Whether bred for hunting, protection, or purely companionship, the dogs of Japan have long and colorful histories. Here are 10 fascinating facts about them and how they came to reach our North American shores.
The Akita has admirers worldwide, but one dog, Hachiko, is responsible for catapulting the breed onto the world stage. Hachiko, born in 1923, was owned by Professor Ueno of Tokyo and accompanied his master to and from the train station daily. In May of 1925, Professor Ueno never made it home to greet Hachiko. He had suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage at work. The loyal Akita traveled to and from the train station each day for the next nine years, waiting for Professor Ueno’s return. He allowed his master’s relatives to care for him, but he never gave up the vigil. In 1934, a bronze statue was erected in Hachiko’s honor at the Shibuya train station, bringing his amazing story to the world.
The look of Japanese and American Akitas began to diverge after World War II. It was during this period that U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan first encountered the breed, and they admired the larger, heavier boned, more bear-like Akitas. Japanese enthusiasts preferred the lighter-boned version with a finer, fox-like head. The American Kennel Club recognizes both types as a single breed. In most other countries, the larger, heavier American strain is considered a separate breed and called the “Great Japanese Dog,” while the more refined Japanese dogs are called Akitas.
In 1636, Japan imposed an isolationist policy that lasted for more than two centuries, determined to banish the outside world and protect its culture. It was Commodore Matthew Perry who opened Japan to Westerners in the mid-1850s. He had been sent to Japan by U.S. President Franklin Pierce with the well wishes of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. Perry was presented with the gift of three pairs of small Imperial dogs: one pair for himself, another for President Pierce, and a third for Queen Victoria. These were the forebears of today’s Japanese Chin. Out of the six, the only ones known to have survived the trip were those given to Perry. A further coincidence: Perry gave his pair of dogs to his daughter, Caroline Perry Belmont, who was married to August Belmont. Their son, August Belmont, Jr., served as president of the American Kennel Club from 1888 to 1915.
Treasured by Japanese nobility, the dainty Chin is very cat-like in both appearance and habits. Alert, independent, and intelligent, the Chin uses its paws to wash and wipe its face. Other feline traits include a love of resting on high surfaces, an excellent sense of balance, and a fondness for hiding in unexpected places.
The word “shiba” means brushwood in Japanese, which refers to a type of tree or shrub whose leaves turn red in the fall. This leads some to believe that the dogs hunted in wild shrubs; others maintain that they were named for their red color, similar to that of the brushwood leaves. However, in an old Nagano dialect, the word “shiba” means small, so perhaps the name was a reference to the breed’s diminutive size.
Not many breeds come in a color that is uniquely named, but the Shiba Inu has that distinction. Red Shibas are seen most frequently, but they also come in black-and-tan and sesame (red with black-tipped hairs). The sesame is a beautiful and distinctive color pattern. Some multi-Shiba owners insist on a trio for their household, with one of each color.
The Tosa Ken (also known as the Tosa Inu, Japanese Mastiff, and Japanese Fighting Dog) is the largest of all the Japanese breeds, bred for courage and athletic ability in the fighting arenas of Japan. The Tosa was created by combining Japanese and Western breeds, the latter including Bulldogs, Mastiffs, Great Danes, and German Pointers — and also, according to some accounts, Saint Bernards and Bull Terriers. Although courage is a hallmark of the Tosa, the breed standard also requires that the dogs possess patience and composure.
As if the Tosa were not awe-inspiring enough on their own, the dogs are frequently pictured in full ceremonial garb. Picture these behemoths, that tip the scales at 150 to 200 pounds, with silk blankets draped over their backs and thick, braided leashes held by two handlers who are also dressed in their silk finery.
The Ainu is the wild and powerful, medium-sized Spitz breed whose history is closely tied to that of the Ainu tribe, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. His double coat enabled him to withstand the severe cold and heavy snowfalls, while his courage served him well on hunting expeditions for bears and deer.
The Ainu is believed to be the oldest of the Japanese breeds and is seldom seen outside the country. In 1937, through the work of the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Breeds, the Ainu was designated a “rare species protected by law” and a “Japanese Natural Monument.”