Wagyu literally translates as “Japanese beef,” but that translation doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s a word that calls to mind images of rural Japanese cows being fed beer and massaged daily, and richly marbled ruby-red steaks, shot through with fine ribbons of glistening white fat.
Wagyu is an obsession and a craft — and it doesn’t come cheap. A serving at one of Tokyo’s top steakhouses, such as Dons de la Nature in Ginza, will set you back upward of ¥30,000. Brands such as Kobe and Matsuzaka are discussed in reverent tones, and the best places to eat it in Tokyo are hotly debated on Internet discussion boards, with meals documented in excessive, salivating detail.
However, exactly how wagyu gets from the fattening farm to the table is more of a mystery.
Tokyo’s municipal meat market — the last slaughterhouse in the city — hasn’t become the tourist pilgrimage site that the Tsukiji fish market has. In fact, most people, tourists and locals alike, wouldn’t even recognize the meat market if they saw it.
Located near Shinagawa Station, it looks like any other office complex: A large boxy amalgamation of granite, glass and tile. And it’s surrounded by similar-looking buildings, many of which are owned by large corporations — the Sony Headquarters is just down the road.
The market (nicknamed “Shibaura,” the same way the fish market is called “Tsukiji”) was officially founded in 1966, but it has been a functioning slaughterhouse since 1936. Originally, it looked a lot more like a fish market, with narrow, winding passages. Today it’s state of the art, with onsite labs that test for quality and diseases such as BSE, aka “mad cow disease.”
Shibaura can handle a maximum of 430 cows and 1,400 pigs per day, and processes 15 percent of all wagyu beef in Japan (which, considering Tokyo makes up only 10 percent of the nation’s population, is more than its fair share).
Most of the cows come from the Kanto and Tohoku regions and roughly two-fifths of them fall under the coveted A4 and A5 rankings. Meat in Japan is graded on a letter scale from C to A, based on the ratio of meat-to-carcass weight, and on a number scale from 1 to 5, according to quality, which includes marbling. A5 is the highest grade.
Unlike Tsukiji — where tourists line up well before dawn for the chance to be one of the lucky 120 who are permitted to watch headless, frozen tuna be prodded, thwacked and dragged across the floor with steel hooks — the inner workings of the meat market are not open to visitors. However, Shibaura does run the Meat Information Center (2-7-19 Konan, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5479-0651; open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.) on the sixth floor of the market building, which is open free of charge to the public.
It is here that the story of how wagyu goes from pampered cow to high-end steak comes to light.
As it turns out, the rumors about cow-massages are mostly true — it helps with the marbling. But the beer? Not so much.
What goes on at the fattening farms is only part of the story. In fact, the road to the perfect steak begins before the animal’s conception.
Wagyu’s origins stretch back to Tajiri-go, a Tajima bull born in the village of Ojiro, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1939. According to local lore, Tajiri-go had a pretty good life. His owner Matsuzo Tajiri doted on him. He sired 1,500 calves. Today, 99.9 precent of all Tajima cows — better known by their brand names, such as Kobe and Matsuzaka — are his descendents.
Since the 1960s, cattle in Japan have been increasingly bred through artificial insemination, and this is where things get weird. The standard practice for breeding wagyu is as follows: When the female cattle are butchered, their ovaries are removed and the eggs inside are artificially inseminated (by one of Tajiri-go’s descendants) and implanted into a different breed of cow: a Holstein milk cow. The Holstein raises the calf for nine months (all the while conveniently producing milk) and finally, the calves are shipped to fattening farms, where they’ll pick up their brand-name pedigree (and presumably get that massage and maybe a beer, if they’re lucky).
It’s not exactly the primal experience that carnivores are liable to associate with beef.
From there, the Meat Information Center doesn’t pull any punches: photos show the step-by-step process on the slaughterhouse floor. Cows and pigs arrive live at the market and, on the floors below, are systematically killed and separated into meat, organs and skin, all of which are sold.
The slaughterhouse union pushed the city to establish the information center as a place to educate younger generations about the history and value of the work here, and how meat gets on their plates. That’s the official line, but it goes a little deeper than this — the information center is part of a wider attempt to pull the shade off of a vexing issue that had long been sidelined.
Historically, the slaughtering of animals in Japan was relegated to the lowest caste of society. Today the most common word for this caste is burakumin, which translates as “hamlet people” — a reference to the segregated communities where they were once forced to live. Here, out of sight, they could perform work deemed unclean, such as the slaughtering of animals.
Though the caste system was abolished in the 19th century, the stigma has been hard to shed.
“There’s less discrimination than there used to be. But if we tell someone what we do, they assume we are from one of those communities,” explains Yutaka Tochigi, the 58-year-old president of the Shibaura Slaughterhouse Union.
Not all of the nearly 250 people (including five women) who work at the slaughterhouse have burakumin ancestors, yet they all run the risk of incurring discrimination. Still, the job has its advantages. Tochigi actually had an office job until his 30s, but left it for the slaughterhouse because the working hours allowed him to spend more time with his family. In hard economic times, the market provides steady, stable work with no overtime.
The workers prefer not to see themselves as defined by the stigma, but rather by the skills required to do their jobs. Work at Shibaura is done in an assembly-line fashion, with each worker focusing on a specific task: slicing off hooves, skinning, or pulling out the intestines, for example. It takes 50 minutes to process a cow (20 minutes for pigs), a procedure where a live animal is turned into a slab of meat that you’d expect to see at a butcher’s shop. Workers have about 20 seconds to get their part done.
According to Tochigi, it takes 10 years to master the job. Some tasks are mechanized, but others require only a blade used with incredible precision. Cutting just a millimeter off can lead to a mistake that may lower the value of a prized cow by thousands of dollars. Knives must be kept razor sharp — sharp enough to slice a sheet of paper with a clean stroke. For that purpose, the workers are never without a honing steel at their side.
While knives wear out in about three months, a knife sharpener is for life. Getting your first is a right of passage, Tochigi explains; some are passed down from generation to generation. Keeping one’s knife sharp is a point of pride.
“We call ourselves craftsmen. We shouldn’t be working with strength. What we do is art,” Tochigi says.
This is the first in a two-part series about the Tokyo workers who produce Japan’s luxury beef.
CORRECTION: A reference to Tajiri-go has been corrected to describe him as a bull.