If I were to tell you, that once, no other country, save India, revered the cow as much as Japan, I could understand your disbelief. Today, we think of Japan as a meat-eating culture. However, this image is a product of the last 150 years of American influence. The traditional Japanese culture held the cow as the most sacred animal. What follows next is the true story of the greatest protectors of the cow – the Samurai.
When Buddhism left India for the Far East it had a profound influence on all of the countries it encountered including China, Korea and Japan. Buddhism entered Japan around the year 552 A.D. In April 675 A.D. the Japanese Emperor Tenmu banned the consumption of all meat from four legged animals including cows, horses, dogs, and monkeys, as well as domestic birds such as chickens and roosters. Each succeeding emperor would periodically reinforce this ban until by the 10th Century all meat eating had been eliminated.
In mainland China and Korea the Buddhist monks adhered to the principle of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence in their eating habits but theses strictures were not placed on the population as a whole. In Japan, however, the Emperor was very strict in guiding his subjects towards the Buddha’s teachings of non-violence. The killing of mammals was considered extremely sinful, birds moderately sinful, and fish somewhat sinful. The Japanese did eat whale, which today we know are mammals, but at the time were considered very large fish. The Japanese also made a distinction between animals reared in the household and wild animals. To kill a wild animal such as a bird was sinful. However, to kill an animal raised from birth was considered abominable – tantamount to killing a member of the family. As such, the diet of the Japanese was mostly rice, noodles, fish, and on occasion wild fowl.
During the Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.), the Engishiki, a book of law and customs, required a period of fasting for up to three days as penance for eating meat. During this period of penance one was not to look at the deities of the Buddha as a sign of shame. In subsequent centuries the Ise Shrine passed even stricter rules – one who ate meat must fast for 100 days, while one who ate with someone who ate meat must fast for 21 days, and one who ate with someone who ate with someone that ate meat must fast for 7 days. In this way, three layers of pollution were accounted for through penance due to the violence inherent in meat.
To the Japanese the cow was the most sacred animal. The drinking of milk, however, was not common in Japan. Among the peasantry the cow was used almost exclusively as a draft animal to plow the fields. Among the aristocracy there is some evidence of milk consumption. There were instances where cream and butter were used for the payment of taxes. However, for the most part cows were protected for their own sake and allowed to roam around the royal gardens at peace.
One milk product we know the Japanese used was called ‘daigo’. The modern Japanese word ‘daigomi’ meaning “the very best part” is derived from this milk product. It is meant to evoke the feeling of deep flavor and pleasure. Symbolically it was seen as the final stage of purification towards enlightenment. The first mention of daigo is found in the Nirvana Sutra with the following recipe – “From cows to fresh milk, fresh milk to cream, cream to curdled milk, curdled milk to butter, butter to ghee (daigo). Daigo is the best.” – Nirvana Sutra
Another milk product was ‘raku’ said to be made from sugar mixed with milk boiled down until it became a hard block. Some say it was a type of cheese but from its description it sounds like a form of burfi. In an age before refrigeration this enabled the transport and preservation of milk protein. Shavings of raku were sold and either eaten or added to hot tea.
On August 15, 1549 Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit Catholic order, along with Portuguese missionaries, arrived on the shores of Nagasaki, Japan. They began to preach their Christian faith. Japan at this time was politically divided. Many individual lords ruled over territories and various alliances and wars were taking place. One Samurai, Oda Nobunaga, though born of peasants, would go on to become one of the three great unifiers of Japan. He was also notable for giving accommodation to the Jesuits for their preaching and supported the establishment of the first Christian church in Kyoto in 1576. Many believe his support was a way to undermine the power of the Buddhist priests.
Initially the Jesuits were cautious observers. In Japan they found an alien culture that was highly refined and developed. They noted that the Japanese were obsessed by cleanliness bathing every day. This was unusual at a time when Europeans would bathe only once every few months, if at all. The Japanese also wrote from top to bottom rather than left to right. And while they had a strong military order, in the Samurai, they still fought with swords and arrows. The King of Portugal did not financially support the missionary activities in Japan. Instead the Jesuits were allowed to engage in trade. After converting the local Daimyo (lord) Omura Sumitada, the small fishing village of Nagasaki was given to the Jesuits. In time Christian missionaries found favor throughout southern Japan and converted the Daimyos of Kyushu and Yamaguchi regions.
