Wagyu beef a cut above others in Japan

Wagyu beef a cut above others in Japan

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

If “wagyu” simply means Japanese cow, does that mean that all beef in Japan is wagyu?

Not all Japanese beef is created equal.

Over the decades, a lot of dairy cattle – mainly Holsteins – have been imported in Japan. Many have also been crossbred with local wagyu cattle. The result: There are three types of beef available in Japan – high-grade pure wagyu, beef from low-grade dairy cattle and mid-grade mixed-breed beef.  

In 2019, wagyu accounted for about 45 percent of the beef produced in Japan, dairy cattle comprised about 30 percent of produced beef and mix breeds provided about 25 percent of domestic beef on the national market, according to the Japanese government.

In addition to its domestic beef, Japan imports more than 500,000 tons of beef annually, the government says.

So, how can you distinguish wagyu from all the others at a butcher or a supermarket? Read the label, says Japan Meat Information Service Center’s Tamio Nakamura.

“You can distinguish wagyu very easily by taking a short look at a price label,” he says. “If there is a description such as “Japanese Black” or “黒毛和種” in Japanese, you can rest assured that the meat is wagyu beef.” About 95 percent of wagyu beef sold in Japans stores is Japanese Black.

According to Nakamura, since Japan has a sophisticated numbering system for tracing each piece of beef produced in order to verify cattle bloodlines, the description on the label, along with a 10-digit identification number, is always accurate.
The National Livestock Breeding Center strictly identifies all cattle bred in Japan with this individual number. So you can always authenticate wagyu meat by asking a store staffer to verify the type of beef and its place origin with the number on the label. You can also do it yourself with your smartphone by searching it online at the NLBC (www.id.nlbc.go.jp/english).

Restaurants can usually provide this 10-digit tracking number, as well.

黒毛和種 = Wagyu Beef Track your beef at:

Making the grade

Japan Meat Grading Association gives each cow carcass a score based on its yield (from A to C) and level of marbling, firmness, color and overall quality (from 1 to 5). The overall grade of the beef is determined by combining these two criteria, with A5 being the highest possible mark.

Most wagyu is ranked A4 to A5, according to Japan Meat Information Service Center.

Japan’s Kansai region produces the three or four “king” varieties, such as Matsuzaka-ushi, Kobe Beef and Oomi-gyu or Sanda-gyu. These brands of beef are internationally known for being some of the most expensive beef. While a sirloin cut of A4 wagyu can be bought for around 10,000 yen ($83) per pound, these brands of A5 beef can go for two or three times as much.

Matsuzaka-ushi, Yonezawa-gyu, Miyazaki-gyu, Maezawa-gyu and Kobe Beef were ranked the top five of 170 registered wagyu brands by Nikkei MJ. The 2009 ranking is the most recent, at took into account such traits as taste, safety and quality.


The 4 breeds of wagyu cows

Japanese Black
Raised primarily in the Kinki and Chugoku regions, today, it is fattened in all parts of Japan, and accounts for more than 95 percent all wagyu here. Fine strips of fat are marbled even in its lean cuts. It’s known for its creamy, tender texture that dissolves in the mouth. Most of brand wagyu, such as Kobe beef, Matsuzaka-ushi, Oomi-gyu and, Sanda-gyu are of this breed.

Japanese Brown/Red
Raised primarily in Kumamoto and Kochi prefectures, this beef is known for being lean, tasty and pleasantly firm in texture. Because of its leanness, it has attracted a great deal of attention for being healthier and mild taste. This breed includes Kumamoto-Wagyu and Ikedo-gyu (Hokkaido).

Japanese Shorthorn
Raised mainly in the Tohoku Region, this breed is very lean and low in fat. The meat is known for its mild and savory flavor. This breed includes Iwate Tankaku-gyu and Iwaizumi-gyu.  

Japanese Polled
Produced through crossbreeding, Aberdeen Angus imported from Scotland with the indigenous Japanese Black in 1920, this breed produces an extremely lean meat known for its distinctive Wagyu flavor. It is high in amino acid with a rich chewy texture. This breed includes Mukaku-Wagyu and Shinshu-gyu.

