Ōkami no Bourei

Thanks to my Asian Humanities class this semester, I was required to pick one cultural aspect from a country of my choosing in Asia, to write a research paper that was a minimum of 5 pages long with at least 6 academic resources. Challenge accepted. Since Nihon Ken did not have 6 academic sources I went with the next best thing – Japanese wolves with tying wolves to Japanese dogs.

Without further ado here is my research paper – formatted as my professor asked. Spoiler alert – I received 110% on this paper!

Some still say they can hear the howl of the long extinct Honshu wolf in the isolated mountainous forests of Japan. Some stand idly, glass eyes watching descents of the humans who at one time revered it and in turn, extinguished it. The lucky ones still haunt Japan’s forests, streets, and households. Some of the fortunate ones have even found themselves halfway across the world enjoying the spoils of domestication. The Ōkami no bourei – ghost of the wolf – still roams Japan today.

Japan at one time had two grey wolf subspecies, the Honshu wolf that was located on Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu areas and the Ezo wolf that lived in Hokkaido (Knight, 2006, p.3). The last Honshu wolf died in Japan in 1905, the species became extinct due to the epidemic of contagious diseases like rabies and distemper while the Ezo wolf was hunted to extinction around 1868 – 1912 due to livestock operations taking place in Hokkaido (Knight, 1997). The Japanese wolf was not viewed as a murderous or criminal individual as its cousins of the west were perceived. It was viewed as an important mountain spirit (yama no kami) as it kept away destructive wildlife such as deer and boar from crop fields. In Japan there are several Shinto shrines that have the wolf as its otsukai, which is a messenger to the gods/divine spirits (kami). The Mitsumine shrine in Saitama is one of the most famous shrines to have an ōkami no otsukai. Ōkami, which is Japanese for wolf, phonetically means great deity, which rooted the animal in a mainly positive light in Japanese history (Walker, 2005, p. 69). This might have led to its significance in one aspect of Japanese culture that is not commonly talked about.

Perhaps, only to me, what is really fascinating about the Japanese wolf is the fact that it seems to be so interwoven in Japanese dog culture and history. According to modern research, the Japanese wolf might actually be one of the closest relatives to dogs, as its DNA differs (like domestic dogs) from the modern Grey wolf. With the help of genome sequencing, scientist were able to find that the Siberian wolf’s evolutionary pathway split, one way leading to the Japanese wolf while the other to the dog. This is one of the first times that wolf DNA was found to be so closely related to dog DNA (Gamillo, 2021). Early visitors of Japan even commented how Nihon Ken, “looked and acted more like wolves…” (Walker, 2005, p.52). In Walker’s book “The Lost Wolves of Japan” backs up the modern claim, stating that DNA testing does not yield definitive distinctions between Japanese dogs and wolves is most likely due to the fact that Japanese breeds such as the Shiba Inu or Akita Inu are not only phenotypically similar to wolves, but they can also be considered one of the closest genetic relatives to wolves and nomadic pariah dogs (p. 26). Although an opposing side to this comes from Knight’s book “Waiting for Wolves in Japan”. He claims that there is a widespread assumption that waken are descendants of the Japanese wolf. Even though, at the time the book was published (2006), it was believed that the native dogs of Japan, the waken, were actually descendants of wolves from the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia (p. 210). But current research, at this time, has debunked that thought process. The new DNA evidence suggest that the Grey wolf species that dogs are descended from actually come from east Asia., not from the Middle East as originally thought. This wolf line eventually migrated to Japan and there is some evidence that the Japanese wolf line did interbreed with the dog line prior to it reaching Japan (Yirka, 2021). But new information was found in the regards of the still unknown origin of the Japanese wolf. It follows the thought that the Japanese wolf is a hybrid between a giant Pleistocene wolf and unknown wolf variant. The unknown wolf variant could have been responsible for the small size, as it is theorized to be small as well (Takashi, 2022). The Pleistocene wolves were much larger than the Japanese wolves, they reached 70 centimeters in height. DNA from a female Pleistocene wolf skull and DNA from a male Japanese wolf skull showed that the Japanese wolf was genetically related to the Pleistocene wolf lineage (Martin, 2022).

