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Japanese dog breeds are unique, and notable for their varied appearances. While some Japanese dog breeds might be commonly encountered today, others are a little more rare to see out and about in the United States.
Our article gives you information about Japanese dog breeds so you can learn more about these distinctive dogs or decide whether or not to add a Japanese dog breed to your family.
What Makes Japanese Dog Breeds Unique?
There are six main native Japanese dog breeds and five imported dog breeds that were brought to Japan for companionship, fighting, or hunting purposes. The six native Japanese dogs belong to a type of dog breed family called “spitz” dogs. The main characteristic of a spitz-style dog is a curled-over tail that hangs against the dog’s back or droops down a little bit.
Japanese dogs are also quite fluffy, as they have double coats to protect them from colder climates and environmental changes. Each breed also has its own unique characteristics that have been developed through decades of selective breeding for certain traits and genetics.
In Japan, the Nihon Ken Hozonkai (The Association for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog) is dedicated to preserving and maintaining Japanese dog breeds. The organization also hosts dog shows and issues the Nippo Standard, which is the breed standard for Japanese dog breeds.
Native Japanese Dog Breeds to Take Note Of
The following native Japanese dog breeds are unique pups with interesting histories. Review our guide to these Japanese dog breeds below to learn more about each dog and whether or not you might want to adopt one of these distinctive dogs.
Affectionate, brave, and deeply loyal to their owners, the Akita displays a more aloof and independent nature around strangers. This breed was historically used by samurai for the purpose of guarding, hunting bears, and fighting.
Today, the Akita might be slightly distrusting of strangers due to these protective genetics. However, this dog breed is very loving to their owners and known for their incredibly faithful natures.
The Akita is a spitz-style dog. Their fluffy double coat that insulates them from cold climates and curled over tail easily indicate their spitz qualities. This dog breed can grow quite large, often growing over a hundred pounds, and they are fairly strong and stocky.
In the Second World War, Akitas were utilized as scouts and guards. They fell out of popularity slightly after the war was over, but breeder Morie Sawataishi undertook great efforts to stop this native Japanese breed from dying out. A large reason that the Akita is still around today is thanks to Sawataishi’s efforts.
Hachikō, the famous dog that waited tirelessly for his master to return to the train station every day after his owner died while at work, was an Akita. This story pushed the Akita into greater popularity in Japan and around the world.
In 1937, Helen Keller traveled to Japan and expressed an interest in the Akita breed. She was gifted the first two Akita dogs to enter the United States, and records indicate how taken she was with this loyal, loving, and trustworthy breed.
One of the oldest of the main Japanese spitz-style dogs, the Hokkaido dog is a rare sight outside of Japan, though this dog is fairly popular within the country. Records indicate that the Hokkaido dog originated around the 1140s, hailing from medium-sized dogs that immigrants brought with them to the Hokkaido province of Japan from the main island of Honshu.
Hokkaido dogs are about medium-sized today, and they have the distinctive curled tail of the spitz dog. They have a double coat, with one being longer stiff fur, and the other being short, soft fur that helps to insulate them from colder climates. This dog breed weighs around 50 pounds on average, and they were historically used by the Ainu people to assist with large game hunting.
The Hokkaido dog is alert, intelligent, and bold, and they have plenty of stamina for exercising or completing tasks alongside their owners. In general, Hokkaido dogs are laid back, faithful, and protective of their owners, though they do need proper socializing when young to prevent them from becoming too distrustful of strangers.
One of the most popular Japanese dog breeds that might be seen outside of Japan, the Shiba Inu is known for their foxlike features, red coat color, and vocal nature. Shiba Inus are small to medium-sized dogs, and they have the curly tail of native Japanese spitz dogs.
The name of this dog breed, Shiba Inu, translates to “brushwood dog.” This is because Shiba Inus have historically been used to flush out game and help hunt birds or other small animals in areas filled with brushwood.
Considered one of the most ancient of Japanese dog breeds, the Shiba Inu has a history dating back three thousand years. They are largely considered a ‘basal breed,’ or a dog that was around long before modern dogs emerged and act as a basis for modern dogs. Basal breeds are the closest relatives to wolves.
During the Second World War, the Shiba Inu almost went extinct due to the scarcity of food and a distemper epidemic. All Shiba Inus today are decedents of three remaining bloodlines that existed after the war. Efforts to develop a breed standard and preserve the Shiba Inu were made after the Second World War, quickly developing the Shiba Inu into the dog we know today.
The Shiba Inu breed is very popular in Japan, and they are known to be alert, active, and independent. This dog breed was brought to the United States in 1954. They are growing in popularity as a companion dog in America today due to their outgoing nature, unique personalities, and the faithfulness they show to their owners.
The Tosa dog breed, also sometimes called the Tosa Inu, is a rare Japanese breed of dog that was historically used for dog fighting.
