8 Authentic Japanese Dog Breeds and Their Fascinating Histories

Updated: Dec. 08, 2021

Some of these indigenous Japanese dog breeds have lineages that are thousands of years old. Find out how they came to be the country's official national treasures.

Americans love their dogs, but sadly, we don’t have a national dog breed. Japan, on the other hand, has six. Called the “Nihon Ken,” or Japan’s dogs, these indigenous pups—the Shiba Inu, the Akita, the Kai Ken, the Kishu Ken, the Shikoku, and the Hokkaido—are descended from medium-sized dog breeds that used to roam Japan’s mountainous regions thousands of years ago. Because the six spitz-type breeds share a common ancestor, they’re somewhat similar—although they have notable differences. Each of the breeds has a double coat that’s suitable for a cooler climate, as well as thick fur and curly tails. They’re also highly revered in Japanese culture and are some of the cutest dog breeds with pointy ears.

Ahead, we’ve compiled information about each of the national Japanese dog breeds, as well as other non-indigenous breeds that were imported to the country and are closely associated with it. Prepare to be impressed by these pups’ interesting histories. From the rarest dog breed on this list, the Kai Ken, to the more well-known Shiba Inu, these are some delightful dogs. With their smiling faces—seriously, many of these breeds are known for their happy expressions—they’re excited to meet you. And for more country-specific dog breeds, don’t miss our roundups of the cutest Australian dog breeds, Chinese dog breeds, German dog breeds, Italian dog breeds, and Russian dog breeds.

Close-Up Of Japanese Akita Standing OutdoorsTara Gregg/Getty Images

1. Akita

These powerful pups hold a special place in Japanese culture. Gifting new parents with an Akita figurine when a child is born is a popular way to wish the youngster happiness and long life. They’ve also got a cool backstory. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), Japanese lore notes that they came into existence after a 17th-century emperor banished an aristocrat to rule the Akita prefecture in northern Japan. The former nobleman called on his barons to breed a large hunting dog. Today, we know that dog as the Akita. These dignified giant dogs, who sometimes weigh up to 130 pounds and are a brindle dog breed, were used to hunt big game such as wild boar, deer, and bear. In addition to being great hunters, they’re also incredible guard dogs. They’re affectionate and sweet with their owners but can be wary of other animals and strangers. Invite one into your home and you’ll have a loyal friend for life.

Breed Overview
Height: 24 to 28 inches
Weight: 70 to 130 pounds
Life expectancy: 10 to 13 years

Gorgeous and happy red shiba inu dog sitting in a flower fieldAnastasiia Cherniavskaia/Getty Images

2. Shiba Inu

Pint-sized and adorable, the Shiba Inu is the most popular companion breed in Japan. They’re also an ancient breed, and have likely been around since 300 B.C. (Get this: The Shiba’s ancestors probably accompanied the earliest immigrants to Japan sometime around 7000 B.C.) While they were originally used as hunting dogs specializing in both small and large game, these spirited dogs that look like foxes don’t require rigorous exercise—although they do appreciate a good walk with their owner. They’re beloved by many families for their friendly nature and their ability to live in a range of environments, from rural to urban. You can expect your Shiba to be confident, dignified, and loyal. Depending on training, he or she might even make a fabulous watchdog. Fun fact: Shibas are the smallest of the Nihon Ken Japanese dog breeds.

Breed Overview
Height: 13.5 to 16.5 inches
Weight: 17 to 23 pounds
Life expectancy: 13 to 16 years

Kishu Ken dog standing outsideslowmotiongli/Getty Images

3. Kishu Ken

We wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of the Kishu Ken before. Another descendent of Japan’s ancient dogs, these majestic pups were bred and developed in the Kishu region (the modern-day Wakayama prefecture). It’s because they’re so beloved that they’re so rare. “The Japanese people are proud of their dogs and bestow honors and praise on them,” writes the AKC. “This pride and commitment to their national treasures—and the Kishu is one of them—is the reason the Kishus are rarely exported.” Kishus are affectionate, loyal, and alert, and were originally used to hunt boar and deer by the Matagi people of Northern Japan. They require lots of exercise, although they’re happy to engage in laid-back cuddles once they’ve gotten some activity. The breed is somewhat guarded around strangers and should be socialized early with kids. Many Kishus are white; there are also red and sesame varieties.