Nonetheless, the Japanese wolf and the Nihon Ken culture are still intertwined with each other. The yamainu were originally developed for hunting. Even hunting terminology relates to the Japanese wolf and the hunting style of the yamainu. Ōkamiryō which translates to wolf hunting, is a technique to hunt wild boar. The hunting group fans out to surround the boar while the dogs prevent the boar’s escape. This hunting style is believed to mimic the hunting abilities of a wolf pack. Another term for this hunting technique is called ōkamioi, which translates to wolf chasing (Knight, 2006, p. 210).

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Kishu Ken holding a boar. Art by Alexis Amerosa

One of Japan’s tennen kinenbutsu, or national treasures is the Kishu Ken. The Kishu Ken is a medium sized Nihon Ken that retained subarashii yaseimi, or wonderful wildness in both looks and spirit. A well-known folklore dedicated specifically to the Kishu Ken is the story of a hunter who stumbles upon a sick wolf in the forest. He discovers what is ailing the wolf is a bone lodged in her throat. He bravely sticks his hand in the wolf’s mouth, freeing her of the bone. As a thank you, she later gifts one of her pups to the hunter, the pup, in turn becomes an amazing boar hunter and becomes the forefather of the Kishu Ken. Due to this legend, even modern-day hunters believe that the Kishu has wolf’s blood coursing through their veins. Wolf themed names for Kishu Ken are fairly common, (Knight, 2006, p. 210 – 211). Kishu Ken breeders also tend to choose a wolf themed name for their kennel as well. Kishu Ken are still regarded as phenomenal hunters, the phrase ichijyu ikku translates to one gun, one dog, is used to describe the hunting techniques of a Kishu. Simply put, you only need one dog (Kishu) and one gun to have a successful hunt, as Kishu are so skillful with hunting no other breed can compete (Nihonken Hozonkai). The Kishu Ken was given the status of tennen kinenbutsu in 1934 by Nikon Ken Hozonkai (NIPPO), or the Japanese Dog Preservation Society (Nihonken Hozonkai). Ironically enough, the Kishu Ken was developed in the Kii Peninsula, (Chiba, 2003, p. 47) where not only was the last wolf of Japan was killed in 1905 but there are also numerous ‘wolf’ sightings and claims of wolf hybrids (Knight, 2006, p.195 – 196).

Another breed of Nihon Ken that has wolf heritage is the Ainu or Hokkaido Ken. The Hokkaido Ken is considered to be the oldest of the Nihon Ken. They are the medium sized dogs that the Ainu (the indigenous people of Japan) took with them when they were forced from the main island of Japan to settle in Hokkaido thousands of years ago (Dowdy, 2020). The Ainu’s lifestyle relied heavily on hunting due to the short summers and harsh long winters of Hokkaido. They needed hardy dogs that could withstand the extreme cold, as well as have a strong sense of tenacity and vigilance as they were used for hunting bear (Chiba, 2003, p. 50). The Ainu appreciated the hunting skills of the wolf so much that they tried to reproduce the wolf’s traits into their dogs through intentional and unintentional breedings. One account of this cross breeding was in 1792 in Sōya, Hokkaido. An Ainu bitch went into the mountains while she was in heat and mated with a wolf. She returned to the post and whelped three puppies. The wolf sire also periodically ventured into the post, extremely wary of the village life. Eventually the wolf and bitch took the puppies back into the mountains, with the bitch visiting periodically until she was killed in the mountains (Walker, 2005, p. 85 – 86). The Ainu were claimed to make no distinction in regard to wolves and dogs, as they were one in the same. The Ainu considered them as wolves when they behaved as wolves in the wilds of the mountains but as dogs in the villages where they were in the company of humans. The behavior and location of the animals dictated what they were considered. (Walker, 2005, p.87)

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Shiba Inu flushing a pheasant. Art by Alexis Amerosa

