FYI: Agricultural World Heritage status


After our 3,776-meter-tall friend Fuji-san won the coveted UNESCO World Heritage status this year, many people are wondering what site will win the status next? Only one Japanese site per year can be nominated for the award, and recent reports have said the government is considering a steel works, a dockyard and a coal mine for nominations in 2015, as these facilities represent Japan’s industrial revolution in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Hmmm, I wonder, though: Aren’t cows more interesting?

Surely I’m not the only one who looks at a lone cow standing in a lush green field and thinks, “Now that’s perfection. That cow deserves World Heritage status!” If you think I am, you might be surprised to hear that the cow has been awarded “Agricultural World Heritage” status, by UNESCO Japan. The cow is the first animal to receive the honor since this new World Heritage category was created last week.

Following are some questions and answers about the new Agricultural World Heritage status category:

Why was the new category created?

While UNESCO’s World Heritage status for historical, natural and cultural sites have been recognized since the 1970s, there is no category that lavishes attention on the animals who have played a role in the evolution of humankind. Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, which includes Intangible Cultural Properties (those that include human skills of historic or artistic value), and Tangible Cultural Properties (historical or artistic value such as structures, or works of fine arts and crafts created in Japan) further protect national treasures, but even these fail to honor animals who have contributed significantly to Japanese culture in body, mind and spirit.

What criteria is used to choose an animal for Agricultural World Heritage status?

In keeping with some basic UNESCO criteria, the first and foremost is that all nominations be of importance to the common heritage of humanity. In addition, the cow is in keeping with UNESCO’s cultural criteria because it “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius.”

Over the years, man has cross-bred the cow to the point that the current bovine is quite different from its ungulate predecessor, the now extinct auroch, a type of wild cattle of Europe, Asia and North Africa that survived until the early 1600s. The cow is also in keeping with the UNESCO natural criteria in that it “contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.” The presence of the gentle bovine in paintings, sculpture and art such as the ox-herding Zen paintings, and Japanese religious statuary were among factors cited in its nomination, as well as the cow’s disposition as an amiable animal noted for selfless giving.

But cows aren’t really Japanese, are they?

While the modern cow is often thought of as an import from the West, mainly due to its culinary and nutritional contributions of beef and dairy, the ox has long enjoyed its prominence on the Asian calendar, probably owing to its usefulness in work in the rice fields and helping out farmers. So indirectly, the cow has been a part of food cultivation since ancient times.

Traditionally, Japanese farmers prayed to Bato Kannon, a deity believed to protect the health and spirits of cattle. Statues of Bato Kannon can be found throughout Japan. The deity is also believed to promise these beasts of burden a happier life than they had while on earth working for mankind.

While eating beef was taboo in Japan due to Buddhist beliefs, attitudes changed after the Meiji Restoration as efforts were made to modernize the country. Eventually, the Japanese diet incorporated both beef and milk. There is even a statue erected in honor of the first cow slaughtered for beef consumption.

What other farm animals were considered?

Horses, sheep, chickens and pigs were also considered. They are popular because of their prominence in the Asian calendar. While most proponents of these animals (including figurine collectors) accepted the loss with grace, owners of piggeries have been most forthright in their distaste for those of the genus Bos winning the coveted UNESCO award.

Pigs, however, were disqualified early on because of their use mainly for alimentary purposes. Cows, on the other hand, are recognized worldwide for their use in clothing, shoes and accessories. In addition, the distinct Holstein pattern (among others) is recognized worldwide making the cow a fashion statement as well. Not so for pigs.

But it is probably the transformation of the cow through the centuries that has earned it the respect it enjoys today. Even though the ox has been replaced by the tractor, we still turned Bovinae into food on the table in the form of countless gastronomical delicacies. The influential cow has changed the tastes, budgets and diets of the Japanese people resulting in changes in physique such as becoming taller and bigger.

In what ways have cows been used in Japanese cuisine?

While the cow is most famous worldwide for providing the meat mattress between two bread buns sold at fast-food outlets, the Japanese have taken the beef concept a step further and made it their own with wagyu, Japan’s domestic breed of cow. In order to qualify as 100 percent wagyu, cows must be born and raised in Japan where they can be in tune with the four seasons, a main component of herd harmony.

How will the cow figure in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

Some speculate that the cow will pop up in the form of character goods taking on sporting events such as the hurdles, the high jump and playing soccer. Postcards of cows grazing on Mount Fuji, hiking the Kumano Pilgrimage, and promoting Japanese beef cuisine such as gyudon and shabu shabu are also said to be on the cards.

Ah, the beautiful cow! Too bad there is no such thing as Agriculture World Heritage status.