In July 1993, a Northwest Airlines 747 specially equipped to transport livestock touched down in New York. It had been loaded with three Wagyu cows and two Wagyu bulls before taking off from Narita Airport outside Tokyo. It was just the second time the sacred Japanese cattle breed, prized for its tenderness and marbling, had left Japan. The cows, Okutani, Rikitani, and Suzutani, were the first females of the breed ever exported. The bulls, Haruki 2 and Michifuku, were the first Wagyu bulls brought to the U.S. since four other bulls, long deceased by this point, came over in 1976. This controversial shipment thirty years ago provided the cattle genetics that helped lay the foundation of the breed in this country today.

Wagyu cattle are native to Japan, and developed in isolation over centuries. There are four distinct breeds that are all considered Wagyu. The most common is Japanese Black, or Kuroge Washu in Japanese. The Japanese Brown, or Akage Washu (usually called Red Wagyu or Akaushi in the U.S.) is a distant second in numbers. Those are the only two breeds that have been exported, and herds of both exist today in the U.S., while the other two Wagyu breeds, the Japanese Polled and the Japanese Shorthorn, remain only in Japan. It’s often noted that the two characters of the Japanese word Wagyū, or 和牛, can be broken into wa, meaning Japanese, and gyu, meaning cattle. For clarification, I asked assistant professor Kaori Duffey of the University of Texas Center’s East Asian Studies department. She explained, “和 has several meanings [including harmony], but when it’s compounded with 牛 that means Japanese beef. For example, 和式 (wa-shiki) means Japanese style.”

Sixty years ago, the Huntsville Times in Alabama was anticipating the first imports of “Kobe beef” to the U.S. The paper described it as “the world’s tenderest beef—beer-fed, hand-massaged, and imported direct from Japan.” By 1971, the New York Times wrote that “many Americans have heard of or tasted Kobe beef.” They were reporting from Matsusaka, Japan, where the owner of Wadakin Beef Restaurant, Takeyasu Matsuda, was touting the superiority of Wagyu beef. He told the Times, “Just after the war, an American came around and asked us about exporting it to the States, but we refused.” That changed in 1976 when Morris Whitney imported four Wagyu bulls to Colorado. Mazda and Mt. Fuji were Black Wagyu, and two red ones were Rueshaw and Judo. They didn’t make the big splash Whitney was hoping for, and he sold them to Dennis Wendt, a veterinarian in Georgetown, Texas, three years later. 

Cuts of Wagyu beef from Hiro Yakinuki Restaurant in Kyoto, Japan. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

“Comparing Kobe beef with regular beefsteak is like comparing lobster with tuna,” wrote Mike Cox of the Austin American-Statesman when describing Wendt’s herd in 1980. Wendt and some investors operated under the name Kobe Beef Producers Inc., the company originally formed by Whitney, and they had been crossbreeding Angus and Hereford cows with their Wagyu bulls. Their aim was to produce a herd that was 15/16 Wagyu, the minimum required to be considered “purebred.” Without Wagyu cows in the U.S., producing 100 percent full-blood Wagyu calves was impossible. 

“First offering of genuine Kobe beef from Wagyu cattle from Japan will be made available on May 25, 1982,” read an ad run by Wendt in the Statesman two years later. (Wagyu beef is sometimes erroneously referred to generically as “Kobe beef”; that term is reserved for a specific strain of Wagyu raised in Japan’s Hyōgo prefecture.) He charged $13.90 per pound, with a two-pound minimum purchase. When asked by the Statesman about the price a couple of weeks later, Wendt defended it based on the meat’s quality. “What they get is trimmed, deboned meat with a nutlike flavor similar to heavy, aged beef,” he explained. “We’re talking about thirty or forty dollars a meal, but it’ll be a wham-bam goodie. You can throw your knife away. We’re talking about a fork-cutting expedition here.” He also said all the meat had graded out as choice by the USDA, which wouldn’t be much of a boast in today’s world of prime grade being the target for most American Wagyu producers.

