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IHC Hosts Lecture on Japanese Cultural Shift Towards Cattle



Yale University history professor Daniel Botsman gave a talk yesterday entitled “From Sacred Cow to Kobe Beef: Japan’s Bovine Revolution” detailing the transformation of social and religious customs in Japan as a result of contact with western culture.
Sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, the talk was held at 4 p.m. in the Social Science and Media Services building. It focused primarily on the dramatic shift that occurred toward cattle, which were previously regarded as sacred in Japanese society but eventually became an object of luxury consumption in the form of Kobe Beef.
Botsman said the notion of slaughtering a cow in Japanese society was a cultural taboo for more than a millennia prior to the modernization of the country in the 19th century.
“Imperial bans of the killing of cattle and horses go back as far as the eighth century,” Botsam said. “It is clear that by the 16th century, an aversion to the killing of domestic animals was quite widespread.”
Botsman said this social norm became even more intense in the early 18th century, with extreme punishment commonly administered for killing a cow. The restrictions against slaughtering cows, according to Botsman, became even more extreme in the early 18th century, with violators often sentenced to death.
“In the late 1710s, we find official records that list the killing of cows alongside patricide, killing your parents, as a particularly heinous crime, punishable with crucifixion,” Botsman said.
He said the concept of Japanese society viewing the cow as sacred is not necessarily conventional but is, in fact, a key part of its cultural history.
“We may not typically associate Japan with the idea of the sacred cow, but there is, I think, plenty of evidence to suggest that something very similar to that notion formed a significant and enduring strand of the culture of the archipelago.”
According to Botsman, economic factors were part of the cause of the shift away from perceiving cows as sacred, as Japanese merchants sought to profit from British sailors who sought to purchase beef while docked at Japanese ports.
“Sailors in the British navy in the 18th century were guaranteed an official ration of no less than 200 pounds of beef a year in addition to another hundred pounds of pork,” Botsman said.
The British navy would advertise to foreign butchers in hopes of making stops in different countries to procure enough beef for its sailors, according to Bostman. This created a demand for beef in ports around the world, including those in Japan.
Botsman said these interactions initially caused a shift in the practice of cow slaughtering, but a change in the social stigma associated with the act lagged behind. During this period of contact with the Western world, Botsman said the slaughter of cattle became “commonplace.” However, the slaughtering of cows did not become socially acceptable until the late 19th century.
According to Botsman, the lifting of government sanctions against cow slaughtering during the year 1871 paved the way for it to become an acceptable practice. Though the practice of slaughtering cattle was finally allowed, those in charge of the slaughtering process were labeled as “outcasts”, Botsman said.
However, Botsman said the Japanese government soon banned the “outcast” label and required cattle handlers to be given equal status to commoners.
“This formal decree might be viewed as evidence of the ways in which Japan’s opening to the West began the process of sweeping away traditional superstitions and prejudices,” Botsman said.
History professor Luke Roberts said the analysis Botsman presented was a “real example” of world history, effectively demonstrating some of history’s major shifts.

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