When it comes to cuts of meat, there are few sights that raise expectations like the marbling of a prime cut of wagyu beef. Brands like Kobe and Matsuzaka are already household names in Japan, and increasingly consumers and chefs the world over are buying into the luxury meat, with import bans lifted on wagyu headed for the European Union and the United States in recent years.
In 2014, Japan exported 1,251 tons of beef worldwide, and there are plans to up that quota to 4,000 tons by 2020.
Of course, the marbled marvel comes at a price. Top-grade A5 cuts — a label strictly reserved only for beef that exhibits superlative color, texture, firmness and, of course, is shot through with ribbons of fat — can reach eye-watering prices. The Las Vegas Nobu restaurant inside Caesars Palace offers a seven-course banquet of such A5 cuts that will set you back a startling $688, an example of the conspicuous luxury that wagyu has come to represent across the globe.
No matter its position at the top of the beef chain, wagyu must still pass through the same equalizing process as regular beef — a process that occurs daily at the Shibaura meat market near Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station, which accounts for 15 percent of all of Japan’s wagyu beef.
The market’s slaughterhouse, which has been functioning since 1936, processes 430 cows per day, two-thirds of which are wagyu.
“To other people it might not exactly look like we’re dealing with industrial goods, but for us it’s all a commodity,” says Kimikazu Matsushita, an employee at Shibaura. “Especially for people new to the job, there’s a huge amount that has to be learned. We don’t have time to think about things like whether we’re accountable for (the animals’) lives — we’re so busy concentrating on making sure that we don’t make mistakes, on processing the meat as perfectly as is possible.”
It’s a process requiring such immense skill, training and mental fortitude that mastering the job can take a decade. And yet, for all the craftsmanship that goes into their work, many of the workers will never be able to speak freely about their occupation.
In the corner of the Shibaura market’s Meat Information Center (2-7-19 Konan, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5479-0651; open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.) is a table topped with a stack of crudely composed hate mail: evidence of social discrimination and prejudice that still persists in contemporary Japanese society.
Slaughtering — along with leatherwork, undertaking, sewage work and certain other professions — still remains stigmatized as an “unclean” occupation. This taboo dates back to the medieval period (1185-1600), when outcast groups known as eta (literally, “an abundance of filth”) or hinin (non-human) were first discriminated against. Since the 19th century both terms have been encompassed under the umbrella term burakumin (“hamlet people”), in reference to the segregated communities that they were forced to live in.
Even within the eta-hinin caste — which also consisted of displaced convicts, orphans, sickly people and beggar monks — those working in slaughterhouses were especially stigmatized for their perceived proximity to kegare (“impurity” or “defilement”).
The Oscar-winning 2008 drama “Departures” (“Okuribito”), about a traditional Japanese mortician, showed there can be a huge gap between perceptions of kegare and the reality of stigmatized jobs.
Likewise, it seems paradoxical that high-quality wagyu could be considered “kegare” while it’s being prepared at a Tokyo slaughterhouse and a luxury when it’s eaten at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Much of the discrimination toward minority groups in Japan can be situated within a false but persistent narrative of a homogeneous society. Buraku groups, however, neither stand out phenotypically nor in terms of language or religion, so discrimination has instead continued through the practice of “background checks,” which trace a individual’s family ancestry and their connections with geographical areas that were historically segregated. The legacy of such discrimination continues to linger, with those of buraku descent potentially experiencing difficulties finding jobs and marriage partners.
Workers at the Shibaura slaughterhouse are subject to lingering buraku discrimination on the basis of occupation alone, regardless of their family heritage.
“When people ask us about what sort of work we do, we have to hesitate over how to answer,” says Yuki Miyazaki, a worker at the slaughterhouse. “In most cases, it’s because we don’t want our families to get hurt. If it’s just us that’s facing discrimination, we can fight against that. But if our children are discriminated against, they don’t have the power to fight back — we have to protect them.
“There are times, personally, when I dodge the question by just saying that I work in the meat industry,” Miyazaki continues. “And the reason for that is because I don’t want to lie. We’ve all had to train hard for at least 10 years just to be able to do this job, and it’s a difficult job — extremely difficult. We take a lot of pride in our work, and we’d love nothing more than to be able to boast about the craft that goes into it.”
Educating the public about that work and its context is one of the key goals of the Shibaura Slaughterhouse Union, which, led by 58-year-old Yutaka Tochigi, represents workers like Matsushita and Miyazaki.
Labour union success stories are dwindling in Japan, but the Slaughterhouse Union has achieved a number of significant goals throughout its history and continues to do so. The union was born in 1971, a time when those working on the killing floor were neither paid wages nor considered employees. Instead, they received their payment in intestines, which they could sell. Following a campaign of strikes led by The National Union of General Workers Tokyo South (NAMBU), the workers were instated as official employees of the Tokyo Municipal Government in 1980 — a major civil rights victory.
Generic and office-like from the outside — wholly inconspicuous, despite its location in the heart of the city — and pristine and clinical on the inside, the building that houses the Shibaura market fittingly demonstrates the incongruity between the utilitarian reality of the production of luxury meat, and the deep-seated historical prejudices that accompany it.
Diners tucking into a finely marbled A5-cut of wagyu might pay their compliments to the chef, but knowing what happens inside Tokyo’s last major slaughterhouse, perhaps some praise should be saved for the workers, too.
This is the second in a two-part series about the Tokyo workers who process Japan’s luxury beef.