The Origins and History of Authentic Kobe Beef

Kobe beef is a legendary delicacy, renowned worldwide for its superior flavor, tenderness and heavy marbling. But where exactly does real Kobe beef come from? This article will explore the history, origins and geographical home of genuine Kobe beef.

Understanding Kobe Beef

First, it’s important to understand what constitutes real Kobe beef. Kobe beef refers specifically to beef from Tajima cattle raised in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, which surrounds the city of Kobe.

The cattle are of the prized Japanese Black breed, which is one of four Wagyu breeds. Wagyu generically means “Japanese cattle”. But only the Tajima strain born and raised in Hyogo can officially be called Kobe beef.

Native Japanese Cattle Breeds

Cattle were originally brought to Japan from China around the 2nd century AD. For centuries they were used as work animals for agriculture, transport and farming. Beef consumption was uncommon for cultural reasons.

Japan was closed off to the world from 1635 until 1868. During this time no foreign cattle genetics could enter the population. Between 1868-1887 some foreign breeds were imported, including Brown Swiss, Shorthorn and Devon cattle.

The Development of Wagyu Breeds

Between 1900-1910 there was cross-breeding between the native cattle and imported breeds. The resulting hybrid populations were registered as “Improved Japanese Cattle.”

Four separate strains emerged that were officially recognized as breeds in 1944:

  • Japanese Black
  • Japanese Brown
  • Japanese Polled
  • Japanese Shorthorn

These became known collectively as Wagyu, meaning simply “Japanese cattle.” The Tajima strain is a bloodline within the Japanese Black breed.

The Kobe Beef Region

The Tajima cattle destined to become Kobe beef are raised in Hyogo Prefecture, the region surrounding the city of Kobe on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

The rigid rules for Kobe beef mandate the cattle be born, raised and processed entirely within Hyogo. This ensures complete traceability and control from birth to market.

Origins of the Kobe Beef Brand

Though the Wagyu cattle and tradition existed long before, “Kobe beef” as a branded product originated in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was formed in 1983 to define and promote the brand globally. They set stringent standards regarding lineage, birthplace, feed and processing required to qualify as authentic Kobe beef.

Before 2012, Kobe beef was not exported. The first international exports went to Macau in 2012, then other destinations soon after including Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, the U.S. and Thailand.

Attempts at Replication

The fame of Kobe beef has led ranchers overseas to import Wagyu genetics to cross-breed with their own herds in an attempt to recreate it. However, any beef produced outside the designated region cannot legally be called “Kobe beef.” At best it can only be called “Kobe-style.”

While these exported Wagyu hybrids do produce highly marbled beef, the result still differs from authentic Kobe beef due to terroir, heritage, husbandry practices and more that impart subtle but distinctive characteristics.

As Kobe beef’s reputation grew, some meat purveyors applied the Kobe label fraudulently to generic beef. This “fake” Kobe beef was one driver behind recent efforts to better regulate use of the brand name worldwide.

The Legend Lives On

Despite attempts at imitation, the name Kobe beef lives on as the pinnacle of quality and continues to signify beef of the utmost excellence in flavor and texture. While Kobe-style beef may mimic it, true Kobe still comes from only one place on earth: the lush pastures surrounding Kobe city.

The unique terroir, generations of specialized Tajima genetics and traditional Wagyu husbandry techniques make Kobe beef impossible to precisely duplicate anywhere else. Much like champagne can only come from Champagne, France, authentic Kobe will forever hail solely from its namesake home in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture.

How Kobe Beef became the Wagyu to rule them all


Is Kobe beef from Kobe Japan?

Kobe beef (神戸ビーフ, Kōbe bīfu) is Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, raised in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture around Kobe city, according to rules set out by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association.

Why is Kobe beef so expensive?

Though still considered superior beef, the price of wagyu can be less than a third that of Kobe. That said, Kobe beef, coming from purebred Japanese Black cows, is still a subsection of wagyu beef. It’s just very rare, carefully controlled to exacting standards, and costs a whole lot more.

What is the difference between Kobe and Wagyu?

So “Wagyu” refers to any cattle that is bred in Japan or the Japanese-style. Kobe beef is comprised of a very particular strain of Wagyu called Tajima-Gyu that is raised to strict standards in the prefecture of Hyogo. (Hyogo’s capital city is Kobe, thus the name).

What country is known for Kobe beef?

Starting with the cattle, Kobe beef is strictly a product of Japanese Black cows, specifically, the Tajima strain of Japanese Black Cattle. These cows must also be raised in the Hyogo Prefecture region of Japan under very strict protocols.

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