Within Japan, the types of dogs mainly referred to as Nihon-ken consist of six breeds that have been designated Japanese natural treasures: the Akita-inu / Akita-ken, Shiba-inu, Kishu-ken, Shikoku-ken, Kai-ken, and Hokkaido-ken. They often have brown, white, or black fur, and common characteristics of their appearance include triangular ears that stand straight up and face forward, tails that are either curled or point forward diagonally, and muscular legs. They have a sense of calm dignity and refinement with a general presence that remains close to that of their ancestors.
Akita-inu / Akita-ken is the only large breed of the Nihon-ken, which have been designated as natural treasures. Compared to other Nihon-ken, it became known overseas relatively quickly, with a greater number of Akita-inu / Akita-ken registered for ownership in foreign countries than in Japan. The rise in the recognition and popularity of this breed was greatly assisted by the American movie “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale”, starring Richard Gere. This movie was based on the true story of a loyal Akita-inu / Akita-ken in Japan who, even after the death of his master, faithfully continued to wait for him every day at the train station he had formerly used when coming home. In Kita-Akita city, Japan’s first Akita-inu / Akita-ken idol group “MOFUMOFU☆DOGS” has even been formed and has released their own music video.
The Shiba-inu is the smallest of the Nihon-ken, which have been designated natural treasures, and accounts for roughly 80% of Nihon-ken owned in Japan. An Instagram page of a Shiba-inu named “Maru (Marutaro)” has become famous and popular for its photographs set against the natural scenery of the seasons in Japan. Its popularity has led to it amassing 2.5 million followers from around the world, and “Maru” has been appointed as the sightseeing ambassador of Mie Prefecture.
Nihon-ken also include four breeds of medium-sized dogs consisting of the Kishu-ken, which often has white fur; the Shikoku-ken, whose strong appearnce looks like “Nihon okami” or Japanese wolf; the Kai-ken, whose fur color is often compared to a tiger’s; and the Hokkaido-ken, which has fur in a variety of colors including brown, white, and black. Since Nihon-ken were originally hunting dogs, they have a strong independent spirit and are faithful to their masters as well. This disposition, in addition to their appearance, was what attracted many of their owners to them. The next time you visit Japan, be on the lookout for these popular Japanese dogs!