The most popular Japanese dog breeds share similar characteristics. They feature wedge-shaped heads, square bodies, upright ears, thick, short coats, and tails that curl over their backs. In line with the local’s beliefs on the importance of spirit, Japanese dogs are believed to carry special characteristics such as loyalty, discipline, calmness, and bravery. These attributes are greatly reflected in their eyes which seem to burn with tenacity. Their stern looks can be intimidating to foreigners, but they are actually quite friendly and are just as welcoming as their owners. However, there are a few breeds that have a more aggressive spirit so it is always best to approach them with caution.
The Definition and Etymology of Japanese Dog Breed Names
Japanese dog breed names often feature the suffix inu or ken, which both mean dog in English. These suffixes typically follow after the dog’s place of origin or a certain term used to describe the dog. Some breeds that are named after Japan’s regions or prefectures are the Tosa Inu, Hokkaido Inu, Shikoku Ken, Kishu Inu, Akita Inu, and Kai Ken. The most popular Japanese dog breed not associated with any of Japan’s areas is the Shiba Inu; Shiba meaning brushwood or kindling. Originally, inu and ken were present in many Japanese dog breed names but over time, the public found it unnecessary.
As previously mentioned, Japanese dog breeds share a lot of similarities. As such, Japan only has one classification for their native breeds which is divided into large, medium, and small subcategories:
- Akita Inu
- Tosa Inu
- Kai Ken
- Kishu Inu
- Hokkaido Inu
- Shikoku Ken
- Shiba Inu
- Mame Shiba
Large Japanese Dogs - Akita Inu and Tosa Inu
The origin of the Akita Inu dates back to the 17th century when the Akita Matagi was bred for fighting. Originally, native Japanese dogs only came in small and medium sizes. To gain an advantage in the ring, the native Akita was cross bred with Mastiffs and Tosas to create a much bigger breed ideal for fighting and hunting.
In 1931, the Akita Inu was well-regarded as fighting dogs, with several even being honored as Natural Monuments. The breed found its way to the United States in 1939 which led to the creation of the American Akita. Come World War II, the Akita, along with many other native Japanese breeds, were confiscated and used for their meat and fur by military officers. Only German Shepherds were allowed, so a few members of the community crossed the Akita with them as a means to preserve the breed.
The original Akita was ultimately wiped out after World War II but continued to live within three dog breeds – Akita Matagi (the original hunting Akita), fighting Akita (a cross between the Akita Matagi and Mastiff), and Akita Shepherds (a cross between the Akita Matagi and German Shepherd). Dogs that carried all characteristics of the three breeds were referred to as Kongo-Go, which was quite popular with the US and British soldiers. However, the Japanese community felt that this breed did not give justice to the Akita. As such, they strived to purify the strain through selective breeding, leading to the now popular Akita Inu.
The Akita Inu is Japan’s most popular large dog breed that can easily be recognized by its fluffy tail and alert ears. It shares the same dignified and noble appearance as that of the American Akita but differs in color, and bone structure. Akita Inus have a more delicate bone structure and only come in limited colors – red, sesame, brindle, white, and fawn. In addition, the dog’s coat must feature urajiro, a Japanese term used to refer to white sections on the cheeks, muzzle, jaw, chest, tail, body, neck, and insides of the legs.
They are a bit wary of strangers but are very loyal and protective when it comes to familiar faces, as depicted in the movie, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. Without proper training, the Akita Inu can become quite aggressive and dangerous to other dogs. Regardless, the breed is an excellent family dog and watchdog.
The Tosa Inu falls under the large category of Japanese dog breeds and is a mastiff-type dog. Unlike other breeds, they do not have a maximum height but are usually not shorter than 21.7 inches (for females) or 23.6 inches (for males). They have a short and dense coat that may come in black, red, apricot, brindle, or fawn colors.
The breed is known as a fighting dog and also goes by the name Tosa Token, meaning fighting style dog. Dog fighting in Japan can be traced back as early as the 14th century. Until the 19th century, the Shikoku Ken was the most popular native fighting dog. Some years later, this breed was introduced to Western breeds such as Great Danes, Bulldogs, and Mastiffs to create the Tosa Inu.
Since then, the Tosa Inu has been dubbed as the dog equivalent of sumo wrestlers. During the age of the samurai, many warrior clans maintained strong bonds with the breed. However, when raising dogs over 150 pounds and dog fighting became illegal, the Tosa Inu greatly suffered. Some of them were smuggled and hidden in Hokkaido as a means to preserve the breed, which fortunately saved them from extinction.
The Tosa Inu has a very deep sense of loyalty for their master when raised correctly. Without proper socialization, training, and discipline, the Tosa Inu can easily grow up to be violent to other dogs and even people. They need an authoritative master to keep them in check. Despite their powerful stance and stern look, they are actually quite loving and affectionate.
Medium Japanese Dogs – Kai Ken, Kishu Inu, Hokkaido Inu, Shikoku Ken
The Kai Ken is a Spitz-type dog breed and is one of Japan’s national treasures. It is considered as Japan’s purest and oldest dog breed originating from the Kai district. They are known to be agile, brave, intelligent, and alert, making them natural hunting dogs. The breed also goes by the name Tiger Dog or Tora Inu. It is now considered as a rare breed, even in Kai.
For those fortunate enough to come across a Kai Ken, they can expect it to have a reserved attitude. However, once comfortable, they become very friendly. They are among the Japanese dog breeds that are not naturally aggressive towards people or other dogs.