Breed Overview
Height: 17 to 22 inches
Weight: 30 to 60 inches
Life expectancy: 11 to 13 inches

Hokkaido dog sitting on lawnDmitryi Bogdanov/Getty Images

4. Hokkaido

Like all of the Nihon Ken, the Hokkaido Inu has a fascinating history. According to the Hokkaido Association of North America, the breed’s recorded history began between 300 to 700 A.D., when the indigenous Ainu people and their dogs were pushed from the main island of Japan to the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. The dogs acclimated to the cold weather and the mountainous landscape and became skilled bear hunters. They’ve got impressive endurance and are natural problem solvers. These pups come in several colors, including white, red, black, brindle, sesame, and grey, and have wide chests, pointy ears, and thick coats. Don’t expect to spot one on the street, though. The AKC notes that there are very few Hokkaido outside of Japan. Even within the country, the estimated population is only 10,000 to 12,000.

Breed Overview
Height: 18 to 20 inches
Weight: 44 to 66 pounds
Life expectancy: 12 to 15 years

The japanese breed Kai KenTerje Håheim/Getty Images

5. Kai Ken

In the 1930s, Japan named the Kai Ken—as well as its other five native dog breeds—a national treasure. And it turns out, there’s no better way to describe these loyal pups. Originally used to hunt game such as pheasants and bear, these dogs are some of the most affectionate of the native breeds. They come in three colors: black brindle, brindle, and red brindle. Surprisingly, that offered the Kai an occupational advantage; the pattern camouflaged the dogs from prey and predators in the mountainous forests in which they hunted. The breed is rare, even in Japan, but is beloved for its willingness to please, devotion, and adaptiveness (these might be big dogs, but they’re perfectly at home in an apartment setting).

Breed Overview
Height: 15.5 to 19.5 inches
Weight: 20 to 40 pounds
Life expectancy: 12 to 15 years

portrait of Shikoku doganahtiris/Getty Images

6. Shikoku

This imposing breed—sometimes referred to as the Japanese wolf dog, because of its wolflike appearance—originally hunted boar in the Kochi prefecture. Unfortunately, the Shikoku, along with other Nihon Ken breeds, almost went extinct after World War I. In 1928, the Nihon Ken Hozonkai (NIPPO) was formed to preserve the six original dog breeds. Preservationists found three lines of the Shikoku: the Awa, the Hongawa, and the Hata. However, the distinction between these lines has been blurred as the regions have become less remote and the dogs have bred together. The Skinoku comes in several colors, including sesame, red, black, and cream. Experts at the North American Shikoku Club estimate there are fewer than 100 of them outside of Japan. There are likely between 5,000 and 8,000 within the country.

Breed Overview
Height: 17 to 22 inches
Weight: 35 to 55 pounds
Life expectancy: 10 to 12 years

Japanese Chin Puppy in Gardenjhorrocks/Getty Images

7. Japanese Chin

Say hello to these adorable nobles. The Japanese Chin may not be an official national treasure or a member of the Nihon Ken, but they were the companion dogs of choice for Japanese aristocrats. Most experts believe the breed originated in China from the Pekingese. The Chin likely came to Japan as a gift from the Chinese emperor. As the AKC notes, “Chins maintain their regal attitude, expecting always to be the rulers of their household.” These pups are charming and affectionate and are the perfect lapdogs for apartment dwellers. They love slow walks and runs in the park, but are otherwise are very indoors oriented.

Breed Overview
Height: 8 to 11 inches
Weight: 7 to 11 pounds
Life expectancy: 10 to 12 years

japanese terrier dog standing by the waterAlberto Duran Photography/Getty Images

8. Japanese Terrier

The Japanese terrier may not be one of Japan’s ancient dog breeds, but they still have distinguished roots. The toy breed was established in the 1930s after careful breeding of the country’s Kobe and Kuro terriers. The Kobe terrier dates back to the 1700s and is a cross between native Japanese breeds and the smooth fox terrier that was brought to the country by Dutch settlers. The Kuro terrier is a cross between imported English toy terriers and toy bull terriers. However, the Japanese terrier was bred within the country and is considered to be a Japanese dog breed. These pups are considered one-person dogs and can be reserved with strangers. However, they’re curious, playful, and energetic pets that make great companions. Fun fact: They’re the only terrier breed that originated in Japan.

Breed Overview
Height: 11 to 13 inches
Weight: 5 to 10 pounds
Life expectancy: Unknown