The Shiba Inu, while not directly linked with any wolf folklore, has been considered one of the breeds closely related to the wolf. One has to question if this is due to the fact that the smallest of the Nihon Ken is so popular both in and out of Japan, making it readily available for DNA testing or is there a little more behind it than originally thought? Skeletal remains of Japanese wolves have been found buried in archaeological sites from the Jomon period (10,000 – 250 B.C.) (Ishiguro, 2009). But the same claim is made about the Shiba Inu, as skeletal remains of dogs with the close resemblance of the Shiba Inu has been uncovered at Jomon archaeological sites as well (Chiba, 2003, p. 44). These skeletal remains of Jomon dogs gave rise to a new line of Shiba, modeled after the bone structure of these remains. Interestingly enough, the Jomon Shiba have been shown to have less copies of the amylase gene (gene used to in starch digestion, like rice) as compared to the modern Shiba Inu. Theories behind this is rice farming might have been introduced sooner to the area where Shiba might have originated from versus where the Jomon Shiba originated from (Tonoike, 2015). But could selecting for phenotype possibly have an effect on the genotype of the Jomon Shiba, especially in regard to amylase gene? The Jomon Shiba was recreated from modern Shiba Inu for the specific look of ancient waken. Could this unintentional selection lead to more “wolf” like DNA, leading to smaller numbers of genes that digest starch, as dogs evolved to be able to consume starches through domestication?

Japanese wolves were not big wolves, they are actually smaller than any subspecies of Canis lupus. This is due to the island effect where large animals are dwarfed to adapt to the environment (Walker, 2005, p. 48 – 49). The Japanese wolf’s height at the shoulder is recorded as slightly taller than 30 centimeters (Knight, 2006, p. 194) while the standard for a Shiba Inu bitch is 36.5 centimeters (Nihon Ken Hozonkai). Due to the fact that yamainu and ōkami were not differentiated by the Japanese, some of the claimed to be wolf skulls were actually mountain dog skulls (Ishiguro, 2009). Genetic research has found multiple genes in the Shiba Inu that determine smaller body size, as the study used both the Shiba Inu and the bastardization of the Shiba called the mame Shiba (Lyu, 2021). There has been a deliberate selection to try to produce a slightly smaller “breed” of Shiba. The Nihon Ken Hozonkai strongly opposes alterations of tennen kinenbutsu breeds, such as the Shiba Inu, as the Nihon Ken Hozonkai’s mission is to preserve Japanese native breeds as the breeds are a cultural asset that was close to extinction after World War II (Nihon Ken Hozonkai). Mapping the genomes of both Shiba did lead to an interesting study that the small size in mammals is controlled multiple genes, as both Shiba are genetically similar. This makes me wonder, due to the Shiba’s claimed genetic closeness to the wolf, the Japanese wolf’s genetic closeness to domestic dogs, and the fact that both yamainu and ōkami skulls were found at Jomon archeological sites, could the possibility of cross breeding of the waken and Japanese wolf led to the Shiba’s small size?

Even though there are claims of Japanese wolves stealthy still roaming Japan’s mountainous regions, in reality, the possibility of wolves evading human contact for 117 years seems extremely unlikely. In 1996, Hiroshi Yagi saw a wolf like canine in Chichibu, an area that is traditionally considered the wolf worship center of the Kanto region. The animal was short legged, pointy eared and had a black tail tip. The pictures of this animal were sent to Yoshinori Imaizumi who is Japan’s lead wolf researcher. The animal was dubbed the Chichibu Yaken (wild dog) (Martin, 2019).  Another ‘wolf’ encounter happened in 2000 in the Fukuoka Prefecture. A man photographed a medium sized canine with pricked ears and a coat of black and grey. The photo also shown to Imaizumi who said it did resemble a wolf. Naoki Maruyama of the Tokyo College of Agriculture and Industry claimed that the ‘wolf’ looked more like a German Shepherd mix. (Walker, 2005, p. 24 – 26) Although looking at the photo myself, it looks like a Shikoku Ken, one of Japanese waken and a breed erroneously called the Japanese wolfdog. Unfortunately, there is no verified evidence of the Japanese wolf, all that is left of the species are taxidermy specimens located in the National Museum of Nature and Science (Tokyo), The University of Tokyo (Tokyo), Wakayama Prefectural Museum of Nature History (Wakayama), and the National Museum of Natural History (Leiden, Netherlands) (Ishiguro, 2016). The closest one can get to interacting with a Japanese wolf would be through Nihon Ken. Besides being phenotypically and genotypically close the wolf, the Nihon Ken do share some behavioral patterns of wolves. Studies have shown that Nihon Ken typically sought out owner attention less frequently than European/western breeds (Nagasawa, 2017), similar to how a wolf, even when raised by humans does not necessarily seek out human attention or seek out eye contact. Edward Morse, an American zoologist at Tokyo University stated that Japanese breeds are of the “wolf variety”, claiming that they howl instead of bark due to the state of semi feralness. Even Darwin commented that “… dogs relapse from their cultivated state to a semi-savage one, they lose the bark and take on the howl again.” (Walker, 2005, p.52).

