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 among 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.