What is Kobe Beef? Why there are so many brands of Japanese Wagyu beef?

What is Kobe Beef? Why there are so many brands of Japanese Wagyu beef?

Japanese Wagyu Brand Myth and Origin Superstition

Author: A Wagyu Lover who eats tons of Wagyu


You may have heard of Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, Omi beef, Maesawa beef, Hida beef, Sendai beef... There are so many Japanese beef brands, around 200 large and small brands. Behind each brand are their own animal farming organizations, local governments, and private enterprises, all of them are promoting their uniqueness.

The most famous wagyu brands are still Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, Omi beef or Yonezawa beef.

Why is it so famous? Let's talk about Kobe beef first.

Kobe, this place, became famous after the opening of the port at the end of the 19th century. In 1856, the Hyogo Prefecture Government designated a special place for foreigners to settle in Kobe Village near Hyogo Port. A group of foreigners came to Kobe and settled down. They couldn't bear without meat. So there was a market when there was demand. Beef in the Kansai region was concentrated around Kobe for sale. In 1865, the beef was transported to Yokohama Port, which is closer to Tokyo, which is also the residence with the highest density of foreigners in Japan. Foreigners who have never seen frosty beef ate the beef that was on the boat from Kobe and shouted for its deliciousness, and began to call this frosty beef "Kobe beef", even if Kobe is not where the cow is produced. Later, Emperor Meiji lifted the ban on meat, and the reputation of Kobe beef was passed on to the Japanese through word of mouth from foreigners. (Ok… Domestic product get famous because of foreigners… Fair enough. ) In 1875, in the eighth year of Meiji, there is a record in the "Postal News": "The place where meat is most prevalent is Kobe. 800 heads of cattle can be slaughtered in a month, then Yokohama, 600 heads a month, 500 in Tokyo. It’s about 300 in Osaka and Nagoya. It’s about 100-200 per month in other counties.” Although the numbers in the news papers are not accurate enough, it can also be seen that eating beef in Kobe happened more than a hundred years ago.

matsusaka wagyu cattle

Matsusaka beef became famous at the National Meat and Livestock Expo in Tokyo in 1935. The National Meat and Livestock Expo in Tokyo in 1935 was to commemorate the completion of the Shibaura Slaughterhouse in a few years, and the nationwide beef cattle event was also the first in Japan. At that time, a cow named Michi was awarded the highest prize. Its owner was Nagasatsu Dobata, and the bonus was 180 yen. At that time, it was a more than enough to build an entire house. According to an interview with Ise Kumura (1988) "Matsusaka Beef: Niujii no Poem" with Michibata Nagamatsu's grandson, Michibata Ginzo, he mentioned, "(My grandfather) is a person who loves cattle very much. He’ll go to the barn do massage to the cow and chat with it. In addition, He’ll let the cow drink beer before feeding the cow. In this way, the cow’s appetite will increase, and the meat will be softer and easier to get marbled in the meat.” In other words, the most famous "drinking beer" and "massage" in the legend of Matsusaka beef actually existed nearly 80 years ago. It may have been just a coincidence that Nagasatsu Doduan, but this kind of small tips for breeding Some of the farms that breed Matsusaka beef have continued, and with the development of the brand, it has become more and more hyped by merchants as a myth.

old picture of matsusaka cow

(December 1988, Nagamatsu Dobata and Michi. From 伊勢文化舎 "Matsusaka Beef: Niujii no Poetry")

omi cow

The large-scale publicity activities of Omi beef began after the establishment of the Omi Beef Association in 1952. It can be said that it is the earliest Japanese beef marketing in modern times. The livestock farmers put their cattle on tractors and transported them to Tokyo for a parade around the streets to vigorously promote the quality of Omi beef; they also held tastings and auctions in high-end department stores in Tokyo to create momentum with Kobe beef and Matsusaka. The cows are tied together and collectively called the "Big 3 Japanese Wagyu Brands". At that time, when the Japanese economy started to take off, the demand for premium beef and the propaganda of Omi beef formed a synergistic effect. The impression that Omi beef is a premium beef brand has since been deeply ingrained, and the point that "sukiyaki should be used to eat premium beef" has become common knowledge among Japanese under the promotion of these premium beef brands.

