8 Authentic Japanese Dog Breeds and Their Fascinating Histories

Americans love their dogs, but unfortunately we don’t have a national breed of dogs. Japan, on the other hand, has six. Called “Nihon Ken” or Japan’s dogs, these native pups are descended from medium-sized dog breeds that roamed mountainous areas in Japan thousands of years ago. Because the six Spitz breeds share a common ancestor, they are somewhat similar – although they have notable differences. Each of the breeds has double coats, suitable for cooler climates, as well as thick coats and curly tails. They are also highly revered in Japanese culture and are some of the cutest dog breeds with pointy ears.

In advance of this, we have compiled information on each of the national Japanese dog breeds, as well as other non-native breeds that have been imported into the country and are closely related to it. Let yourself be impressed by the interesting history of these puppies. From the rarest dog breed on this list, the Kai Ken, to the more popular Shiba Inu, these are some adorable dogs. With their smiling faces – seriously, many of these breeds are known for their happy expressions – they look forward to meeting you. And for more country specific dog breeds, don’t miss our roundups of the cutest Australian dog breeds, Chinese dog breeds, German dog breeds, Italian dog breeds, and Russian dog breeds.

Close up of Japanese Akita standing outdoors

1. Akita

These powerful pups hold a special place in Japanese culture. Giving new parents an Akita figurine when they have a child is a popular way of wishing their offspring good luck and a long life. They have a cool back story too. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), Japanese lore states that they came about after an emperor banished an aristocrat to rule Akita Prefecture in northern Japan in the 17th century. The former nobleman asked his barons to breed a large hunting dog. Today we know this dog as Akita. These dignified giant dogs, sometimes weighing up to 130 pounds, were used to hunt large game such as wild boar, deer, and bears. Not only are they great hunters, but they’re also incredible guard dogs. They are affectionate and sweet with their owners, but can be suspicious of other animals and strangers. Invite one to your home and you will have a loyal friend for life.

Breed overview

Height:

24 to 28 inches

Weight:

70 to 130 pounds

Life expectancy:

10 to 13 years

Gorgeous and happy red Shiba Inu dog sitting in a field of flowers

Gorgeous and happy red Shiba Inu dog sitting in a field of flowers

2. Shiba Inu

Small and adorable, the Shiba Inu is the most popular companion breed in Japan. They are also an ancient breed and have probably been around since 300 BC. (Understand: The Shiba’s ancestors probably accompanied the earliest immigrants to Japan around 7000 BC, these spirited fox-looking dogs do not require rigorous exercise – although they do appreciate a good walk with their owner Loved by many families for their kind nature and ability to live in a range of environments from rural to urban. You can expect your Shiba to be confident, dignified and loyal. Depending on your education, he or she can even be a fabulous one Be a watchdog Fun fact: Shibas are the smallest Japanese dog breeds owned by Nihon Ken.

Breed overview

Height:

13.5 to 16.5 inches

Weight:

17 to 23 pounds

Life expectancy:

13 to 16 years

Kishu Ken dog is standing outside

Kishu Ken dog is standing outside

3. Kishu Ken

We wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Kishu Ken. Another descendant of Japan’s ancient dogs, these majestic pups were bred and developed in the Kishu area (now Wakayama Prefecture). Because they’re so popular, they’re so rare. “The Japanese are proud of their dogs and give them honor and praise,” writes the AKC. “This pride and commitment to their national treasures – and the kishu is one of them – is why the kishus are rarely exported.” Hunting deer. They need a lot of exercise, although they like to cuddle in a relaxed manner once they have had some exercise. The breed is somewhat guarded against strangers and should be socialized with children early on. Many kishus are white; there are also red and sesame varieties.

