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If you are looking for a beautiful, fiercely loyal, strong and intelligent dog with a colorful history, then one of the Japanese breeds may well be what you are looking for.
Most of these dogs were bred as working and hunting dogs, so have strength, stamina and sharp intelligence as well as loyalty and affection.
Amongst these Japanese dog breeds, six are described as Japan’s “national dog” or Nihon-Ken breeds. These are the six native Japanese dog breeds and are registered by the Nihon-Ken Hozonkai: Shiba Inu, Shikoku Ken, Kishu Ken, Kai Ken, Hokkaido Ken and Akita Inu. These dogs are highly prized, and the Japanese are very proud of them.
The pride the Japanese have in their dogs, coupled with the rarity of some of them within Japan, following near extinction during and after the second World War, mean that some are very hard to get hold of outside of Japan. Often, the best bet is to go to Japan to buy your dog, and then export it, though this comes with its own difficulties.
Exporting a dog requires consideration of costs such as pre-export vaccinations, microchip, crate, export pedigree, kenneling and quarantine inspection. You’ll also need to check whether your airline actually ships dogs and what the cost would be, and the import laws for your own country.
Read on to find out more about the different Japanese breeds available.
Things to Consider when Looking for a Japanese Dog Breed
The most important thing to remember before you buy any breed of dog is to do your research. Never just pick a dog because you like the way it looks, or because you like the idea of a Japanese breed.
Every breed is different, with different behavioral characteristics and needs, and it’s important to get the right one for you and your family circumstances.
It’s also crucial to research the breeder themselves to find out what health checks they have in place and how reputable they are. The breeder should also be as interested in you and your plans for the dog as you are in them and the dog’s history and family background.
Bullet points of things to consider
- Shedding – if you suffer from allergies to dander or you are keen to keep a clean and tidy house and car, then you will want to consider how much your chosen dog will shed. For example, the Shiba Inu sheds steadily all year round, so you’ll need to keep on top of that. Shedding is completely normal, but you can help take care of it by using a suitable brush to lift dead hairs from the undercoat before it ends up all over your floor. A healthy balanced diet for your dog is also helpful.
- Temperament – many Japanese breeds were bred for hunting in various forms, which means that they are hardy and quite independent. This usually means that they are very loyal, but good socialization and training is crucial. Some dogs, however, have retained more aloofness and may be less suited to being with other pets or children.
- Food costs – generally, larger, more energetic dogs eat more. You’ll want to think about the food costs for the dog breeds you are looking at.
- Vet costs – some breeds are more prone to certain health issues so you need to be aware of what those are and seek health clearances from reputable breeders. For example, many larger breeds are susceptible to hip and elbow dysplasia.
- Energy levels – it’s important to get a dog that fits with your lifestyle. An energetic, busy dog will never be happy in a situation where he just gets to wander around the garden twice a day, and unhappiness will exhibit as problem behaviors. Only choose a high energy breed if you live an active lifestyle.
Now that we’ve talked about what to look for when searching for the best dog for your family, let’s consider ten Japanese breeds that you should consider.
10 Most Popular Japanese Dog Breeds
#1 – Shiba Inu
The Shiba Inu is one of the most ancient of the 6 “national” dogs of Japan and is certainly the most popular Japanese breed and considered a national treasure.
Originally bred to find birds and small game, and sometimes used to hunt wild boar, they are tough, intelligent and, one of the smaller Spitz breeds, totally gorgeous to look at.
Surprisingly, the Shiba Inu faced near extinction in WWII from bombing raids and then distempered in post-war years, and their survival is considered one of Japan’s success stories.
Pretty small in stature compared with some of the other breeds on this list, standing at just 13-17 inches tall and weighing in at between 16 and 24 pounds, this dog’s small size doesn’t match up with a very big personality!
The Shiba Inu is quite foxlike in appearance with triangular ears and almond eyes. The very fluffy orange and white double coat sheds year-round, and then really sheds twice a year, so you’ll need to be prepared for regular brushing and have a good vacuum.
Underneath the fluff is a muscular, athletic body well-constructed for agility, and in fact this dog is quick and nimble.
