How Beef Got Its Meathooks in Japan
If you are considering to enter the beef market in Japan, we got some good news for you: Japan needs to import most of its beef, which means ample opportunities for a market entry into the Japanese beef industry. And even though the country is famous for the world’s highest-grade beef, wagyu, Japanese customers consume and look for a variety of beef cuts and grades, depending on the dish and cuisines they feel like. Read on below for the skinny on beef in Japan.
The history of beef in Japan
Back before Buddhism began spreading throughout Japan in the sixth century, the Japanese were equal-opportunity carnivores. They hunted, they killed, they ate. But this new religion emphasized a vegetarian diet and shunned both the killing and eating of four-legged animals, particularly domesticated ones. In 675, just over a century after Buddhism’s arrival, Emperor Temmu issued the first law forbidding meat-eating, but only between April and September. A year-round ban followed not long after. Japan’s other major religion, Shintoism, also declared eating animal flesh to be an unclean act.
There was also a practical reason for the ban: arable land in mountainous Japan is scarce, and grazing and breeding livestock is costly, resource-intensive and time-consuming.
Beef was once taboo
So for twelve centuries, Japan was essentially a meatless land, although the Ainu up in Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Kingdom down south in what would become Okinawa blithely continued to hunt and eat their prey. (The country’s privileged classes still consumed meat as well, usually for its “medicinal properties.”)
In 1872, Emperor Meiji broke the 1200-year sanction when he celebrated the New Year by eating beef—part of a calculated national drive to embrace Western practices and catch up to the West. That he did so publicly encouraged citizens of every social class to begin consuming meat as well. Not all went smoothly, however. Ten Buddhist monks later invaded the Imperial Palace to protest his “soul-destroying” food choices. In the ensuing fight with palace guards, five of them were killed. Movements opposing the eating of meat also sprang up around the country.
Less than two centuries later, however, Japan is a nation of dedicated beefeaters. Of the 60.9 million tons of beef consumed in 2018, people here ate up 2.16 percent of it, ranking eleventh in the world.
Global beef wars – Japan needs to import half of its beef
Japan doesn’t produce anywhere near the breathtaking tonnage of beef that its people consume. Only half, in fact, and production has dropped by 10 percent over the last two decades because Japan’s cattle farmers are aging and their farms are disappearing.
Australia, the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand are the major suppliers picking up the slack, scrapping for supremacy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership lowered tariffs for all but the U.S.—which recently opted out of the arrangement—and in 2018 beef imports rose by 6 percent. This year Japan also lifted a ban on U.S. beef over thirty months old that had been in effect since 2005 after an outbreak of mad cow disease. American beef had already set a record in 2018, with two billion dollars shipped according to the U.S. Meat Export Association, representing around a quarter of all U.S. beef exports for the year.
Kobe beef & wagyu: the art of beef in Japan
The desire to manipulate nature to create the fearful symmetry you see anytime you walk through a Zen garden is strong in Japan, and it extends to cattle. The marbling in A4 and A5 wagyu beef—the highest grades of bovine flesh available—is so regular it looks like a plastic model of beef. As the flames melt the marbling away in a filet of this quality, the meat naturally separates into strips of tender flesh.
How does it get that way? Well, besides careful breeding and high-quality feed, the tender care includes letting the cattle suck down a bottle or two of beer during the summer months to stimulate their appetite—or if they’re sick or about to be slaughtered. Some are massaged with shochu or sake to improve the marbling of the fat. They also reportedly listen to music while they eat. Yes, it’s bovine nirvana, if you discount their ultimate fate.
A broad range – beef dishes in Japan
Kobe, Ohmi and Matsusaka are the three best-known producers of high-end wagyu beef. A4 and A5 grade wagyu beef costs tens of thousands of yen per kilo. A chateaubriand course at Wadakin, a shrine to beef in Mie Prefecture’s Matsusaka that’s been around since the 1870s, runs over 30,000 yen.
On the other end of the scale are chain restaurants like Ikinari, offering less than prime cuts and a fast and furious dining style but featuring major volume for your yen. And of course, beef appears prominently in Japanese dishes such as curry, sukiyaki and shabu shabu. Then there’s the Niku Baru chain, which specializes in the raw stuff—wagyu beef sushi and sashimi.
Beefy cuisine from all over the world has made it to Japan, from Korea’s yakiniku to churrasco from Brazil. And did I mention burgers? Major U.S. brands like McDonald’s and Burger King are entrenched here, competing with local brands such as MOS Burger, Freshness Burgers and Lotteria. Plenty of gourmet burger joints are springing up as well.
So Japan’s carnivores have a herd of options—and they’re about to get more.
The alt-meat movement: lab-grown beef
Eight years ago a video surfaced in which a Japanese scientist named Masayuki Ikeda claimed he’d been able to extract protein from poop . . . and make hamburger out of it. The story was quintessential wacky Japan fodder, which is why plenty of media outlets gobbled it up whole.
Well, that one was a hoax. But lab-grown meat, also called “clean meat,” and what’s known as alt meat or alternative protein made from plants are both coming soon to Japan’s fast food joints, family restaurants, and supermarkets. U.S. companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were derided for several years, but now they’re making solid substitutes for the beef burger, and selling in bulk to Carl’s Jr., A&W, White Castle and Burger King, as well as supermarket chains like Food Lion and Safeway.
Now the Impossible Burger is sold at Burger King in the U.S., and Otsuka Foods has launched its Zero Meat line of burger patties made from soy protein. U.S. food company Just Inc. and Japanese meat producer Toriyama Chikusan Shokuhin have sealed a deal to develop lab-grown wagyu beef. And a startup called Shojinmeat has developed techniques that bring the cost of producing clean meat down to under a thousandth of traditional approaches.
The future of beef in Japan
According to a 2014 study by researchers from Bard College, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Yale University, beef requires far more resources to produce than pork, chicken, dairy and eggs: 28 times more land, 6 times more fertilizer and 11 times more water. On top of that, raising cattle generates about five times more greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, a food culture newsletter put out by condiment giant Kikkoman also notes that a meat-eating culture is traditionally measured by how much of the animal is used. Unlike fish, Japan is rather selective about what parts of the cow it eats. Based on that, Kikkoman says, the Japanese are not true meat-eaters.
Looks like there are good reasons to say, “Who cares where the beef is?”
Entering the beef market in Japan
Bottom line: Alt protein marketers should be able to appeal to people in Japan based on health reasons and the old Buddhist and Shinto beliefs—hey, it’s good for the soul—because after twelve centuries of shunning meat there’s still a strong vegetarian streak here. Just as powerful is the possibility to sell to those worried about climate change that are willing to shrink their environmental footprint for the good of the planet without giving up the taste of beef. New ways of marketing the real thing still work, too, like the Brazilian-style churrascaria restaurants that have appeared in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and elsewhere. And finally, the geography of Japan with its lack of pastures dictates that the country will always need to import most of the beef it happily consumes. If your image and quality can live up to the high standards of the Japanese consumer, it can be sold at a price point beyond that of most other developed nations.
In short: in Japan, beef is here to stay.
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