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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

How the Japanese Came to Love Grilled Beef (ASIAN 258)

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

If you’re like me, you're probably not going out much these days. So let’s fantasize about the places we might travel if we were suddenly free to move about. Imagine that money’s no object. Say we are flying out business class, to a densely-populated Japanese city for a meal. What would you have?

Many of you would go for sushi (that’s a different blog, and we can return to Tokyo next week). Others would scarf down a nice piece of steak. Some kobe beef 神戸ビーフ? Or perhaps yakiniku 焼肉?

Guess what this is?

If you decided to take the plunge and go for the beef, you would not have to worry about your gourmand credentials. (Your green reputation, however, might suffer.)

Japanese beef is renowned and many Japanese dishes are made with it. Think of the stews (sukiyaki, gyûnabe). Let’s face it: wagyu cuts are pricey. They are sometimes served in fusion restaurants with chimichurri sauce. If you are in a more adventurous mood, you might taste the Japanese beef tartare, served up with a raw egg. After all, there’s no danger of food poisoning in fantasy land.

The tour is a teaser. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m telling you that the Japanese eat a fair amount of beef these days. Of course, Team America has them beat. But if we think per capita, then the Americans trail Uruguay, Argentina, and Hong Kong (yes, Hong Kong).

While Japan doesn’t make it to the top ten, kobe beef and yakiniku are nonetheless remarkable foods. They’re not only tasty, but also recent additions to Japanese cuisine.

Japan’s meat consumption, in fact, has risen sharply since the early twentieth century. In 1955, the average person consumed about 3 kilograms of meat. Do the math: a kilo is 2.2 pounds. In 2017, that figure was 54.7 kilos. If we scrutinize the numbers, it’s clear that beef makes up under 20 percent of the total. The rest is poultry and pork.

So how, then, did the Japanese become carnivores? The question is worth asking. As we saw in a previous lecture, the cultural matrix discouraged meat consumption. Japanese versions of carne de vinha d'alhos faded from the diets soon after the Portuguese went running. People in the homeland of wagyu steaks once avoided beef assiduously.

There are, of course, the usual suspects in our story: the Meiji reformers (1868-1912) and the American occupiers (1946-1952). This food puzzle, though, requires introducing a new set of actors. Ethnic Koreans, stranded in post-war Japan, had a starring role in this tale of dietary transformation.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up for a moment, to the late nineteenth century. As you read on earlier, the Meiji reformers were hell bent on getting Japan on the fast track to modernization. This meant changing a lot about Japanese society and embracing novel ways of doing things – and, of course, getting people to consume new foods. Meat -- and particularly pork -- was among them. Sometimes, the pork turned up in the ramen (“Chinese soba”). But other times, it surfaced in Japanese interpretations of German dishes. Take tonkatsu, or pork cutlets breaded in panko. Yes, it’s often served on a bed of rice and consumed with chopsticks. But it’s a dead ringer for its ancestor: Schnitzel.

Gourmet version of pork cutlets at Mabel Gray

Tonkatsu also has a cousin. Heard of hambāgu ハンバーグ? It’s a loan word from the German, not the American (I mean English). Hambāgu comprises pork, beef, and panko. Don’t confuse it with pure beef hamburger (hambaga). The bun-sandwiched patty came later, with the Yankees. Hambāgu, in contrast, is older. You can serve it with rice, miso soup, and chopsticks. Some cookbooks classify hambāgu as washoku (Japanese-styled cuisine) rather than yōshoku 洋食 (foods of recent Western origin).

To be sure, Western foods made their way to Japan in the late nineteenth century. But the Meiji Japanese adoption of Western foods was limited. It fell more on the piecemeal side of the scale. Yes, you got a version of the Waldorf salad and some Schnitzel at the turn of the twentieth century.

But the seismic shift in diet took place later. Post-war scarcity led to a more wholesale change in the cultural matrix. This change not only involved the introduction of new foods and ingredients, but also challenged long standing values. It prompted an overhaul of the social contexts of eating.

