Japanese dog breeds primarily come from the spitz line. Most have a square body, small, upright ears, very thick coat, and a tail that curves over the back. The breeds are very similar; therefore, in their native country, they are shown under one classification but divided into sub-groups of large, medium and small. Most of the breed names are associated with a particular area of Japan. All contain the word “inu”, which, in Japanese, means “dog”.
Akitas were used as a hunting and fighting dog in their native country. The name comes from the region of Akita prefecture in the north The name Akita Inu, as the dogs are called in Japan, was not used until September 1931, when the Akita was designated a national treasure. Prior to this they were known as Odate dogs (the main city of Honshu during the 1800s). These dogs are honored to this day.
Akitas are powerfully-built, standing 24 to 28 inches (61 to 71 cm) tall and weighing 75 to 120 pounds (34 to 54 kg). This is a loyal and protective dog that is considered very intelligent and courageous. It is also somewhat reserved, even with its owner. However, the Akita is devoted and discerning, making for an excellent guard dog.
The Akita was originally developed as a fighting dog. Dog fights were popular, and the regions of Akita and Tosa were very popular dog fighting areas of the Far East. Dogs developed in those areas were use primarily as fighting dogs. At first, the Akita was stronger and larger than the Tosa, but gradually that reversed.
Thereafter, the Akita became a hunter of deer, boar and bear. It was sometimes used to retrieve waterfowl for the Akita has a soft mouth. The aristocracy or other wealthy people primarily kept this breed for whom it also served as a guard dog.
Several times the Akita came close to extinction due to rabies outbreaks and to the start and progression of World War II. Barely a dozen Akita dogs survived the war. Helen Keller is credited with bringing the first Akita to America in 1937.
Akitas are very intelligent and can become bored easily; therefore, they require a lot of attention and exercise. Obedience training is also essential. However, this breed’s dominant nature and somewhat strong-willed personality can present a challenge to a trainer. With firm, consistent and loving discipline, an Akita can be a very special companion. The breed has been used as police dogs and therapy and assistance companions.
Also called the Ainu Ken, the Hokkaido Ken, and the Choken, this breed is considered the oldest and wildest of the Japanese dog breeds. It was used to help catch fish and hunt bear.
It’s rough, thick coat helps it withstand cold and snow. Coat colors come in red or white, but also can be black, fawn or brindle. Some Ainu dogs have black spots on their tongue, which suggests a lineage to the Chinese Chow Chow.
A powerful, alert dog, it is known for its fearlessness and determination. It is wary by nature, making it an excellent watch dog. Yet, it’s a dog that is loyal and obedient to its owner. This breed speaks with a howl at the appearance of its owner, showing its joy to see his special person.
The Hokkaido is slightly longer than tall. It stands 18 to 22 inches (46 to 56 cm) tall and weighs 45 to 65 pounds (20 to 30 kg)
A medium-sized, ancient Japanese dog, the Kai stands 17 to 22 inches (43 to 56 cm) and weighs 30 to 40 pounds (13 to 18 kg). It served as a hunting dog that pursued deer and bear. The Kai’s head is narrower and more tapered than other Japanese breeds.
Coat color is generally black, red or a combination. Though it does attach to human owners, this breed has a fairly wild temperament and often forms packs. It has been known to swim and climb trees after its prey. It is considered agile, alert and brave, making a good watchdog. It is also considered intelligent, easy to train, and devoted to its owner.
Rare outside of Japan, the first Kai dogs to arrive in the United States did not do so until the early 1990s.
This breed comes from the mountainous area of Kishu, where it was used primarily to hunt boar. This breed possesses a fairly lengthy body compared to other Japanese dog breeds. Its coat is generally a solid color, with white preferred but also displaying in red or sesame. The breed is very popular in its native Japan as a family companion dog. It is noted for its friendliness, intelligence and devotion. The Kishu is also a quiet and calm dog – it is not a barker. It does possess a high prey drive and will chase and possibly kill smaller animals, but the Kishu does quite well with other dogs.