The Tosa is a mix of the Japanese Shikoku dog and western breeds such as bulldogs, mastiffs, and Great Danes. The resulting mix of these breeds produced the large, stocky, and well-muscled Tosa dog breed that has a high degree of stamina and fighting instinct.
In Japanese culture, the Tosa is considered the equivalent of Sumo wrestlers, and they are treated with similar respect. The Tosa may grow to weigh between a hundred and two hundred pounds, and they typically have a reddish-brown coat of short hair.
Ownership of the Tosa is restricted or banned in some countries due to the risk of aggression that this dog might display. This risk comes from decades of breeding as a fighting and guard dog.
While the Tosa is affectionate to their families and very protective, they might be reactive with other dogs and wary of strangers. It requires an experienced dog owner to properly care for and train the Tosa to ensure that they are properly socialized and any bad behaviors are under control.
The Tosa is rarely seen outside of Japan, but they might be found around the United States today acting as companions and watchdogs for their owners.
A relatively new dog breed, the Japanese spitz is a cousin of the Pomeranian and appears similar to the American Eskimo dog. The Japanese spitz has a curly tail, white fluffy fur, pointed muzzle, and small ears. This dog breed was created sometime between the 1920s and 1930s when breeders in Japan began crossbreeding other spitz-style dogs to create the Japanese spitz.
After the Second World War, the final breed standards for the Japanese spitz were decided upon, and the breed was officially accepted by the Japanese Kennel Club. During the 1950s, the Japanese spitz started gaining popularity outside of Japan and spread to locations across the globe.
The Japanese spitz is known for their small size, playful nature, and loving attitude. They enjoy simply being around their owners to go on adventures, and they are quite loyal, friendly, and affectionate. Japanese spitz dogs are fairly intelligent, and they may easily be trained.
Hailing from the Kai Province in mountainous Yamanashi Prefecture, the Kai Ken is a rare dog breed to find even within Japan.
This dog breed was historically used for hunting. Their larger size plus impressive agility serves them well when it comes to chasing game, even large game like bears, and climbing over rocky terrain. The Kai Ken is able to climb trees, and they have a strong prey drive that enables them to work alongside humans as effective hunting dogs.
The Kai Ken breed was discovered in 1929 and officially registered by the Japanese Kennel Club in 1934. There are sparse records surrounding the origin of this breed, but most indicate the first Kai Ken to enter the United States were brought in the 1950s by the military.
Kai Ken dogs are considered a medium breed, and they typically weigh between 25 and 55 pounds when full-grown. This dog breed has a curled tail, a stocky build, and shorter fur with a thicker texture. Their coat typically has a brindle pattern, and it may be seen most commonly in the colors of Aka-tora (red), Chu-tora (middle), and Kuro-tora (black).
Kai Ken are very intelligent, quick learners, and devoted to their owners. They are eager to please and love to spend time completing tasks alongside their owners, and they are very athletic. An experienced owner may need to oversee this dog due to their agility, speed, and high urge to hunt.
Also known as the Japanese Spaniel, the Japanese Chin is considered a toy breed due to their small size. This dog breed has historically been bred as a companion animal, and they have a rather unique look about them, in addition to an interesting history.
How the Japanese Chin made it to Japan is a debated topic. Some individuals maintain that the dog was gifted to Japanese royalty in AD 732, and some say that they were gifted to the Empress of Japan around the sixth or seventh century.
Either way, the Japanese Chin is stated to have originated in China, and once it arrived in Japan, it quickly become a lap dog and companion animal for the upper class. In 1613, the Japanese Chin was brought to England, and in 1853, the dog was brought to the United States after being acquired by an American naval officer.
The Japanese Chin is a long-haired dog, and its coat is rather silky and smooth. The dog typically weighs an average of seven to nine pounds, and it stands between eight and eleven inches in height. The Japanese Chin is known for their loyal nature, grace, and the affection that they show their owners.
A medium-sized, spitz-style dog, the Kishu dog has a history dating back thousands of years. This dog breed was named after the Kishu region in Japan, and they are one of the ancient native dog breeds that are protected in the country.
Historically, the Kishu, also called the Kishu Ken, has been used to hunt game, and they are still used today to assist with boar and deer hunting. The Kishu is a quieter breed, though they are quite intelligent and brave.
The Kishu dog breed is loyal to their owners, and they may fit into a family environment, but they do have a strong prey drive. This dog shouldn’t be kept without proper training and socializing, and they will need to be in homes that don’t have other dogs to prevent any aggressive behaviors.
Kishu Ken are known for being aloof and protective over their owners, and for making a faithful companion.
A cross between native Japanese dogs, fox terriers, and pointers, the Japanese terrier is a small, short-haired dog. This dog breed typically weighs between five and ten pounds, and they stand between eight and thirteen inches tall.
The Japanese terrier originated sometime in the 17th century as Dutch traders bred smooth fox terriers with small native Japanese dogs. Japanese terriers were reportedly seen around the 1900s and referred to as ‘Kobe terriers,’ and planned breeding began around the 1920s. The Japanese Kennel Club accepted this dog in 1930.
