Hokkaido is the northernmost and most inhospitable of Japan's islands, and settlers there brought in strong European horses to replace the smaller Japanese breeds for heavy work. Betting on the strength of the animals, mostly French Percheron crosses, was one of the few pleasures in a difficult life, and formalised Ban-Ei racing developed from this. The government began subsidising the sport during the post-Second World War food shortages: not through any altruistic concern for hungry Ban-Ei breeders, but because the Japanese eat horse meat - and incompetent or elderly Ban-Ei horses inevitably end up on the dinner table.
Trained colts are tested at three, four or five years old to see if they have an aptitude for Ban-Ei (which translates as "pulling"); a small percentage pass, and the rest are sold for meat. This is a sad time for their owners and trainers: the northern Japanese are by no means sentimental, but horses have been an important part of the peoples' lives for so long that they are loved as well as respected. Perhaps that explains why it's so rare to find horse meat in a Hokkaido supermarket - and why many older residents have a small shrine to Bato-kannon, the god who looks after horses, in a corner of their garden.Reuse content