The Japanese Dog, or Nihon Ken, is descended from dogs brought to Japan by the Jomon and Yayoi. Artifacts from the earliest recorded periods show the close relationship these people had with their dogs, with many living indoors with their owners. These medium sized Spitz type dogs with prick ears, curled tails, and double coats, were the perfect hunting dogs for the extreme terrain and seasons of an island country 75% covered by mountains. This geographic feature for many years separated regions from each other, and in turn allowed the local dogs to develop their own unique features.
In the far north, the Hokkaido Ken, also known as the Ainu Ken after the indigenous people of Hokkaido, developed a thick coat and smaller ears to deal with the freezing winter temperatures. Moving south, in the Tohoku region in the north of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, the famed Matagi hunters developed the Matagi Inu, the ancestor of today’s Akita Inu. In the mountainous region of Kai, modern day Yamanashi prefecture, a brindle coated hunting dog emerged, the Kai Ken. The famous boar hunting Kishu Ken take their name from the Ki Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture, and on the island of Shikoku another big game hunter was born, the Shikoku Ken. The only Nihon Ken that does not derive its name from a geographic area is the Shiba Inu, the smallest of the 6 breeds.
For thousands of years the Nihon Ken remained as they were, hunting the mountains of Japan, with only nominal human interference in their traits and temperament. But as Japan opened to the Western world, Western breeds were introduced which bred freely with the local dogs. In the case of the Tosa Inu and Akita Inu, Western breeds were systematically bred into the native dogs to produce better fighting dogs. The only thing that stopped the complete extinction of the Nihon Ken was the geographic isolation of the small mountain villages where pockets of native hunting dogs remained.
In 1928 the Nihon Ken Hozonkai (Japanese Dog Preservation Society), also known by its acronym NIPPO, was formed to find and preserve the Japanese Dog. Teams scoured the country looking for quality specimens to buy from hunters, and from these, the modern day Nihon Ken was born. There were many strains of the Nihon Ken that did not make it through the period immediately before, and after NIPPO’s founding. One such strain was the Koshi no Inu, which like the other 6 Nihon Ken, was classified as a Natural Monument in an effort to protect these cultural treasures.
To date, over 2,277,000 Nihon Ken have been registered into NIPPO’s stud books, but the popularity of the breeds, in particular the large and medium sized, has been falling for many years due in large part to urbanization and westernization. Going by yearly registrations the rarest of the Japanese breeds is the Shikoku, followed by the Kishu. Kai and Hokkaido come in next, with the Akita close behind. There are still over 30,000 Shiba registrations per year, the breed’s popularity due in large part to its smaller size.