All manner of trade began to flow through Nagasaki and merchants were becoming very wealthy. There was particular interest in Portuguese guns. However, as the missionaries expanded they began to introduce meat eating. At first it was as an “accommodation” for the foreign missionaries who “needed meat to be healthy”. But the slaughter of animals and the consumption of meat spread wherever people converted to the new faith. We see this evident in the Japanese word for meat ‘waca’ derived from the Portuguese ‘vaca’.
There was one social class called ‘Eta’ (literal translation “an abundance of filth”) that were considered unclean as their occupation was to dispose of dead carcasses. Today they are known as the Burakumin. No cow was ever to be killed. However, they were allowed to make and sell leather goods from a cow that died of natural causes. Because they were engaged in unclean activities, at the bottom of the social ladder, many converted and were engaged in the growing meat industry.
But the spread of meat eating was only the beginning. The Portuguese were one of the main merchants of world slavery at the time. The Jesuits facilitated this slave trade through their port city of Nagasaki. This became known as the “Nanban” or “southern barbarian” trade. Thousands of Japanese women were enslaved and brutalized around the world. There is in fact correspondence between the King of Portugal Joao III and the Pope listing the price for this exotic fare – 50 Japanese girls for 1 barrel of Jesuit saltpeter (gun powder).
As local lords were converted many forced their subjects to convert as well. The Jesuits saw weapons trade as one means to shift the balance of political power between the various warring sides. They supplied arms to Christian Daimyo and used their own military forces to advance their influence. Many lords would convert knowing they would gain military advantage over their rivals. Within a few decades it is estimated there were over 300,000 converts. Caution was now replaced by confidence. Ancient Buddhist temples and shrines were now being desecrated as ‘pagan’ and ‘unholy’.
Observing all of this was the Samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Like his master, Oda Nobunaga, he too was born a peasant and grew to become a powerful General. He became suspicious of Jesuit motives when he saw the Spanish conquer the Philippines. What he saw happening in Japan made him disgusted. In 1587 General Hideyoshi commanded the Jesuit priest Gaspar Coelho to meet and handed him “The Purge Directive Order of the Jesuits”. In this document were 11 points, among them –
1. All Japanese slave trade must end and all Japanese women from around the world must be returned.
2. All meat eating must cease – the cow and horse must never be killed.
3. All desecration of Buddhist temples must end.
4. All forced conversion must end.
With that he expelled the Jesuits from Japan. It had been only 38 years since their arrival. Next he led his armies through the southern barbarian lands. Conquering these lands he was disgusted by the slaughtered carcasses that lined the street shops. He began to post Kosatsu, signboards, all along the countryside notifying the people of the laws and ordinances of the Samurai – among these laws – “Do Not Eat Meat”. Meat was no longer simply ‘sinful’ and ‘unclean’. Now meat was associated with the wickedness of the foreign barbarian – with sexual slavery, religious desecration, and political subversion.
Following the death of Hideyoshi in 1598 the Samurai Tokugawa Ieyasu gained control. He also saw Christian missionary activities as a sort of ‘expeditionary force’ to conquer Japan. By 1614 he banned Christianity entirely noting they were ‘corrupting goodness’ and creating political division. During the following decades it is estimated that perhaps 3,000 Christians were killed, with most renouncing their faith or remaining hidden. Finally, the Sakoku (‘Closed Country’) Edict of 1635 sealed off Japan to foreign influence. No Japanese were allowed to leave Japan nor return if they were abroad. Japanese trading boats were set on fire to sink off the coast. Foreigners were expelled and only a very limited amount of trade was allowed through the tiny peninsula of Dejima in the Bay of Nagasaki. This island was 120 meters by 75 meters and only 19 foreigners at any one time were allowed to be on this island.
For the next 218 years Japan remained isolated but politically stable. With no wars to fight the Samurai slowly became idle, interested mainly in the latest political gossip. While the society was controlled, some would say repressed, these restrictions allowed Japan to retain its traditional culture.
On July 8th, 1853 Commodore Perry entered the bay of Edo, the capital city, with four American warships puffing black smoke. They blockaded the bay and prevented any food or supplies from entering the country. The Japanese, isolated for the prior 218 years, were technologically far behind and were no match for the modern American war ships. This became known as “the Black Sails” event.