Breed overview

Height:

17 to 22 inches

Weight:

30 to 60 inches

Life expectancy:

11 to 13 inches

Hokkaido dog sits on lawn

Hokkaido dog sits on lawn

4. Hokkaido

Like all Nihon Ken, the Hokkaido Inu has a fascinating history. According to the Hokkaido Association of North America, the breed’s recorded history began between A.D. 300 and A.D. 700. The dogs got used to the cold weather and mountainous landscape and became skilled bear hunters. They have impressive stamina and are natural problem solvers. Available in a variety of colors, including white, red, black, brindle, sesame, and gray, these puppies have wide chests, pointy ears, and thick fur. However, don’t expect to spot one on the street. The AKC notes that there are very few Hokkaido outside of Japan. Even within the country, the estimated population is only 10,000 to 12,000.

Breed overview

Height:

18 to 20 inches

Weight:

44 to 66 pounds

Life expectancy:

12 to 15 years

The Japanese breed Kai Ken

The Japanese breed Kai Ken

5. Kai Ken

In the 1930s, Japan named Kai Ken – as well as its other five native dog breeds – a national treasure. And it turns out there is no better way to describe these loyal pups. Originally used to hunt game such as pheasants and bears, these dogs are some of the most affectionate of the native breeds. They come in three colors: black brindle, brindle and red brindle. Surprisingly, this offered the quay a professional advantage; the pattern camouflaged the dogs from prey and predators in the mountain forests where they hunted. The breed is rare even in Japan but is valued for its courtesy, devotion, and adaptability (these may be large dogs, but they are perfectly at home in an apartment).

Breed overview

Height:

15.5 to 19.5 inches

Weight:

20 to 40 pounds

Life expectancy:

12 to 15 years

Portrait of Shikoku Dog

Portrait of Shikoku Dog

6. Shikoku

Sometimes referred to as the Japanese Wolfhound for their wolf-like appearance, this imposing breed originally hunted wild boars in Kochi Prefecture. Unfortunately, along with other Nihon Ken races, the Shikoku almost became extinct after World War I. In 1928, the Nihon Ken Hozonkai (NIPPO) was founded to preserve the six original dog breeds. Conservationists found three lines of Shikoku: the Awa, the Hongawa, and the Hata. However, the distinction between these lines has been blurred as the regions are less remote and the dogs have grown together. The Skinoku is available in a variety of colors including sesame, red, black and cream. Experts at the North American Shikoku Club estimate that there are fewer than 100 of them outside of Japan. There are likely between 5,000 and 8,000 within the country.

Breed overview

Height:

17 to 22 inches

Weight:

35 to 55 pounds

Life expectancy:

10 to 12 years

Japanese chin puppy in the garden

Japanese chin puppy in the garden

7. Japanese Chin

Say hello to these adorable nobles. While the Japanese Chin is not an official national treasure or a member of the Nihon Ken, they were the preferred companion dogs of Japanese aristocrats. Most experts believe that the breed originated from the Pekingese in China. The chin probably came to Japan as a gift from the Chinese emperor. As the AKC notes, “Chins maintain their regal demeanor and expect to always be the rulers of their household.” Charming and affectionate, these pups make perfect lap dogs for apartment dwellers. They love slow walks and runs in the park, but are otherwise very indoor-oriented.

Breed overview

Height:

8 to 11 inches

Weight:

7 to 11 pounds

Life expectancy:

10 to 12 years

japanese terrier dog standing by the water

japanese terrier dog standing by the water

8. Japanese terrier

The Japanese terrier may not be one of Japan’s ancient breeds of dogs, but they still have significant roots. The toy breed was established in the 1930s after carefully breeding the country’s Kobe and Kuro terriers. The Kobe Terrier dates back to the 18th century and is a cross between native Japanese breeds and the smooth fox terrier that was brought into the country by Dutch settlers. The Kuro Terrier is a cross of imported English Toy Terriers and Toy Bull Terriers. However, the Japanese terrier was bred in the country and is considered a Japanese breed of dog. These puppies are considered one-person dogs and can be reserved with strangers. However, they are curious, playful, and energetic pets that make great companions. Fun fact: They are the only terrier breed that originated in Japan.

Breed overview

Height:

11 to 13 inches

Weight:

5 to 10 pounds

Life expectancy:

unknown

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