To appreciate the magnitude of the change, we must remember who made up the Japanese empire. By 1895, the Japanese were as modern as their Western counterparts. By modern, I mean that they had acquired a talent for conquest and colonialism, as well as industrial production.

The year 1895 marked the end of the First Sino-Japanese War. It was an upset victory for the Japanese navy. No one in the West expected them to win a fight with the Chinese (this is how Japan took over Taiwan). For this feat, Japan not only received an upgrade in its global status, but Western imperialists also welcomed Japan to their ranks. Japan annexed Korea (officially) in 1910.

Ethnic Koreans now found themselves Japanese imperial subjects. Conscripted into the Japanese army, they moved around the enlarging empire. Many went to Japan in the early twentieth century, as forced laborers. By 1930, there were almost 300,000 Koreans in Japan. By 1940, there were a million. Another million came in the next five years, brought to offset the labor shortages. Not all of these people, of course, departed Japan at the end of the war. There were 600,000 Koreans who remained in Japan in 1946. I encountered their descendants as a study-abroad student in Hokkaido (summer 1998).

The colonial experience naturally left its mark on Korean cuisine. Take gimbap or kimbap. It’s a local version of futomaki (sushi rolls).

Korean beef also shaped Japanese foodways. Today, the Korean love of the meat is world famous. It, too, has a back story, being a legacy of an earlier conquest. The Mongol overlords not only brought dumplings (mandu) to the Koreans, but also BBQ.

The Koreans did not turn the Japanese into beef (or kimchi) lovers overnight, however. Before 1940, Korean food was virtually unknown to the Japanese population. Korean restaurants in Japan were few and far between; social prejudice, moreover, was rampant. As you might expect, the Japanese looked down upon the Koreans.

Food scarcity, however, changed some of this. The Second World War caused food shortages in Japan. This was no accident. In an attempt to starve the Japanese into submission, the U.S. created supply blockades.

The food shortages left the Japanese desperate. To get around rationing, ordinary people turned to the black market – and food stalls run by ethnic Koreans. Hunger also got Japanese civilians to try out foods that they once regarded as unclean. Offals, also known as variety meats, acquired their place in Japanese cuisine. Today, you can eat horumon yaki ホルモン焼き, offal sashimi, and sweet soy liver. These, too, are Korean culinary legacies of the 40s.

A variety meat (Manchurian styled food, 2018)

As conditions eased in the 1950s, the Japanese moved beyond innards. They began appreciating other foods their ancestors had scorned. This included beef, which until the 1960s, was cheaper than chicken or pork. A recovering Japan took advantage of the bargains – in Korean shops. There, they also encountered bulgogi and galbi. Today, it goes by the name yakiniku. A Japanese classic was born.

Bulgogi: Before and After (April 2018)

Source: Katarzyna Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity

A Bulgogi Recipe by Hunjin Jung (edited by Miranda Brown)

This is the recipe that Hunjin Jung, a lecturer in Korean language, taught my students how to make in the winter terms of 2017 and 2018.

Beef and Vegetable Mixture

Beef, 600 g or 21 ounces (sliced 3 cm wide, 5 cm long, and 0.5 cm thick)

Onions, 70 g [about 2.5 oz]

Scallions, 100 g [3.5 oz]

Carrots, 100 g [3.5 oz]

Mushrooms, 50 g [1.25]


Soy Sauce, 9 T

Sugar, 4 T

Minced garlic, 1 T

Sesame oil, 1 T

Pepper powder, ½ t

Water, 8 T

Pear juice, 5 T

Refined rice wine, 3 T (optional)


1. Drain the blood from the beef and slice.

2. Add the seasonings.

3. Slice onions 0.5 cm thin.

4. Slice scallions and carrots 0.5 cm, slantwise.

5. Slice the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces.

6. Marinate beef and vegetables in the fridge for about an hour.

7. Cook beef mixture in the pan for 5 minutes on high. Turn down the flame and cook another 5 minutes on medium.

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