An independent animal, the Shiba Inu is happy in a wide range of situations. It has adapted well to apartment living, and a smaller version is now deliberately being bred for even more suitability to city dwelling.
With good early socialization they are mischievous, intelligent and friendly, with a good tolerance to being left alone during the working day.
However, they do have a certain proud superiority and without early and consistent training and socialization can be described as stubborn and spirited. You need him to think that your instructions are his own idea! He can also be a little possessive of property and territory and can be aggressive with other dogs, so it’s best if you keep it on the leash.
The Shiba Inu has a lot of energy, so does need a good amount of exercise – a good run along with you, and a well-fenced yard for a good romp.
#2 – Kishu Inu (Kishu Ken)
Originating from the Kishu region of Japan, the Kishu Inu is recognized as one of the six “national” dogs of Japan. Despite their thousands of years of history in the country, they are now relatively rare and difficult to get hold of, even in Japan.
Japanese legend suggests this dog is a close descendent of wolves, and over centuries it roamed the mountains of Japan and was used extensively for boar and deer hunting, where it would stalk the prey silently.
The Kishu Inu is medium sized, resembling the Akita and Shiba Inu in muscular solid build and having the triangle face common to the Spitz breeds, pricked up ears and a long curly tail. It generally weighs between 30 and 60 pounds and stands between 17 and 22 inches tall.
To be considered a Kishu Inu purebred, only solid colors are accepted. White is the most common, but other colors are black, red and sesame.
The Kishu Inu is perfect for an active family. Not only do they love being outdoors and active, but they also have the ability to settle down and be calm once at home.
With good socialization and training these dogs make devoted and affectionate family pets, and they do love children. They are playful, alert and competitive so would excel at dog sports.
One thing that you’d need to watch out for is that the natural hunting instinct is strong in this breed and they are pretty impulsive, so should not be left alone with smaller pets.
Another thing to beware of is that along with their intelligence and high activity levels, they are master escape-artists, so good fencing around your yard is important.
An experienced owner is required as some patient training and excellent socialization is needed – the Kishu can sometimes be aloof and unsure of strangers, and can also sometimes show pack instinct and try to dominate other pets – it’s important to get them used to a range of different people, and also to show them who’s boss.
#3 – Hokkaido
The Hokkaido Inu is a middle-sized dog characterized by a fluffy teddy-bear appearance. Don’t let this fool you though; this breed is intelligent and strong-willed with some incredible senses. Bred as a hunting dog in Japan’s northernmost island, they are built to withstand extreme cold and snow – hence the fluffy coat.
With a solid build, the Hokkaido weighs in at around 40-45 pounds, despite standing only 18 to 20 inches tall. Compared with other Spitz dogs, you may notice larger paws and smaller ears, both adaptations to help it in very cold temperatures. It also has very strong bones and quite thick skin.
The Hokkaido has a long thick double coat, which means that their grooming routine is a bit higher maintenance than some other dogs.
This super dog makes a great family pet but does require consistent training as it does have a dominant streak and can be strong-willed. It develops a great bond with its owners and will stick firmly with the family, loving children and demonstrating this with kisses, cuddles and play and sometimes quite demanding of attention.
As a working dog, the Hokkaido was often used to keep the other dogs in the kennel in order, making the most of its strong-willed dominance. This does mean that it can show aggression towards other dogs.
One of the most incredible features of the Hokkaido is its amazing sense of smell. The Hokkaido has been known to find its way home from hundreds of miles away! They are very intelligent and easy to train and love the outdoors. A lot of physical and mental exercise is important to maintain happiness and prevent boredom behaviors.
#4 – Japanese Akita Inu
The Japanese Akita is the largest of the Spitz breeds, with a lengthy history and a legendary status in Japan. During World War Two this breed almost vanished from Japan. There is another similar breed called the American Akita, but they are not quite the same.
Known for their loyalty, there is a story in Japan of an Akita named Hachiko, who continued going to meet his master at the train station (where he used to meet him from his daily commute) for nine years after his master died.
