of Japanese cattle is modest - compared with other beef breeds - but this ensures deposition of marbling.

Chart of number of households in Japan raising beef cattle and average number of beef cattle per farm

Sadly, the era in which every family fed a few cattle is passing. The average number of beef cattle in 2013 is 43, but many have more than 200 head each.

Japan had 53,000 breeders of cows in February 2013. This figure had dropped after the foot-and-mouth outbreak and has slipped around 5% a year since then. Aging breeders with no heirs to take over and rising feed prices are the major factors (Nikkei, 2014).

Japan's total agricultural output has trended down since 1984 to ¥8.2 trillion. Rice has declined from 34% to 22%, and livestock products are the largest share up from 28% to 31% in 2011. Vegetable products increased to 26% (MAFF).

Population of Wagyu, beef production and imports

In 2007 there were 2.8 million head of beef cattle, including 1 700 000 traditional Wagyu. This is a huge increase over 40 years when there were only a million head with a few cattle on each farm. While herd sizes grew and the number of farms declined, the number of cattle grew until the peak just short of 3 million was reached in 1995.

BSE cases in 2001 did not have a significant effect on domestic cattle numbers despite restrictions on trade. The outbreak of Foot and Mouth in Miyazaki Prefecture in April 2010 had a severe impact on local breeding herds as not even elite genetics was spared from the mandatory slaughter which was imposed to eradicate the disease.

The tsunami of 2011 tragically took 15,840 human lives with more missing. ¥14 billion in value of crops and livestock was destroyed with damage and losses in the Tōhoku, Kantō and Chūbu regions. 17,000 hectares could not be planted in 2011 as a result of damage caused by the waves of the tsunami. 4,000 hectares were reclaimed during 2012. Consumer confidence was dented by radiation from Fukushima. Meat imports into Japan during 2011 increased 4% while the consumption of domestic beef declined 3%.

Despite producing the ultimate beef quality across the globe, beef consumption in Japan is relatively low and reached its peak of 7.5 kg per capita in the late 1990s. This is a dramatic increase from 1.2 kg in 1960 and 5.4 kg in 1988. Beef consumption had slipped to 5.9 kg/head full year 2012. Pork was 11.8 while poultry had topped at 12 kg after a 5% increase (MLA 2013). The best quality of beef in Japan is supplied domestically but 60% of beef consumption is from imports as imported beef provides a cheaper alternative. Imported chuck/thigh retails for ¥193 per 100 gram compared to ¥778 per 100 gram Japanese loin in Tokyo The increase in beef imports from 1991 after the liberalization of trade is reflected in trends of offtake over time (from MAFF and MLA):

Chart showing offtake of beef in Japan from 1975 to present including traditional Japanese beef, dairy and crosses and imports

Imports of beef into Japan in 2015 may fall to a five year low of 727,000 tonne out of a total consumption of 1.24 million tonne as exportable quantities from Australia and USA are under pressure.

Grading of beef in Japan

A number of measurements and observations are made before the two index class is awarded. Yield is measured and quality is determined after evaluation of marbling, meat colour and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, and colour, lustre, and quality of fat.

Yield grade is the proportion of meat available and measurements are taken at the 6th to 7th rib section. BMS number and approximate IMF %Rib-eye area, rib thickness, cold left side weight and subcutaneous fat thickness are analysed in a formula. Yield is designated by a letter. Grade B is “standard” and awarded for a yield estimate which falls between 69 and 72%. Grade A is “above standard” and C is “below standard”.

Beef Marble Standard "BMS" is an assessment of marbling against standards. The allocation of beef marbling grade from the BMS number is tabled (JMGA):

The colour and brightness of meat is evaluated by the Beef Colour Standard “BCS”. The colour is allocated visually to standards numbered from 1 (light) to 7 (darkest). Most desirable are within the range from 3 to 5. Brightness is also visually ranked between “below average” to “very good”. These two rankings are used to determine the colour and brightness grade which ranges from 1 (inferior) to 5 (very good). Average is Grade 3.

