7 Famous Japanese Dog Breeds

Japan has great reverence for animals, and dogs are certainly no exception. For the Japanese, dogs are thought of as national treasures. Though the native breeds of Japan can be traced back thousands of years, seven famous Japanese dog breeds are considered rare even in Japan, making them even more special. Anyone who owns one of these rare dog breeds is exceptionally lucky, not only because they have a dignified and steadfast companion, but also because many of Japan’s native dogs have fascinating histories.

While there are a handful of popular Japanese dog breeds, only six are recognized as true native Japanese breeds: Shiba Inu, Shikoku, Kishu, Kai Ken, Hokkaido, and Akita. Western influences and war nearly wiped out the native dogs, but fortunately, Japanese dog preservationists saved and stabilized these beautiful breeds. Here are six rare and beautiful Japanese dog breeds with fascinating histories and very lucky owners.

1. Shiba Inu
The Shiba Inu is the tiniest of the Nihon Ken, maxing out at around 23 pounds and a height of just under 17 inches. This breed is also considered the most popular companion pet in its homeland, with 80% of pet dogs currently bred in Japan being Shibas. The first recorded Shiba Inu to enter the United States didn’t arrive until the 1950s, narrowly escaping extinction during World War II. They resemble foxes but have a character often described as cat-like, being affectionate and loyal but also independent and willful.

2. Akita
The Akita is the largest of the Nihon Ken, with robust, heavily coated dogs growing to over 100 pounds and more than two feet tall. Originally bred in the early 17th century as stout hunting dogs, Akitas today are known for their bravery and protective nature. They are so cherished in Japan that parents of newborns often receive Akita figurines as gifts, symbolizing happiness and a long life. The famous story of Hachiko, an Akita who waited for his owner at Shibuya Station every evening for ten years after his owner’s death, exemplifies their loyalty.

3. Kai Ken
The Kai Ken breed is rare, even in its homeland, and was only discovered about 90 years ago. According to the Nihon Ken System, these noble dogs come in three colors—red brindle (aka-tora), medium brindle (chu-tora), and black brindle (kuro-tora). “Tora” means “tiger” in Japanese. Originally bred as hunting dogs, there were two distinct types: shishi-inu-gata (bear-like) and shika-inu-gata (fox-like). Today, no distinction is made between the two, and they are usually kept as pets rather than hunting companions. Though independent thinkers, Kai Kens form close, devoted bonds with their families.

4. Kishu Ken
The Kishu Ken is a sporty, well-built working dog bred for hunting deer and boar, a task it sometimes still performs today. Affectionate and loyal with their families, these dogs do well in active households. The AKC notes that while a Kishu raised with a cat might coexist peacefully, they could see it as prey otherwise. Despite being one of the most popular medium-sized dogs in Japan, the breed remains rare elsewhere and has even experienced a decline in its homeland.

5. Shikoku Ken
The Shikoku Ken’s wild appearance and demeanor sometimes lead people to mistake it for a Japanese wolf, which is a compliment. These dogs, bred to hunt large game like boar in the mountainous regions of Kochi Prefecture, are the rarest of the Nihon Ken. Despite their independence, Shikoku dogs are reportedly more eager to please than some of their more famous counterparts, such as the Shiba Inu.

6. Hokkaido
The Hokkaido is considered the oldest of the Nihon Ken, with a history dating back thousands of years. Linked to the Ainu, an ancient indigenous people who were displaced to Hokkaido, these dogs were fearless hunting companions. Today, Hokkaidos thrive with active families who enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, running, and camping.