While there are many aspects of Japanese culture to love and admire, the existence of the Nihon Ken just might take the top spot on our list. According to the Nihon Ken Hozonkai (A.K.A. Japanese Dog Preservation Society), the Nihon Ken are six indigenous dog breeds that have been designated as national natural monuments in Japan. (For comparison, the U.S. doesn’t have a single national breed, though there are several states that have official dogs.)
“It’s a classification given by the ministry of culture to items and animals deemed to have Japanese cultural importance,” explains Shigeru Kato, who is a member of the Nihon Ken Hozonkai, Kai Ken Aigokai (Kai Dog Protection Society), Japan Kennel Club, and Dainihon Hunter's Association. “This means the government (and the country) are involved in their preservation.”
In Japan, these breeds are legendary. Literally. Kato, who breeds, shows, and hunts with Nihon Ken, says that there are many tales surrounding the breeds’ link to the now-extinct Japanese wolf. Looking at their pictures below, you can see why.
According to Kato, it’s believed that the first domesticated dogs arrived in Japan with the Jomon and Yayoi peoples and that the country’s geography and isolationist principles allowed the dogs to remain essentially unchanged for thousands of years. “However,” he explains, “as Japan opened up to the outside world, these native dogs crossbred with Western dogs, leaving fewer and fewer of the original Japanese dogs.”
But Kato says that during the Shōwa period (1926–1989), efforts were made to classify and preserve these dogs, and researchers scoured the country in search of them. “The dogs selected for preservation were from areas where the researchers found a sufficient number of quality dogs of a similar type without signs of interbreeding with imported dogs,” he continues. “The six ‘breeds’ born from this effort were all part of one landrace, with the dogs being separated by regions where they developed their particular ‘type.’” In fact, other than the Shiba Inu, all of the Nihon Ken are named after the regions where they were found.
Below, we’ll cover each of the six monumental Japanese breeds that are a part of the Nihon Ken, as well as a few other breeds that didn’t quite make the national treasure cut but are still worth a look.
Though the first documented Shiba Inu to enter the United States didn’t arrive until the 1950s (after narrowly escaping extinction during World War II), the breed has been around since 300 BC. They look similar to foxes, but their personality is described as being cat-like. In other words, while they are affectionate and loyal pets, they also like to call the shots and may only follow your cues if and when they feel like it.
The Akita, on the other paw, is the largest of the Nihon Ken. These burly, densely coated pooches can grow to be well over 100 pounds and taller than 2 feet. While Akitas were bred to be stout hunting dogs in the early 17th century, they mostly use their bravery to protect their families these days. The breed is so beloved in Japan that the parents of newborn children often receive an Akita figurine as a gift that symbolizes happiness and a long life.
You may have also heard the tearjerker of a story about Hachiko, the Akita who waited faithfully for his master to appear at Shibuya Station every evening for the 10 years between his owner’s death and his own. His incredible loyalty has since been immortalized in the form of a bronze statue placed outside the station.
The strong, mostly silent type, Akitas tend to do best in one-dog households where they can have complete control of their territory.
The Kai Ken breed is rare (even in its homeland), and was first discovered only 90 years ago. According to the Nihon Ken Network, these noble pups come in three different colors—red brindle (aka-tora), medium brindle (chu-tora), and black brindle (kuro-tora)—and it’s worth noting that “tora” means “tiger” in Japanese.
Bred as hunting dogs, there were originally two distinct types: shishi-inu-gata and shika-inu-gata. The former had a bear-like face and sturdy build and was used to hunt boar; the latter had a fox-like face and lean build and was used to hunt deer. However, no distinction is currently made between the two types of Kai Ken, and the dogs are typically employed as pets rather than hunting partners.
Though they’re often described as independent thinkers, the breed can form close, devoted bonds with their families. Kato can attest to this. “My 'heart breed' will probably always be the Kai,” he admits. “I love their intelligence and the connection they make with their owner.”
The Kishu Ken is an athletic, determined working dog that was bred for hunting deer and boar and is sometimes still used for the task today. Loving and affectionate with their humans, this dog does particularly well in active families. The AKC notes that while a Kishu could possibly do well if raised with a cat, the pup may have a hard time seeing it as a pal instead of prey.
Though the Kishu is one of the most popular medium-sized dogs in Japan, the breed remains rare elsewhere and has even experienced a decline in its homeland as well. The Nihon Ken Hozonkai notes that the rise in popularity of small dogs is threatening the existence of the four medium-sized breeds included in the Nihon Ken—namely, the Kishu Ken, Kai Ken, Shikoku Ken, and Hokkaido. The organization fears that if the trend is not reversed, these breeds will become endangered.
The Nihon Ken Hozonkai says the Shikoku Ken’s wild appearance and spirit cause it to sometimes be mistaken for a Japanese wolf, which we would bet the breed takes as a compliment. These dogs have good reason to look tough, as they were bred to hunt large game (mostly boar) in the mountainous districts of Kochi Prefecture (hence their other name, “Kochi Ken”).
Multiple sources list the Shikoku as the rarest of the Nihon Ken, but that isn’t because they don’t make great pets. In fact, while the breed likes its independence (you’re probably sensing a theme here), these dogs are reportedly more eager to please than some of their fellow, more popular national natural treasures (ahem, Shiba Inu).
Though the Kai may be the breed dearest to Kato’s heart, he’s recently made the Shikoku his focus. “They had the lowest number of registrations when I first became involved with the Japanese breeds,” he says. “So in the interest of their preservation, I have channeled most of my efforts toward this breed.” Kato describes the Shikoku as “beautiful, athletic dogs.”
The Hokkaido is considered to be the oldest of the Nihon Ken. Their history goes back thousands of years and is tied to the Ainu, an ancient indigenous people group who were forced to move off Japan’s main island and onto the island of Hokkaido. The Ainu were hunters of deer and bears, and their dogs served as fearless partners. These hardworking pups came to be referred to as Ainu Ken, but their name was formally changed to Hokkaido when they achieved Nihon Ken status in 1937.
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It can’t be easy being a native Japanese dog who wasn’t chosen to join the Nihon Ken. But these dogs have no reason to develop an inferiority complex.
The history of the Japanese terrier goes back to the 1600s, when fox terriers from the Netherlands were brought to Japan and were bred with small pointers and native dogs. The result is a compact, short-haired lap pup who often looks as though he’s dunked his head in a bucket of black and brown paint. (We mean that in the best way.)
The full history of the adorably fluffy Japanese spitz is unknown thanks to the destruction of records during WWII. However, it’s thought to be the result of crossbreeding between white German spitz and other white spitz imports from Canada, the United States, Australia, and China. Playful and smart, the Japanese spitz can be at home on a ranch or in an apartment—as long as they get adequate exercise and companionship.
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Sigh. Is there any truth in advertising? Contrary to what its moniker would have you believe, the Japanese Chin is not originally from Japan. While the breed's origin story is still shrouded in a bit of mystery (Did they come from China? Korea?), the Japanese Chin was eventually introduced to Japan where it was embraced by nobles who made it what it is today.