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Native Japanese Dogs

By Chiho Tsukihashi
Staff Writter

When I first moved to the U.S., I never expected that my home prefecture, Akita, would be familiar to any Americans. They knew the name from the Akita dog. In Misawa, it seems that Shiba and Akita are the most popular Japanese dogs among the U.S. military personnel on Misawa Air Base. There are six native dog breeds in Japan: Akita, Kai, Kishu, Shiba, Shikoku, and Hokkaido. Akita is the only large breed, and Shiba is the only small breed. Around 55,000 highbred-Japanese dogs live in Japan, which is about 10% of all registered pets and 80% of them are Shiba, being the most popular Japanese breed. There are many other breeds which became extinct, including Tsugaru from Aomori Prefecture.
All native Japanese dogs have square bodies, wedge-shaped heads, small upright ears, short, thick coats, and the tail is curled up over the back. They have retained these characteristics for thousands of years. Back then, they served as hunting dogs which well suited human beings, using their high physical abilities. They are believed to be associated with such traits as loyalty and bravery. They are also great as watchdogs, being obedient to their owners but being unfriendly to strangers.
As Westernization in the late 19th Century prevailed, native Japanese dogs were faced with the peril of extinction, being crossbred with Western dogs under the widespread belief that Western dogs were superior to the native Japanese dogs. By the end of the 1920's, they were rarely seen in urban areas. In 1928, the Japanese Native Dog Breed Rescue Association was established, which greatly contributed to their conservation. The end of WWII was another critical moment for these dogs. Due to a lack of food, having a dog was strongly discouraged.
Let me focus on the Shiba, the most popular Japanese dog. They are the only small type of the native dogs, and only breed, with a name unrelated with a particular region. Their ancestors' bones have been found with those of human beings from more than 3,000 year old remains, indicating that they have been "human's best friend" since the ancient times. People always have loved Shiba's smart and loyal disposition. Lately, Mame Shiba, an especially small-type Shiba has been particularly popular, but more and more problems concerning "the new breed" have been reported. Some breeders feed less and "create" Mame Shiba with malnutrition, or sell a puppy which eventually grows up as a regular-sized Shiba. Major dog associations do not acknowledge Mame Shiba as an independent breed.
Another popular dog, Akita, is a relatively new breed. It has been only a 100 years since the breed was established. But many interesting stories concerning Akita are known. Akita is the only large Japanese breed now, but it was originally a middle sized dog, sharing the same ancestors as the Shiba. When dogfights were prevalent from the 17th Century through the end of the 19th century, the original Akita was crossbred with dogs from other regions such as Hokkaido and Tosa, and even foreign breeds including Mastiff, German Shepherd Dogs, and Great Danes. In 1932, a story about an Akita named Hachiko was run in the newspaper and the breed became widely recognized nationwide. Hachiko waited for his owner to come back from work at Shibuya Station in Tokyo every day. He continued to show up at the station even after the owner's death. In 2009, the story was recreated as a Hollywood movie titled Hachiko: A Dog's Story, starring Richard Gere. Akita is also known as Helen Keller's pet, which she adopted when she visited in 1937. Right after WWII, when General Headquarter came to Japan, Akita was especially loved by American military personnel. They brought their Akita dogs back to the U.S., and their descendants have survived and are called American Akita dogs, differentiating from the native Akita, which retains more spitz's features, whereas the American Akita dog has German Shepherd dog characteristics.
Lastly, as you should already know, you need to be very careful when you choose a pet shop or a breeder to adopt a dog from, whether it is a native Japanese dog, foreign, or mixed breed. Find a shop or a breeder that is trustworthy. Especially be cautious when you buy a pet animal through the Internet.

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