BMS score versus Marbling Score in Japanese beef grading table

Firmness and texture of meat are evaluated visually. Firmness is scored from 1 (inferior) to 5 (very good) and texture from 1 (coarse) to the best of 5 (very fine). Both results are considered before a Firmness and Texture Grade is awarded from 1 (Inferior) to 5 (Very good).  

The colour, lustre and fat quality are evaluated. The Beef Fat Standard (BFS) ranges from No 1 (light colour) to No 7 (darkest). Lustre and quality are also visually rated between “below average” to the highest 5 “very good”. The Fat Colour, Lustre and Quality Grade is given and ranges from 1 (Inferior) to 5 (Excellent).

All four quality grades are listed, and the lowest grade awarded becomes the final grade for Meat quality. The class awarded is a combination of the letter for yield (A, B, or C - with A designating highest yield) and the number for meat quality (1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, with 5 for highest quality). The highest class is A5 out of the fifteen permutations.

Meat grade determines value and average wholesale carcase prices by sex by grade by breed from Tokyo metropolitan central wholesale market over the last six years are presented (MAFF):

Graph of Tokyo beef wholesale prices per kg for Wagyu, dairy and cross with sex and grades each year from 2007 to 2012

The progressive increase in price from late 2011 is reflected in the
average monthly wholesale prices for steers by market in Tokyo (MAFF):

Chart of wholesale prices fro steers at Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Fukumarket

Champions from exhibitions earn premiums. The Matsusaka winner in December 2012 earned ¥22 million at four years of age after 1,134 days on feed.

Soaring feed prices and damage from the 2011 earthquake are among the factors driving Wagyu breeders from the business, leading to record cattle prices and concerns over maintaining a stable supply.

The average market price of Japanese Black steers and cows in December 2013 was ¥548,776 a head which is an increase of 24% in a year. The shrinking number of breeders is pushing up the price of calves. Buying livestock now accounts for more than half of a cattle farmer's costs, which will likely force more of them out of business as profitability drops.

Meanwhile, beef is growing more popular as the economy improves, and wholesale prices are generally up 10% on the year. Wagyu beef, despite an increase in price of 20% over the year, has been growing its share. Despite the increase is supply of USA beef after easing of age restrictions, the price has increased 7% for some cuts. Australian prices for chilled full set have increased 13% in response to higher demand from China (Nikkei, 2013).

Demand for Wagyu calves far exceeds supply so prices at some markets have reached ¥600,000 a head for the first time. A farmer needs ¥1 million a head to realise a profit (Nikkei, 2014).

The marbling content (IMF%) is exceptionally high in Japan. Comparative minimum levels of IMF% for BMS in Japan, Marble Score in Australia, and in Prime, Choice and Select in Australia is illustrated:
Chart of Marbling (IMF) % by BMS in Japan, by Marble Score in AUS-MEAT in Australia and in Prime, Choice and Select from USDA in USA on Wagyu International


Beef brands in Japan

Wagyu is synonymous with the ultimate beef experience around the world, but the quality from Japan is unsurpassed. Numerous brands are well established and a seal of authenticity is provided at retail and information can be downloaded by keying a serial number into a mobile phone.

Elite brands are called "Sandai Wagyu" and are from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black.  The best known are Kobe, Matsusaka and Ōmi beef.

Tajima-gyu (田島圭) is from pure Tajima beef “motoushi” which is processed at a Hyogo slaughterhouse from steers or virgin heifers between the ages of 28 and 60 months which have been sired by bulls exclusive to Hyogo Prefecture.  Tajima-gyu must be either A or B grade for Yield and Quality grade inclusive of 1 to 5. About 5 500 head are certified each year.

Kobe beef (Kobe-gyu or Kobe-ushi) derives solely from Tajima-gyu steers or heifers and only 3,000 are certified annually. The following standards apply (Kobe Beef website):

Kobe beef may be the best known Wagyu brand outside Japan, but Matsusaka beef (Matsuzaka) is highly sought after within Japan. Matsusaka ushi 松阪牛 is certified by a seal which is attached to over-the-counter produce. A 10-digit reference number is downloaded onto the internet or by a mobile phone to obtain: date of birth, name of breeder, place of birth, pedigree, number of days on feed, place of fattening, name of farmer who finished, and quality specifications. “Matsusaka beef” comes from 8 month old heifer calves which are purchased across Japan then registered with the Matsusaka beef council. They are raised within the former municipality 22 which centred on the city of Matsusaka. Matsusaka beef has a very low melting point so it can melt in the palm of a hand (Matsusaka Beef website).