Like Whitney before, Wendt didn’t strike it rich in the beef industry. I couldn’t find much about him until the Statesman caught up with the new owners of those Wagyu bull genetics in 1990. Retired stone carver Don Lively of Georgetown had partnered with a rancher from Rosebud named Fred Hildebrand. In its profile, the Statesman wrote of Whitney and Wendt, “Both men tried in vain to turn a profit on the cattle, seeking out investors in a high-stakes cattle venture that soon went bust. Lively says he and Hildebrand eventually ended up with the seemingly worthless Wagyu bulls.” But, Lively still believed, “it’ll eventually be served in those white-tablecloth restaurants,” he told the Statesman, sharing his predictions about Wagyu beef.

Lively and Hildebrand saw the real value wasn’t in the beef but in the bull semen. They were selling it for $250 per vial to any cattle breeder who wanted to try to harness Wagyu genetics. All four bulls had died by then. Mazda was the last to go in 1987, so they were dealing in a limited quantity. At the time, there were only sixty purebred Wagyu cattle in the U.S. spread across nine states, but the decades-long meat war between Japan and the U.S. was cooling. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1990, “The first shipment of Japanese Wagyu beef to the United States in almost 25 years arrived in Chicago last week.” The trans-Pacific beef trade was poised to pick up again soon.

Representatives from the Japanese and American governments worked for years toward an agreement on beef importation and exportation. In 1991, the Japanese government ended its beef quota, meaning U.S. beef producers could ship as much to Japan as they could find a market for. Washington State University had built up a herd of Wagyu-and-Angus crossbred cattle, and began shipping the beef to Japan. They had tried to import more Wagyu cattle to no avail. American interest in the breed grew after the 1992 National Western Stock Show in Denver, when a crossbred Wagyu steer took top honors in the beef carcass contest. The dam finally broke in July 1993 when the first load of live Wagyu cattle since 1976, and the first Wagyu cows, were flown from Japan to the United States. 

J. W. “Buck” Wright of Idaho brokered the deal with some investors from Japan, one of whom owned a chain of restaurants and sought cheaper Wagyu beef than what he could buy in Japan. Wright credited his Japanese partners for pushing the deal over the finish line, but it took some political pressure as well. As the Bismarck Tribune reported in 1994, “[Idaho governor Cecil] Andrus, who is a personal friend of Micki Kantor, President Clinton’s trade representative, and [Speaker of the House Tom] Foley pressured Japanese agricultural officials into granting export permits after the animals successfully tested through 60 days of quarantine on a Japanese farm.” The cattle spent 30 more days in quarantine in New York before the cows were shipped to Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, and the bulls to Hawkeye Breeders in Adel, Iowa. The cows were all pregnant when they were shipped, and less than a year later, Beijiro became the first full-blooded Wagyu calf born in the U.S. 

Many more followed over the next four years. In total, 180 live Wagyu were shipped to the U.S. in that time, and 27 Wagyu calves from those shipments were born here. Shipments ceased once again in 1997 when the Japanese outlawed the exporting of Wagyu cattle. After adding in those four bulls from 1976, and a mysterious semen shipment that made its way to Canada “in or around 1991,” according to the Texas Wagyu Association, that’s a total of 221 animals that make up the entire genetic line of today’s Wagyu herd outside of Japan. Today, the American Wagyu Association estimates there are around 40,000 cattle in the U.S. that are anywhere from half to full-blood Wagyu. 

Wagyu can be a confusing term. In Japan, the name refers to a specific breed of cattle (except it’s really four breeds). In the U.S., Wagyu can describe a wider spectrum of cattle. Most American Wagyu beef cattle are crossbreeds between a Wagyu and an Angus, or Hereford, or Charolais, or any number of cattle breeds. According to the USDA requirements, in order for beef to be labeled as Wagyu, the animal must have one parent that is either full-blood (100 percent Wagyu genetics), or purebred, which is at least 15/16 or 93.75 percent Wagyu. That means that beef labeled as Wagyu could be anywhere from 46.875 percent to 100 percent Wagyu, so the confusion is understandable.

Back in 2001, Robb Walsh wrote about Wagyu steaks being served at white-tablecloth restaurants for the Houston Press. He spoke with Don Lively, who had once owned those four original Wagyu bulls and correctly predicted Wagyu would be served at the kind of places Walsh was writing about. “The Wagyu thing never really amounted to much,” Lively told Walsh, adding that “there’s a little specialty market for American Kobe, but that’s about it.” Given the number of Texas Wagyu operations where I can purchase beef today, I don’t think Lively got that one right, but he was a producer ahead of his time.