Cattle of the Shoguns
The history of Wagyu stretches back nearly two thousand years. Rice cultivation was introduced to Japan in the first century A.D., and with the rise of an agricultural society, cattle from the Asian mainland were soon brought to Japan to be used as draft animals. While consumption of red meat was prohibited for religious reasons in ancient Japan, cattle were selectively bred by farmers as work animals. This selective breeding favored animals with high amounts of intra-muscular fat cells because they exhibited greater strength and endurance. This trait was initially developed to produce superior draft animals but it is also responsible for much of the distinctive marbling we see in Wagyu today.
The taboo against consuming red meat continued in varying degrees until the late 19th century. Consumption of beef by common people in Japan remained relatively rare until the last century. However, Japan's ruling military elite developed a taste for what we now know as Wagyu much earlier. The prohibition against eating red meat was loosened during times of war when local Japanese warlords soon discovered that troops who were fed beef gained strength and endurance and were generally in better health than those who maintained the low protein diet typical of Japan during this period. As warfare between rival local lords became nearly constant during the medieval period, more and more soldiers were introduced to beef and brought their newly acquired taste home with them during the brief periods of peace. Red meat also became popular among many Samurai who viewed hunting and beef consumption as symbolizing martial skill and status. Some of the Shoguns particularly prized a variety of Wagyu from the Kansai region of Japan for its perceived medicinal qualities. Throughout this period of strife and turmoil, Japan's cattle herd continued to undergo refinement through selective breeding while remaining isolated from outside genetic influences. Even as contact was made with European merchants and missionaries in the late 16th century Wagyu remained free of outside genetics as interbreeding with European cattle was officially prohibited by decree of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate.
Tremendous change came to Japan in 1868 with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of Imperial authority in what became known as the Meiji Restoration. This period began the rapid modernization of Japan transforming the country from a feudal rural society to an industrialized militaristic society bent on expansion that would eventually lead to its defeat in the Second World War. With modernization came the formal end of all remaining taboos against the consumption of red meat and the eating of beef was actually encouraged by the Imperial court. For a brief period of time, the Japanese herd was opened up to limited cross breeding with various European and Korean breeds to further desired traits. However, this was a short lived experiment and by 1910 the national herd was again closed to outside breeding. It has remained closed ever since.
After the Second World War Wagyu became know among US troops and other Westerners for its outstanding quality and taste. As demand for Wagyu beef began to grow outside of Japan, a very limited number of live breeding animals were exported from Japan, primarily to Australia and the US. Much of the genetics from these original animals were used for cross breeding programs with European cattle. While the resulting crosses often produced excellent quality beef some did not. Fortunately, some of the imported animals were used to create full-blood Wagyu lines within the US assuring that the high quality of this breed is still available to US consumers.