The Japanese were panicked and this created a serious political crisis. Commodore Perry, on behalf of the United States, demanded Japan sign a treaty opening up for free trade. He began to fire his cannons as a show of force and threatened total destruction if they did not submit. On March 31, 1854 the Kanagawa Treaty “Japan – US Treaty of Peace and Amity” was signed. Soon thereafter the English, Dutch, and Russians followed suit using similar strong-armed tactics to force their way into free trade with Japan.
The Japanese realized their vulnerability and concluded they needed to modernize. One small Buddhist temple named Gyokusen-ji was set aside to host the foreign visitors. By 1856 this temple was converted into the first U.S. Consulate in Japan headed by Consul General Townsend Harris. Then in 1856 U.S. Consul General Townsend Harris had a cow brought to the Consulate and slaughtered on the grounds of the temple. Then he, along with his interpreter Hendrick Heusken, roasted and consumed the meat along with some wine. This caused great disturbance in the community and farmers began to hide their cows in fear. Eventually Heusken was killed by a Ronin (a Samurai with no master) leading anti-foreigner campaigns.
But the act was done – they had killed the most sacred animal to the Japanese. It was this act that was said to inaugurate modern Japan. Suddenly “old conventions” were out, and the Japanese could shed their “primitive” and “backward” ways. In 1931 the consulate building was renamed “The Temple of the Slaughtered Cow” to memorialize this event. A statue of the Buddha, on top a pedestal decorated with cows, overlooks the building.
From then on slaughter houses started to appear and wherever they opened panic arose. The Japanese felt it desecrated their neighborhood, made it unclean and inauspicious. By 1869 the Japanese Ministry of Finance established the gyuba kaisha, a company designed to sell beef to foreign traders. Then in 1872 Emperor Meiji passed the Nikujiki Saitai law which broke the two great strictures for Japanese Buddhist monks – it allowed them to get married and eat beef. Following that, in the same year the Emperor publicly announced that he personally loved to eat beef and mutton.
On February 18, 1872 ten Buddhist monks stormed the Imperial Palace to assassinate the Emperor. Five of the monks were shot and killed. They declared that eating meat was “destroying the soul” of the Japanese people and must be stopped. This news was suppressed in Japan but was reported in a British newspaper The Times. The Emperor then disbanded the Samurai warrior class, replaced them with a Western style conscripted military, and started purchasing modern weapons from the United States and Europe. Many samurai became impoverished overnight. They were now on a lower standing than the merchant class who were profiting through new trade.
With the Emperor publicly declaring his love for meat the intellectual, political, and economic classes began to embrace it. Intellectually meat was promoted as a sign of civilization and modernity. Politically meat was seen as a way to build up the strength of the military – to build a stronger soldier. Economically meat was associated with affluence and wealth for the merchant class through trade. But the general public still regarded meat as unclean and sinful. A process to market meat to the public began. One technique was to rename the meat so as to avoid knowing what it was. For instance, boar was called as ‘botan’ (peony flower), deer as ‘momiji’ (maple), and horse as ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom). We see a similar marketing approach today with Happy Meals, McNuggets, and Whoppers – whimsical names to hide the violence. Slowly the public began to turn.
During the U.S Occupation (1945-1952), the Allied Supreme Commander established a school lunch program, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in order to “improve the health” of Japanese school children and teach them an acquired taste for meat. Initially 250,000 children participated which increased to 8 million by the end of the occupation. But a mysterious disease began to infect the school children. Some feared it was due to residual radiation from the atomic weapons. Rashes started to appear all over their bodies. In time they realized the Japanese were allergic to meat and the hives were a reaction to this sensitivity.
Over the coming decades Japan saw an increase in meat imports as well as the development of their own domestic slaughter industries. In 1976 the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) began a marketing campaign to promote U.S. meat in Japan. This was followed up with the 1985 Farm Bill Targeted Export Assistance (TEA) program. In 2002 USMEF create the “Desire Beef” campaign followed by the “We Care” campaign in 2006. The private-public relationship between the USDA and USMEF has helped to promote meat eating in Japan generating billions of dollars for the U.S. slaughter industry. A sign of the current situation is a recent headline from McClatchy DC, December 8, 2014, that reads: “Japan’s soaring demand for cow tongue drives U.S. exports.”
The ancient Seers understood the subtle laws that guide the universe. The violence inherent in meat sows the seeds of future conflict. When you see these techniques used know that a pralaya (destruction) awaits. Once Japan was ruled by some of the greatest protectors of the cow – the Samurai.