- Japan Meat Information Service Center



One of the best known Japanese dishes in the world is sukiyaki. It originated from “gyu-nabe” (beef hot pot), which became extremely popular in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) immediately after the period of national isolation, when Western-style cuisine was imported from abroad. You can enjoy the fine texture and taste of wagyu with this recipe.

• 18 oz thin slices of wagyu short loin
• 1 block of broiled tofu
• 4 shiitake mushrooms
• 1 pack of shirataki
• 1 onion
• 1 stick of burdock
• 1 bunch of green leek Warishita (sukiyaki soup)
• 4/5 cup sake
• 2/5 cup soy sauce
• 1 3/4 oz sugar
• 4 eggs

1. Prepare warishita by mixing sake, soy sauce and sugar.

2. Whittle burdock. Cut onion horizontally in approximately 1/3 in. thick slices. Cut leek into segments approximately 2 in. in length. Cut off the lower stem of the shiitake mushrooms and slice them diagonally.
3. Cut broiled tofu in bite-size. Coarsely cut and blanch shirataki.
4. Place beef and other ingredients in a sukiyaki pan and add the warishita to simmer. Dip the cooked ingredients in beaten egg before eating.
- Makes four servings

Japanese-style roast beef

Blanch sliced beef until it turns to a slightly rosy color, cool it, and make it into a salad with some crispy vegetables. This is rich in nutrients and has a refreshing taste, perfect for summertime when people tend to lose their appetites. Be careful not to boil it too much so as not to spoil the tenderness of the wagyu.

• 18 oz of wagyu short loin sliced 1/25 in. thick
• 3 myoga (Japanese ginger blossom)
• 1 pack of kaiware-daikon (Japanese radish sprouts)
• 1/2 onion
• 1/2 lettuce
• Pon-zu (citrus-flavored vinegar) as needed
• Roasted sesame seeds as needed

1. Cut myoga and lettuce in thin strips. Finely slice onion. Cut off the roots of the kaiware-daikon and cut it into lengths in approximately three parts. Place all the cut vegetables in water.
2. Blanch the sliced beef in 167-176-degree F water until it turns slightly rosy. Plunge the blanche beef into ice water.  

3. Drain the vegetables prepared and spread them on a dish. Paper-dry the beef and spread it over the vegetables.
4. Pour pon-zu over (3) and sprinkle on plenty of roasted sesame.

- Makes four servings


“Toban-yaki” means to roast on a ceramic plate. Ceramic plates radiate heat significantly and continue to emit heat for a long time after being removed from a heat source. This makes them ideal for roasting ingredients evenly. Wagyu, with its characteristic fine marbled texture, can be roasted on such plates, producing a tender and juicy steak.

• 7 oz wagyu sirloin (in loaf form)
• 1/16 pumpkin
• 1/8 onion
• 1 shiitake mushroom
• 1/3 pack of maitake mushroom
• 1/2 potato

For seasoned sake
• 2 in. square sheet of kombu
• 2 1/2 cup sake
• 5-6 umeboshi (pickled plum)
• 11 oz grated Japanese radish

1. Cut pumpkin into wedges. Peel potato and cut into round slices. Microwave them for 30 sec. at 600W.

2. Cut off the lower stem of the shiitake mushroom and make an X-shaped cut at the top. Divide maitake mushrooms into small portions.
3. Cut onion into semicircular slices approximately 3/8 in. thick.
4. Slice beef into 3/8 in. thick.

5. Prepare seasoned sake. Place kombu, sake and umeboshi in a pan over heat. Boil down until fluid is reduced by one third. Add grated Japanese radish. Add some salt or citrus juice after cooled, in accordance with your taste.
6. Grease ceramic plate with cooking oil. Roast the beef and vegetables prepared from (1) through to (3). Dip into the seasoned sake prepared in (5) before eating.  
- Makes two servings

- Japan Meat Information Service Center

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