Another medium-sized dog, the Kishu stands about the same height as the Kai but can weigh more, up to 60 pounds (27 kg). This is a very rare breed outside its native country.
Another breed of great courage and endurance, the Shiba is the smallest of the native Japanese dog breeds. It stands 14 to 16 inches (36 to 41 cm) and weighs 18 to 25 pounds (8 to 11 kg). It was originally bred to hunt small wild game. Like many Japanese dog breeds, Shiba numbers were decimated during World War II.
The Shiba is considered muscular, compact, alert and agile and is noted for its excellent watchdog qualities. Though it has an independent and confident nature, this dog enjoys being with its owner.
The Shikoku was developed in the region of Kochi and is sometimes called the Kochi Ken where it was used to hunt deer and boar.
This breed stands 17-21 inches (43-53cm) high with a thick, double coat that comes in sesame, brindle or solid red color. It can weigh 35 to 50 pounds (16 to 26 kg).
These dogs are tough agile, enabling them to run through mountainous terrain. Their endurance and energy make them good companions for active, outdoor people.
Shikokus may be active outdoors, but they are generally calm and quiet indoors. These are very intelligent dogs and quick learners. They are not as stubborn and independent as many of the other Japanese breeds and are noted for their loyalty and affection toward their owners.
Also known as the Japanese Mastiff and the Tosa Ken, this breed hails from the Shikoku area of Japan. The Tosa developed from breeding the Shikoku with the bulldog and later with mastiffs, German shorthaired pointers and Great Danes. It is considered courageous yet docile. It displays great strength and a high pain threshold level. This breed was and still is used in dog fighting; these fights are similar to Sumo wrestling, follow the same rules, and are sanctioned. Dogfights among Tosas are never to be cruel, bloody or to the death. The dogs try to bring one another down and hold the opponent to the floor.
Twice this breed was on the verge of extinction, the first during a food crisis during WWII and the second during a distemper epidemic. Today’s Tosas come from a lineage of 12 dogs rescued and sent to a northern part of Japan that was not as affected by the War.
The Tosa is massive, standing an average of 24 inches (60 cm) and weighing up to 200 pounds (90 kg). In Japan, the Tosa is smaller, weighing 66 to 88 pounds (30 to 40 kg). It possesses a large head and small, high-set ears that hang closely to its cheeks. Its short coat is generally red but can be other colors, including brindle.
Its disposition is considered calm and quiet, courageous and vigilant, a dog that only reacts when threatened. It is also considered a sensitive dog.
Like many Japanese dogs breeds, the Tosa is rare outside of Japan. Some countries actually ban the breed.
This breed descended from the larger German Spitz dogs which were brought to Japan around 1920. In 1925, two pairs of white Spitz were imported from Canada and during the next 10 years, even more imports came from other countries. The offspring of all these dogs were crossbred to create the Japanese Spitz, recognized in 1948.
Featuring erect ears and a high-set tail that curves over its back, the Japanese Spitz is considered intelligent and cheerful. Its soft, short, white double coat gives the dog an elegant appearance. It averages 13 inches (33 cm) tall at the shoulder.
Japanese Terriers actually come from smooth-coated fox terriers imported to Japan from the Netherlands. The breed developed from these European dogs being bred with small pointers and other native dogs.
A lively, small dog, the Japanese terrier stands about 12 inches (30 ½ cm) tall. Its coat is smooth and short and is usually tri-color or white with black spots. This breed was recognized in 1930.
Despite its name, the Japanese Chin, also called the Japanese Spaniel, originated in China and was later developed in Japan where it became a favorite companion animal, especially with the nobility.
Although several dog breeds originated in Japan, the American Kennel Club only recognizes two: the Akita and Shiba. The United Kennel Club recognizes all the native Japanese dog breeds. Most of the breeds native to Japan were created for work, such as guarding and hunting and most are very rare outside their native country.