The Japanese term “Wagyu” translates in English to “Japanese cow”. This is a broad term that collectively refers to the four major breeds of native cattle in Japan. These are the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn cattle.
In Japan, Japanese Black cattle make up approximately 95% of the national Wagyu herd. These make up the majority of the cattle and genetics that were exported from Japan to the USA between 1976 and 1998. Japanese Brown cattle comprise approximately 4% of the national Japanese Wagyu herd. These cattle are commonly referred to as Red Wagyu or Akaushi outside of Japan and were the only other major native breed exported from Japan. The Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn breeds are very niche with both estimated to comprise less than 1% of the national Wagyu herd. These breeds have never been exported and are only present in Japan today.
Japanese Black cattle were raised for more than 2,000 years as labor and pack animals. There is even evidence that traces the Japanese Black to 3,500 years ago. The Japanese Black had heavy selection for hard working animals that can work long hours on difficult terrain. This is speculated to have resulted in the production of an animal with large fat stores in the muscle, creating wagyu’s trademark marbling ability. During the Meiji Era starting in 1868 through around 1910, Japanese Black cattle were crossbreed with foreign breeds. It was also at this time that a ban on eating beef was lifted. Depending on the prefecture, crossbreeding occurred with Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Holstein cattle. From 1910 on until the end of WWII breeding was heavily segmented and crossbreeding between prefectures was not practiced. Japan’s forced prefectural segregation was dismissed after WWII, the only modern segregated herd in Japan today is Hyogo prefecture’s Tajima cattle. During the 1950s modern mechanization swept across the agricultural industry reducing the demand for draught animals. This led to a shift toward beef production. Performance and progeny testing were established in Japan in 1968. The subsequent creation of the marbling index lead to the creation of the dominant modern Wagyu bloodlines.
Japanese Brown cattle, known as Red Wagyu or Akaushi are comprised of two major strains. The Kumamoto prefecture and the Kochi prefecture strains. The Kumamoto strain is the most prominent and the only strain exported from Japan. Kochi have been influenced by cross breeding with Simmental and Korean cattle. The Kumamoto strain was influenced by crossbreeding with Simmental, Devon, and Korean cattle. Korean cattle, and more specifically the Hanwoo breed is closely related to the Japanese Brown.