Looking like an enormous and extremely fluffy teddy-bear dog, the Akita weighs in at around 70 to 120 pounds and stands 24 – 28 inches tall. They are muscular and well-proportioned with a large bone structure, sporting a broad head, with the pointed ears, almond eyes and curled tail common to the Spitz dogs.
Adapted for cold weather, the Akita sports a thick, long, double coat, though brushing every couple of days is ample through most of the year. Daily brushing is important at shedding time, and you’ll still have undercoat wafting across your floor and gathering in corners!
Fur colors can be sesame, red, fawn, pure white or brindle, and to meet the breed standards, must have urajiro (white) markings on the chest, tail area and cheeks.
The Japanese Akita can be a loving and very faithful dog and family member with the appropriate socialization and can be good with children.
However, they have a tendency to moodiness and can be unpredictable around strangers and other dogs, particularly those the same sex. They don’t like others to tamper with their food or toys.
#5 – Tosa Inu (Japanese mastiff)
The Tosa (from the indigenous region of Tosa – the Kochi prefecture) is unlike the Spitz dogs we’ve been talking about so far. They are the bodybuilders of Japanese dogs. Bred for fighting, they are fearless and protective but can also make a sensitive, loyal and quiet pet.
From the 19th Century the Tosa Inu was bred in Japan, combining the genetics of the Shikoku Inu with European dog breeds such as the Saint Bernard, English Mastiff, English Bulldog, Great Dane, German Pointer and Bull Terrier. Today they are bread all around the world and come in a wide variety of sizes, the Japanese ones actually amongst the smaller.
Weighing in at up to 200lb, and up to 32 inches in height, this is quite a heavy-weight, muscular dog. The Tosa has wide, powerful jaws, square muzzle and a massive head, framed by velvet, hanging ears.
The Tosa Inu has short, smooth hair which is generally red, fawn or brindle in color.
It is recommended that the Tosa Inu be left for more experienced owners. A large and powerful dog, this breed has tendencies to being dominant and without proper training, can demonstrate aggression.
This makes them a fearless and protective guard-dog, but good socialization and steady and consistent training is crucial in order to bring out their better qualities.
In many countries, the Tosa Inu is considered a “dangerous dog” and breeding or keeping them is banned, so do check the law before you consider getting one. As they were bred for fighting, they find it difficult to socialize with other dogs, cats and occasionally strange humans. It would definitely not be recommended to leave them unsupervised with children.
#6 – Shikoku
The Shikoku is the most wolf-like of the Japanese national dogs. A well-loved Spitz, it is still relatively rare, even within Japan. Coming from the island of Shikoku, it was bred for hunting boar and absolutely loves the outdoors, where it was encouraged to roam for centuries. It has a superb sense of smell and can be trained as tracking dogs.
In shape, the Shikoku resembles the Akita and Shiba Inu, though generally a little smaller. It has the Spitz characteristics of curly tail, triangular face and pricked up ears, but if anything, these are even more exaggerated, giving a very “wolfy” impression. The breed generally comes in at around 33 to 45 pounds and it stands around 17-21 inches tall, pretty compact and lean.
The beautiful thick double coat comes in black sesame, red sesame and white.
The Shikoku is a bit of a contradiction in terms of personality. For centuries they were encouraged to spend time freely roaming the wilderness to retain their primitive hunter instincts, which led to a certain strong-willed independence.
However, they have adapted extremely well to family life and are very happy cuddled up on a couch, begging tummy rubs. They love human contact and touch, are generally friendly with other dogs and are easier to handle than Shibas and Akitas.
#7 – Japanese Spitz
The Japanese Spitz are descendants of German Spitz brought to Japan from China in 1920, though genetically similar to Siberian Samoyeds.
A smaller dog, the Japanese Spitz has the appearance of an arctic fox, with a small head, a pointed face and pricked up ears with dark eyes. Weighing in at between 11 and 20 pounds and standing between 12 and 15 inches, this compact and fluffy little dog is ideal for city-dwellers.
Surprisingly, despite the long dense fur in that snowy white coat, debris does not tend to get caught in the fur and it only needs grooming about once a week. They do shed twice a year; at which time they will need daily brushing.
This dog is a great family pet and a natural security alarm. Loving cuddles and attention, the breed is a great companion dog for older people or children, though it also has plenty of energy and is always willing to play.
