Images of Cows and Bulls in Japan

The special meaning behind Aizu's regional symbol

By Elena Lisina    - 3 min read

On my most recent trip to Japan at Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha I came across various images of cows. While taking photos of them I thought that images of cows are quite rare in Japan - more often there are guardians such as komainu (dogs) or kitsune (foxes). I recalled a few more images from Sendai's Tsutsujigaoka Tenmangu Shrine, for example, and decided to explore the theme of cows and bulls.

A cow statue in Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha
A cow statue in Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha

Unlike India, a cow wasn’t seen as a sacred animal in Japan, but until the end of the 19th century the Japanese didn’t eat beef or any other animal meat for 1200 years. Before the 6th century, wild deer and boar meats were popular, but with spreading of Buddhism it was forbidden. This was due to the Buddhist belief that humans can be reborn as animals and as such, each life must be respected. That belief didn’t include fish and poultry though.

Religion wasn't the only reason for avoiding meat -- livestock breeding was difficult or impossible in many regions across Japan, especially in the mountains. Change eventually came during the Meiji Period (from 1868) when the Emperor ate beef, and for that reason faced a big rebellion from the Buddhist monks.

As I’ve mentioned before, images of cows and bulls are rare in Japanese temples and shrines. But there is one region where they are quite popular – Aizu. There, you can find a very famous image of a red cow called ‘Akabeko’. The birthplace of akabeko is Enzoji Temple, located in the small town of Yanaizu. Enzoji Temple is believed to be 1200 years old. At the entrance there are statues of red bulls made of stone and metal that, according to legend, helped in building the temple by carrying heavy stones uphill.

Akabeko of Enzoji Temple, Yanaizu
Akabeko of Enzoji Temple, Yanaizu

Akabeko in Japanese means ‘red bull’ (aka – red, and beko – a bull in local dialect) and they have ties to another legend. About 1000 years ago, akabeko are said to have saved the region from the smallpox epidemic. In fact, from the 18th Century smallpox was treated with vaccinations of cowpox, so the old legend was true! These days, akabeko are famous and popular souvenirs from Aizu and the broader Fukushima area. They are made of papier-mâché and depict a red bull with spots, a sign of recovery from the disease. The akabeko souvenirs have funny swinging heads, and people buy them as an amulet to protect children from diseases.

A souvenir akabeko
A souvenir akabeko

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Elena Lisina

Elena Lisina @shiroi.tenshi

I love Japan very much! I like small towns of Japan where I can watch people doing their business and talk to them carefully. They're always friendly. I like Japanese gardens where I can just sit or walk and take my time. Also I like Shinto Jinja as being there I feel in peace. I like to watch sunsets and then to dine in some small local places. I like to soak into onsen after a long day of wandering. I like Japanese crafts very much as all items are made with great taste and skill. Nihon wo daisuki desuyo! My photos from Japan I also place here: https://gurushots.com/f10384/photos Matane!

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