History is what makes culture. The Japanese wolf has left its mark in both religious context and beliefs, as well as branding itself in Japanese dog culture. The Nihon Ken boast as rich and unique cultural aspect due to the ōkami folklore that surrounds the waken. Something that most other breeds cannot claim.

Works Cited

Chiba, M. (2003) Japanese Dogs: Akita, Shiba, and other breeds.

Dowdy, S. (2020 December 4). “A guide to 8 Japanese Dog Breeds (and one imposter)” https://www.dailypaws.com/living-with-pets/pet-compatibility/japanese-dog-breeds

Gamillo, E. (2021 October 21). “Ancient Japanese Wolves may be the closest wild relative of modern dogs” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ancient-japanese-wolves-may-be-the-closest-wild-relative-of-modern-dogs-180978907/

Ishiguro, I., Y., & Sasaki, M. (2017). “Computed tomography examination and mitochondrial DNA analysis of Japanese wolf skull covered with skin.” Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 79(1), 14–17. https://doi.org/10.1292/jvms.16-0429

Ishiguro N., Inoshima, Y., Shigehara, N. “Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Japanese Wolf (Canis Lupus Hodophilax Temminck, 1839) and comparison with representative wolf and domestic dog Haplotypes,” Zoological Science, 26(11), 765-770, (1 November 2009) https://bioone.org/journals/zoological-science/volume-26/issue-11/zsj.26.765/Mitochondrial-DNA-Analysis-of-the-Japanese-Wolf-Canis-Lupus-Hodophilax/10.2108/zsj.26.765.full?tab=ArticleLink

Knight, J. (1997). “On the extinction of the Japanese Wolf.” Asian Folklore Studies, 56(1), 129+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A700112712/AONE?u=lincclin_hcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=6240b0eb

Knight, J. (2006). Waiting for Wolves in Japan. University of Hawai’i Press.

Lyu, F., C., Zhu, S., Ren, S., Dang, W., Irwin, D. M., Wang, Z., & Zhang, S. (2021). “Whole genome sequencing reveals signatures for artificial selection for different sizes in Japanese primitive dog breeds.” Frontiers in Genetics, 12, 671686–671686. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2021.671686

Martin, A. (2019 May 25). “In search of Japan’s extinct wolves: sightings of a mysterious canine in Chichibu have been captivating animal enthusiasts.” https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2019/05/25/environment/search-japans-extinct-wolves-sightings-mysterious-canine-chichibu-captivating-animal-enthusiasts/

Martin, A. (2022, May 11) “Researchers trace the evolutionary origins of the Japanese wolf.” https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/05/11/national/japanese-wolf-dna-origins/#:~:text=These%20findings%20suggest%20that%20Pleistocene,formation%20of%20the%20Japanese%20wolf.

Nagasawa, O, M., Mogi, K., & Kikusui, T. (2017). “Intranasal Oxytocin treatment increases eye-gaze behavior toward the owner in ancient Japanese dog breeds.” Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1624–1624. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01624

Nihon Ken Hozonkai. (2022) http://www.nihonken-hozonkai.or.jp/

Takaishi, R. (2022, June 13) “DNA study offers third theory on origin of extinct Japanese wolf.” https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14630604

Tonoike, Hori, Y., Inoue‐Murayama, M., Konno, A., Fujita, K., Miyado, M., Fukami, M., Nagasawa, M., Mogi, K., & Kikusui, T. (2015). “Copy number variations in the amylase gene (AMY2B) in Japanese native dog breeds.” Animal Genetics, 46(5), 580–583. https://doi.org/10.1111/age.12344

Walker, B. (2005). The Lost Wolves of Japan. University of Washington Press.

Yirka, B. (2021, October 21). “DNA shows Japanese wolf closest relative of domestic dogs.” Phys.org – Science and Technology News. https://phys.org/news/2021-10-dna-japanese-wolf-closest-relative.htm