Historically, the Japanese terrier has been used to hunt rats and mice, in addition to providing companionship for their owners. They grew to be popular as lapdogs, and this breed is intelligent, high-energy, and loyal.
The Japanese terrier needs plenty of exercise, and they fit in well with an active owner or family that can play with them lots and provide them with dedicated attention.
Indigenous to Okinawa, Japan, the Ryukyu dog is an endangered breed. This dog is medium-sized and has the typically spitz-style dog appearance of a curled tail and thicker double coat. History and records about the Ryukyu dog are scarce, and there are said to be around only 400 of these dogs left as of 2015.
The Ryukyu dog has been historically used to hunt wild boar, and some members of this breed may possess a dew claw that allows them to expertly climb trees. This dog breed is protected by the Ryukyu Ken Hozonkai, the organization which also offers a breed standard for this dog.
The Ryukyu is known to be quiet, intelligent, and alert, and they typically have a brindle pattern in the colors of red, black, white, or liver.
Hailing from Shikoku island, the Shikoku dog breed stands at a medium size, falling in between the size of the Shiba Inu and the Akita. They are a native Japanese dog, and they bear the spitz-style of a fluffy double coat, curled tail, and broader face that is very similar in appearance to the Siberian husky dog.
The Shikoku dog is very alert and athletic, and they are agile when crossing rough or mountainous terrain. This breed is a good fit for being the companion to an athletic family or owner, and they need plenty of exercise to stay happy.
It’s important that the Shikoku dog is met with proper training, as they are very independent and might be strong-willed at times. That being said, this dog is generally very calm and quiet when indoors, and they are faithful to their owners.
FAQs About Japanese Dog Breeds
Japanese dog breeds are unique, and you may not have heard of several of these breeds before, as some of them are hard to come by in the United States. If you have more questions about Japanese dog breeds, review our answers to the most frequently asked questions about these pups below.
Where Can I Adopt a Japanese Dog Breed?
Adopting a Japanese dog breed might not be that difficult, depending on the type of breed that you are interested in.
More popular Japanese dogs, such as the Shiba Inu, the Japanese Chin, or even the Akita may be found from breeders around the United States. Alternatively, you may be able to adopt one of these dogs from a rescue specifically dedicated to rehoming and sheltering dogs of this specific breed.
Other dogs that are popular in Japan and more rare in the United States, such as the Tosa and the Hokkaido dog might be more difficult to adopt. In these cases, you may need to work with a reputable breeder in Japan and travel outside of the country to adopt your dog.
Make sure you keep in mind any breed restrictions and that you are properly prepared to care for your Japanese dog breed when you return to the United States.
How Do I Care for a Japanese Dog Breed?
How you can for a Japanese dog breed depends on the specific breed that you adopt. In general, your dog will need regular exercise, lots of quality time with their owners, and plenty of socialization to make sure they are friendly and unafraid.
You might need to exercise your dog more or train them if they are a more stubborn breed or a working breed. Feeding and other grooming requirements will depend on the size of your dog and their coat type.
If you have any questions about caring for your Japanese dog breed, speak with a veterinarian or the breeder or rescue organization you are working with. Make sure to conduct plenty of research ahead of adopting your dog so that you can truly help them thrive.
What Is the Difference Between Spitz Dogs and Non-Spitz Dogs?
The majority of Japanese dogs, including all of the native Japanese dog breeds (meaning ones that weren’t crossed with western dog breeds by Japanese breeders) have the spitz style.
The spitz style refers to a distinctive curly tail that curls over the dog’s back or droops down a bit; spitz dogs also typically have a thicker double coat. Non-spitz dogs won’t have this distinctive curly tail, and their coats might be shorter and less fluffy.
Can I Find a Japanese Dog Breed in the United States?
You may be able to find Japanese dog breeds in the United States, though this depends heavily on the type of Japanese dog you are interested in. A few of the breeds on our list are rare to encounter outside of the United States, such as the Hokkaido and the Kai Ken. Ownership of certain Japanese breeds might be restricted where you live, such as the Tosa.
It’s important to fully research a breed and the logistics of obtaining it in the United States before you set out to find a rescue organization where you might obtain a Japanese dog breed.
Where Can I Learn More About Japanese Dog Breeds?
If you are interested in learning more about Japanese dog breeds, you can research these breeds via the American Kennel Club (AKC) website. You may also want to speak to breeders that have knowledge about Japanese dog breeds or a rescue organization that is dedicated to protecting members of these species.
Adding a Unique Japanese Dog Breed to Your Family
Japanese dog breeds are interesting in appearance, and many of them have a long and unique history. The dog breeds on our list all make faithful companions. If you are interested in adopting a Japanese dog breed, you are sure to find the best choice for you by reviewing more information about these pups.
Make sure that you have researched all care needs for your Japanese dog breed and found an ethical breeder or responsible rescue organization where you can adopt your dog. Then, you can give them the happy life they deserve.