Ōmi beef is produced in the Shiga Prefecture in Kansai Region. The high level of marbling is characterised by softness and a mellow flavour and the meat “just melts”. This has earned Ōmi beef its reputation and the Ōmi beef trademark was registered in Japan on 11th May 2007. Carcases require to be graded A4 or A5 or higher at specific processors.

Yonezawa beef, cow Tamba, Kumamoto Sum King Black and a few other Kumamoto brands, Hitachi cow, Wagyu Kazusa and Miyazaka are amongst many other prestigious beef brands in Japan.

Wagyu born and raised in Japan

Logo for Wagyu born and raised in JapanWagyu beef that has been born and raised in Japan
has this logo affixed to confirm that it originates in Japan.

Additional information

Asian Review: Nikkei

Japan Meat Grading Association

Kobe Beef

Matsusaka Beef

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries



Japan Meat Grading Association.

Kobe Beef.

Mannen, H., Kohno, H., Nagata. Y., Tsuji, S., Bradley, D. G., Yeo, J. S., Nyamsamba, D., Zagdsuren, Y., Yokohama, M., Nomura, K. and T. Amano. 2004. Independent mitochondrial origin and historical genetic differentiation in North Eastern Asian cattle. Molecular Phytogenetics and Evolution. 32:539-544.

Matsusaka Beef.

McKay, S. D. , Schnabel, R. D. , Murdoch, B. M. , Matukumalli, L. K. , Aerts, J. , Coppieters, W. , Crews, D. , Dias Neto, E. , Gill, C. A. , Gao, C. , Mannen, H. , Wang, Z. , van Tassell, C. P. , Williams, J. L. , Taylor, J. F. and S. S. Moore. 2008. An assessment of population structure in eight breeds of cattle using a whole genome SNP panel. BMC Genetics 9:37.

Meat and Livestock Australia.

Meat & Livestock Australia/Prices & Markets. 2013. Chicken tops Japan meat consumption.

Minezawa, M. 2003. Cattle genetic resources in Japan: One successful crossbreeding story and genetic diversity erosion. Cattle Genetic Resources in Japan. 4 (2):71-87.

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Website.

Nagamine, Y., Nirasawa, K., Takahashi, H., Sasaki, O., Ishii, K, Minezawa, M., Oda, S., Visscher, P.M. and Furukawa, T. 2008. Estimation of the time of divergence between Japanese Mishima Island cattle and other cattle populations using microsatellite DNA markers. J. Hered. 99(2):202-207.

Namikawa, K. 1992. Breeding history of Japanese Beef cattle and preservation of genetic resources as economic farm animals. Wagyu. 2nd ed. Wagyu Registry Assoc., Kyoto, Japan.

Nikkei Asian Review. 2013. Imported beef prices on the rise in Japan. Markets/Commodities/ 30th November 2013.

Nikkei Asian Review. 2014. Shrinking cattle supply fuels Wagyu shortage fears. Markets/Commodities/16th January, 2014.

Noda, A. Yonesaka, R., Sasazaki, S., H. Manneen, 2018. The mtDNA haplogroup P of modern Asian cattle: A genetic legacy of Asian aurochs?

Nomura, T., Honda, T. and F. Mukai. 2001. Inbreding and effective population size of Japanese Black cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 79:366-370.

Oyama, K. 2011. Genetic variability of Wagyu cattle estimated by statistical approaches. An. Sci. J. 82:367-373.

Sasaki, Y., Miyake, T., and T. Dougo. 2006. Comparison of genetic gains per year for carcass traits among breding programs in the Japanese Brown and the Japanese Black cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 84:317-323.

Shojo, M., Okanishi, T., Anada, K., Oyama, K. and F. Mukai. 2006. Genetic analysis of calf market weight and carcass traits in Japanese Black cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 84:2617-2622.