Are Japanese Wolves Real?

By M.B. Lachlei

Anup Shah/Photodisc/Getty Images

Japan had not one, but two wolves living on the islands: the Honshū wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) and the Hokkaido or Ezo wolf (Canis lupus hattai). Biologists consider both wolves extinct, although rumors of sightings abound in the wilder parts of Japan. These two subspecies of wolf died out in 1889 and 1905 respectively because of rabies, loss of habitat and eradication by ranchers.

Honshu Wolf

The Honshu wolf's diminutive size of roughly 1 foot at the shoulder made it the smallest wolf subspecies. It looked more dog-like than wolf-like, leading Japanese zoologist Yoshinori Imaizumi to speculate that it might have been a distinct species. Worshiped as a god, Japanese travelers considered the wolf as a protector, helping see them safely home. The shift in public perception changed with a rabies epidemic in the late 17th century, combined with the change in Japanese agriculture to ranching livestock, the Honshu wolf became a perceived pest.

Hokkaido Wolf

The Hokkaido wolf resided on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, as well as the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula, the islands of Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, Iturup and Kunashir Island. Larger than the Honshu wolf, the Hokkaido or Ezo wolf looked more like its Siberian wolf ancestors. Farmers and ranchers eradicated these wolves when they changed over to Western agricultural practices during the Meiji period (1868-1912) using poisoned bait.

Japanese Wolf Sightings

Despite the pronouncement of extinction, reported wolf sightings still occur in Japan. Whether people mistake dogs such as the Ainu or Siberian husky for wolves remains questionable. One photograph taken in 1910 shows three Japanese men next to a dead canid. In 2000, Yoshinori Imaizumi, Japanese wolf expert and zoologist, and Mizuko Yoshiyuki from the National Science Museum of Japan examined the photograph and pronounced the animal a Honshu wolf, killed five years after its supposed extinction. A wolf pelt in a shrine dated to the 1950s may confirm that the Honshu wolf still existed then.

Japanese Wolf Descendants

The Ezo or Hokkaido wolf may be extinct or may have simply added its genes to the Japanese dogs, such as the Ainu Inu. Known for its hunting ability, the Ainu Inu looks similar to the Hokkaido. The Hokkaido Development Agency found that the Ainu indigenous peoples often caught and tamed Hokkaido wolf pups for hunting companions, which most likely helped develop the Ainu Inu.

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