What's the Difference Between Regular Japanese Beef and Wagyu? A Guide to Japan's Beef Types and Brands

Have you ever eaten Wagyu beef before? Most people don't know that there are various brands and grades of Japanese beef, nor that not all Japanese beef can be called "Wagyu". This article answers all the common questions on Japanese beef and Wagyu, from the different kinds of Wagyu to an in-depth explanation on the beef classification system in Japan. We hope this guide comes in useful when picking a restaurant to try Japanese beef or Wagyu beef in Japan!

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Wagyu? Japanese Beef?

When shopping at a supermarket in Japan, you will notice that the outer packaging of beef is marked with either 和牛 (Wagyu) or 国産牛 (Japanese cattle). While both ultimately mean "Japanese cattle" if you look at the individual kanji characters, there are differences between them.

国産牛 (Japanese Cattle)
This refers to all cattle bred in Japan. Any cattle can be called "Japanese (or domestic) cattle" as long as most of its rearing was done in Japan. This category includes foreign breeds like Holstein Friesian and Angus, and of course, Wagyu.

和牛 (Wagyu)
This refers to domestic cattle with a specific bloodline and breed, which can further be classified into the following four types:

Kuroge (Japanese Black): The most common breed of Wagyu, accounting for around 90% of Wagyu sold. Best known for the exquisite flavor of its fat, which is so tender that it dissolves in one's mouth.
Akage (Japanese Brown): Also known as Red Wagyu, it can mainly be found in Kochi Prefecture and Kumamoto Prefecture. Its meat is known for being lean yet pleasantly firm, and its fat has a surprisingly fine texture.
Nihon Tankaku (Japanese Shorthorn): Mainly found in northern Japan, including Hokkaido, its distinguishing characteristic is its chewy, lean meat.
Mukaku (Japanese Polled): Has the smallest population among all Wagyu breeds, making up less than 1%. Its meat has a distinct flavor and is quite chewy.


Wagyu outside Japan is categorized as "full-blood Wagyu" and "half-blood Wagyu". Some countries use selective breeding after importing Wagyu cattle from Japan to improve the meat quality of their local cattle. Cattle with more than 93.75% of Japanese Wagyu blood can be classified as "full-blood Wagyu", but the overall proportion overseas is still quite low.

How Are Beef Brands Determined?

Now that you understand the differences between Japanese cattle and Wagyu, and subsequently regular Japanese beef and Wagyu beef, the next thing to look into is Japan's beef brands. There are about 160 brands of cattle in Japan, and each brand has its own evaluation method. Different standards are used, including the place of origin, bloodline, breed, feeding method, feeding period, and meat quality. Only beef meeting strict criteria can be crowned with a specific brand name. This approach not only promotes quality management, but also builds customer trust, in turn driving regional development.

By the way, Japan's three major beef brands are Matsusaka beef, Kobe beef, and Yonezawa or Omi beef. The last one is a topic that's still fiercely debated today, but both brands of beef are of high quality and well worth a try.

Wagyu Grading System

How are Wagyu grades, such as the often-heard “A5”, determined? The Japan Meat Grading Association has developed a beef classification system with 15 grades, as shown in the image below:

The English letters ABC stand for the yield grade, which is graded according to the proportion of edible meat obtained from a cow after removing the internal organs and skin, with A being the most and C the least. 

The numbers 1-5 are the meat quality grades, with ratings based on the marbling, meat color, meat texture, and fat color. 5 is the highest grade, and the lowest score among the four indicators is taken as the final grade. So even if three items obtain a score of 5, if the last one only has a score of 3, the meat quality rating of this beef can only be marked as 3.

The Three Major Beef Brands

In this section, we'll use the three major Japanese beef brands as examples to help showcase the harsh criteria to be passed in order to be classified as "branded beef". This will help you understand why beef brands are so expensive!

 

Matsusaka Beef (松坂牛)
・Meat must come from a Kuroge breed heifer
・Registered in the Matsusaka Cattle Individual Identification Management System
・Must have been primarily raised in specified Matsusaka beef production areas (if not born in these areas, must have moved there within 12 months of birth)

Kobe Beef (神戸牛)
・Must be a steer or heifer born and raised in Hyogo Prefecture
・Must have a yield grade and meat quality grade of A4, B4, or above
・Beef marbling standard of No. 6 or higher
・The weight of edible meat for heifers must be between 230 to 470 kg, and for steers must be between 260 to 470 kg
・If there are any flaws in the edible meat, it must pass an evaulation set by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association

Yonezawa Beef (米沢牛)
・The breeder must live in one of five designated cities or three specified towns of the Okitama region of Yamagata Prefecture and possess a certification by the Yonezawa Beef Brand Promotion Council
・The (mother) cows must have spent most of their lives at a registered slaughterhouse
・The meat must come from a Kuroge breed heifer
・The heifers must be slaughtered at the Yonezawa Beef Market, Tokyo Meat Market, or the Yonezawa Meat Center
・The meat must be graded using the Japan Meat Grading Association's system
・The heifer can only be slaughtered at least 32 months after birth
・The meat must have a grade of 3 or above, with excellent appearance, meat quality, and marbling
・The heifer must pass a radioactive material inspection test carried out by Yamagata Prefecture

Do you have a better understanding of the differences between Wagyu and regular Japanese beef now? What about Japan's grading system for Wagyu beef?

Please keep in mind that the grading system only evaluates the beef's appearance and quality, and does not guarantee the taste as people have different preferences when it comes to flavors and textures.

Try comparing different kinds and grades of Japanese beef to find your favorite! When doing so, we recommend using the guide below, which thoroughly explains all the different beef parts you can order at a Japanese yakiniku (BBQ) restaurant.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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