The Kishu Inu or Kishu Ken is a primitive dog that was bred in the Kishu region (now known as the Wakayama Prefecture and Mie Prefecture) for hunting purposes. Its appearance is very similar to the Hokkaido-Inu and is often mistaken as a white version of it.
The Nihon Ken Hozonkai is the breed’s main registry in Japan and bears the responsibility of maintaining that original standards of the Kishu Inu. The breed is quite uncommon outside of Japan, with only a handful of breeders in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Finland, and the United States. Since 1934, the Kishu Inu has been designated as one of Japan’s natural monuments.
They are considered as one-family or one-person dogs, given their deep sense of loyalty to their owners. Since they have a drive to hunt prey, they need to be raised, trained, and socialized with other dogs properly to minimize their aggressive and stubborn nature. It can be quite difficult to make them get along with other animals, such as cats, but they do extremely well with children.
The Hokkaido Inu is also known as Ainu Ken, Ainu Dog, Do Ken or Seta. It is aptly named after its native prefecture. They are best known for their loyalty to their masters and their ability to endure cold climates. Back in 1902, the Hokkaido Inu greatly contributed to the search of survivors of an expedition in the Hakkoda Mountains, where several army men were trapped under heavy snow. In 1937, the breed was registered as one of Japan’s protected rare species.
The breed has a medium built, small, upright ears, triangular eyes, and two coats of fur. Its first coat is long and stiff while its second coat is short and soft. The Hokkaido Inu comes in white, brindle, sesame, black, wolf-gray, and red colors.
They used to be bred for hunting but as its distribution across Japan increases, its role as a hunter is also slowly changing to that of a family pet. The Hokkaido Inu can easily be trained given their high intelligence and food based motivation. Unlike other Japanese dog breeds, the Hokkaido Inu’s play stance is similar to a prowl or crouch. This is often misunderstood as a form of aggression, making it necessary to keep them on a leash. However, they are extremely good with other dogs and people when raised correctly.
The Shikoku Inu is a Japanese dog breed that was developed in Shikoku Island. It goes by other names such as Kochi Ken, Japanese Wolfdog, and Mikawa Inu. They are extremely cautious dogs and have good judgment. Their built makes them tough and agile, making them great hunting dogs for mountainous areas. When kept indoors, the Shikoku Ken maintains a quiet and calm personality. However, once outside, its energetic personality easily runs wild.
Their appearance is quite distinct from the other Japanese dog breed, resembling wolves and Alaskan Husky dogs. The breed comes in cream, sesame, and black color with white sections located on the snout, legs, underside, and eyes.
Small Japanese Dogs (That Look Like Foxes) – Shiba Inu and Mame Shiba
The Shiba Inu is one of Japan’s registered protected species and is the smallest of the Japanese dog breeds. Unlike other breeds, its name is not associated with a particular area in Japan. The term Shiba translates into brushwood or kindling which refers to its small size, the hunting terrain it was originally bred in, and its color that resembles brushwood leaves.
In ancient times, the Shiba was bred for hunting boar and small game. Many people refer to them as smaller Akitas, given their similarities in facial features and coloring. They are known to be aloof and wary of unfamiliar faces but are quite affectionate and loving to their masters. Given their innate prey drive, they have a tendency to be aggressive towards other dogs, small animals, and even young children, if not raised and trained properly.
The Mame Shiba is a result of Shibas being bred over many generations. They are basically smaller versions of the Shiba Inu but are not recognized as a separate dog breed by Japan Kennel Club, Japan’s biggest dog registry association. The only organization that issues Mame Shiba certificates is KC Japan. As such, there are a number of issues and things to consider when buying one. Nonetheless, the Mame Shiba can be seen in many parts of Japan and is an extremely lovable breed.
Japanese Dogs For Sale
Japan has several organizations, such as the Animal Refuge Kansai and the Nippon Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which have regular adoption day events in Tokyo and Kansai, every month and every year. Foreigners can freely adopt dogs from them and take them home to their country.
For those who want to purchase Japanese dogs, there are many pet stores in Japan that can be visited to find small, medium, and large breeds. However, customers are advised to be cautious when going for this option for two reasons – cost and regulations.
Pure-breed species are quite expensive and can cost up to 300,000 yen. In addition, there are some greedy breeders that ask for a higher price and do not actually take serious care of their animals. A few breeders do not follow proper regulations when it comes to breeding, that could result in many serious future health problems.
Customers should make it a point to ask for the store’s certification and work/business registration before making a purchase. Also, if a dog has been bought, it should immediately be brought to a vet to see if it is healthy and can withstand the trip from Japan to one’s home country. Long distance travel can be quite stressful to any dog so it is always best to first check if there are local pet stores or shelters that carry Japanese dog breeds.
Common Japanese Dog Names
For foreigners planning to buy or adopt their own dog/puppy, be it an Akita, Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, Japanese Chin, or American Bulldog, choosing a Japanese name for it can easily reflect one’s attachment to the Land of the Rising Sun. Some of the most common Japanese dog names are:
- Aki – which means autumn or bright
- Riku – which means land
- Kaito – which means ocean flying
- Haru – which means spring
- Sora – which means sky
- Hiro – which means generous
- Kenta – which means healthy or strong
- Taro – which means large son
- Makoto – which means sincere
- Yuka – which means gentle flower
- Hina – which means sun vegetables
- Akiko – which means bright child
- Mana – which means love
- Izumi – which means fountain or spring
- Mao – which means dance cherry blossom