The three brands of Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, and Omi beef were well-known before the bubble era. After that, their prices have risen steadily, and the prices of other unlicensed Kuroge Wagyu beef are much different. So, are these three big wagyu beef really more noble than other black beef? not necessarily. I have heard from livestock farmers in Iwate Prefecture that the current Maesawa beef, Saga beef, and Hida beef were often sold as the Big 3 wagyu beef when they were not branded or famous. Since the three major wagyu cattle are well-known and in short supply, they often buy two-year-old Kuroge Wagyu at low prices from Maezawa, Saga, and Hida to raise them as three major wagyu beef and sell them at double prices last year. One year of breeding period can earn several times in return.


As long as you put the label of a famous brand, ordinary wagyu can become premium wagyu, so why not just make your own brand? The livestock farmers of Maezawa beef and Hida beef began to make their own brands to fight against the three major wagyu beef: Maezawa beef began to promote in NHK in 1985, and Hida beef established the Brand Promotion Council in 1988. Since then, various places have imitated one after another, making their own brand like a revolt. The trend has continued to the present, and now there are more than two hundred brands, large and small.

Up to now, the meaning of the brand does not completely represent the place of origin. There are also various brands, large and small, in the same production area. For example, in Iwate Prefecture, the area where the same type of Japanese black beef is bred is also the same. Just because the owners are not doing well with each other, they set up their own independent brands. Wagyu breeding groups promote different brands: Maesawa beef, Shizukuishi beef, Higashiwagyu beef, Oshu beef, Esashi beef, Iwate southern beef, Tobison beef...These brands are all produced in Iwate, and they are all black cattle beef. Brands are not just based on the place of origin. There are also brands based on individuals. For example, the recently popular "Ozaki Cow" refers to cattle raised by a farmer Surnamed Ozaki.


Due to the endless emergence of "origin counterfeiting" incidents in recent years, various brands have also tried to establish their own judgment standards. However, these brand standards are mostly based on results rather than processes, and there is no lack of controversy. Kobe beef, for example, it is required that the Japanese black cattle with Tajima cattle ancestry born in Hyogo Prefecture must be bred in Hyogo Prefecture for more than 28 months and reach a certain level of meat quality.


As for the Matsusaka beef, the livestock farmers have split up because of their disagreements on breeding methods and production quality. There are two brands of Matsusaka beef, one is "Matsusaka beef" and the other is "special Matsusaka beef". Farmers who raise "Special Matsusaka beef" have higher standards for their products. They hope to use "Matsusaka beef" as a brand that appears on the market in the name of Matsusaka Beef should be carefully selected cattle, which must be carefully fattened for more than 900 days before being shipped. However, there are more than 110 farmers living within the designated production area of Matsusaka beef, and not everyone has the same idea. Some farmers believe that the current economic downturn in Japan and the high prices of feed and cattle, shipments are more important than quality. The cattle produced by these farmers are still "Matsusaka Beef", but the standard is more relaxed, as long as they are brought to the specified production area of Matsusaka Beef within one year of birth and live longer in the specified production area than in other regions Unborn cows are considered "Matsusaka cows" after registered in to the Matsusaka Beef individual identification management system. Whether "Matsusaka beef" or "Specialty Matsusaka beef" is judged based on the final breeding results. You may ask if they grew up drinking beer? I personally think that there should not be many people who love cattle as much as Dobata Nagamatsu did... "Specialty Matsusaka beef" does not participate in the classification of the Japanese Meat Packing Association. It is the most expensive beef in Japan. "It does not participate in the classification" and "the most expensive in Japan". These are all its selling point.

Some other brands, such as Sendai beef, follow the route of "We only sell A5 grade Kuroge Wagyu", and the promotion effect is also very good. From 2003 to 2005, the sales price was 21.9%, 23.3%, and 27.3%. The annual growth rate is increasing rapidly, but there is no stricter standard for the breeding process. The brand strategy formulated by each brand can refer to the report on beef brand promotion by the Japanese Meat Consumption Center, and I will not go into details here.

In short, these are the standards set by the brands themselves, and each association has the final statement on the shipment. Nowadays, there are many disguise incidents in Japan in the news. A cow from the central part of Japan, lived a few month in Kansai then became famous Kansai Wagyu.

Compared with the origin brand, the farmer's own technology and attitude that are more important. Compared with the brand and origin, the individual identification number of the Cattle is more worthy of reference. According to this number, can find out who the farmer is, feed it what kind of feed, stay in certain places, how long it has been there, date of birth and date of processed, etc. Based on this information, you can probably make a rough judgment.

So I don't believe in saying that these brands are so different. I have eaten well-known brand-named beef and other Japanese Wagyu beef. Personally, as long as they are graded on the same level, the taste itself is not much difference, only some different taste profile you can barely distinguish them.