If security is an area of concern, the Spitz is pretty territorial and will readily bark (a lot) if a stranger comes near the home, so you’ll soon scare off any intruders.
The Japanese Spitz is a loyal and obedient training subject and by rewarding quiet and calm behavior, unwanted over-barking and excitable bouncing can be reduced.
#8 – Sanshu Inu
A breed developed early in the twentieth century, the Sanshu Inu is a cross between a Chow Chow, an Aichi and various other Japanese dogs. They are rare outside Japan but very popular family pets and guard dogs within the country.
In looks they are similar to the Akita and Shiba Inu, though with a much straighter tail. There are two versions of this breed, one growing up to 22 inches tall, the other a bit smaller, just reaching 18 inches or less.
Coats can come in tan, fawn, gray, red or a mixture. As the breed is not yet recognized by the Japanese Kennel Club, there is no color standard.
Bred specifically as companion and guard dogs, the Sanshu will form affectionate and loyal bonds with their families. They have been described as sensitive and very eager to please. However, they are also very protective and make excellent guard dogs.
#9 – Kai Ken
The Kai Ken, one of the six “National” dogs of Japan, has a striking appearance. Often referred to as “tora” (which means tiger) because of his wonderful brindle hunting camouflage of gold stripes against dark fur. Bred to hunt wild game such as deer, bears, boar and wild fowl in the mountains of Yamanashi this is a quick-witted dog.
The Kai Ken’s nimble agility (sometimes described as almost cat-like) allows him to conquer harsh terrains easily, including the ability to swim well and climb trees, but he also has the tough stamina and speed of the pack dog.
With a traditional Spitz triangle face, pointed ears and curly tails, the Kai Ken is a medium-sized dog, weighing in between 10 and 20 pounds and standing 13-17 inches tall. He has well developed muscles.
While the Kai Ken has been bred for work, and is a quick-witted, intelligent learner, he can also be a loyal and loving companion if well socialized early on. However, the breed does maintain that hunting instinct, and the Kai Ken is not always very friendly with other dogs or children and should be kept on the leash when out walking. They do have an independent streak!
It is very noticeable that Kai Ken are at their happiest in the wilderness, and they love the space to run and roam, so they are not well suited to city living unless you also spend a lot of time visiting the countryside.
#10 – Ryukyu
The Ryukyu is now quite a rare dog but this mid-sized breed used to be used for tracking and baying when hunting wild boar. It originates in Okinawa – the southern islands of Japan.
The stocky and muscular build are quite similar to the larger Hokkaido and they have the characteristic Spitz pointed triangular ears and curled tail.
A distinctive feature of this dog is that they have a dew claw on the back of the paw, a remnant from years of living in the rainforest, where they may have needed to climb trees for safety or food. They can still climb effortlessly.
The fur of the Ryukyu is darkly brindled, similar to the Kai Ken.
Confident, alert and brave, the Ryukyu is also a devoted and docile family pet if socialized properly, and individuals have even been used for therapy.
However, if they are not properly trained and kept in their place, they do have a tendency to become dominant. It is also not recommended that they be kept with smaller pets, due to their hunting instincts.
They are an active, intelligent and outdoorsy type of dog and need a lot of mental and physical exercise and stimulation to be a happy pet.
Other Japanese Dog Breeds to consider
If you’re looking for a Japanese breed but the ones listed above are not quite what you’re looking for, or you’d prefer a slightly smaller Japanese dog, you might wish to consider one of these:
- Japanese terrier – small, (33inches)
- Sakhalin Husky – rarest Japanese dog breed – nearly extinct
- Japanese Chin – a toy dog popular with Japanese nobility.
Wrapping Up: Which Japanese Dog Breed is Right for You?
As you can see, all these Japanese dog breeds are very different. All have great strength and stamina, all like a good deal of exercise, and all are intelligent, independent and loyal – after that they all possess different characteristics.
You should consider your lifestyle and family situation carefully before selecting a Japanese dog breed, particularly to ensure that you have the time and attention to dedicate to proper socialization and training, which is absolutely crucial in these headstrong breeds.