Wolves are among some of the most beautiful and misunderstood animals on the planet. Long surrounded by an air of mystery, myth, and indeed fear, they prowl the landscape of our world's pristine wildernesses, and can be found in many far-flung locales throughout our planet. One place that many may not think of when hey think of wolves is Japan, yet here too once roamed a unique and little known species of wolf, the smallest species in the world and one which is relatively unknown even among the Japanese. These wolves experienced a long fall from its status as a divine entity, to become hunted fugitives slaughtered by the hundreds only to turn into a forgotten footnote of Japanese natural history and a sought after cryptid said to still exist in the wilds. Let us take a look at the history and evidence for the continued existence of the enigmatic wolves of Japan.
The commonly thought to be extinct Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) was the world’s smallest wolf, standing just a little over a foot at the shoulder. Also known as the Hondo wolf, the yamainu, or “mountain dog,” and the corruption of this word, shamainu, the Honshu wolf did not particularly resemble the grey wolf that most people are familiar with. In addition to the petite size, their bodies were more compact and narrower, with short, wiry hair and a thin, dog-like tail that was rounded at the end almost as if it was bobbed. They were also lower slung, with legs that were shorter in relation to their body length. The Honshu wolf was generally quite dog-like in appearance, and in some ways had characteristics that bore more resemblance to other types of wild canids like jackals or coyotes, and to “pariah” dogs such as dingoes, than to its Siberian wolf ancestors.
Although the Honshu wolf is currently most commonly classified as a subspecies of gray wolf, this is open to some debate. There are those who argue that the physical differences present were enough to consider the Honshu wolf as its own species instead of merely a miniaturized grey wolf. For instance Japanese zoologist Yoshinori Imaizumi, former head of animal studies at the National Science Museum and widely recognized as the foremost expert on Japanese wolves, has long held that the Honshu wolf should be given species status. There are even some who have questioned whether the Honshu wolf was a true wolf at all. While the issue of the Honshu wolf’s taxonomical status may not be completely settled, whether a separate species or a subspecies, its story is a long and sad one.
The Honshu wolf was once a fairly common sight throughout its former range of the Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu islands of Japan. Residents of rural mountain farms and fields were well acquainted with the wolves, however the people’s reaction to them was not one of panic or fear. Far from being perceived as the evil or nefarious denizens of the forests that wolves were often depicted as in other parts of the world, the Honshu wolves were highly respected and even revered creatures. The wolves were seen as mountain gods, and this divine nature can be seen in some other names for them such as magami meaning “true god,” and yama no kami, or “mountain god.” These wolves had a powerful image as benign protectors of the forest, which is mirrored in much of the folklore of rural areas concerning them.
This protective role can be seen in stories of the Okuri Ookami, or “Sending wolf” which tell of Honshu wolves keeping travelers safe from harm and guiding the way through the woods, ensuring their safe return home. The wolves were also thought to keep wild boar, deer, and other damaging pests away from crops, ensuring a good harvest. Farmers thought of the wolves as generous benefactors in other ways as well, as the animals would on occasion leave parts of their kills behind, which the farmers would repay with offerings of their own. The wolves were sometimes even said to help the old, poor, and infirm, with stories in some traditions telling of them bestowing wealth or curing sickness.
Even in death the Honshu wolves retained their protective powers. Parts of their bodies such as skulls, pelts, and bones often hung up to ward off evil spirits, and in some cases treated as objects of worship. Even the Honshu wolf’s scientific name, Canis lupus hodophilax, which was assigned by Temminck in 1839, is indicative of its role as a protector. Hodo means “path” or “way” in Greek whereas philax means “guardian,” so we get something like “guardian of the way.” The Japanese went through great lengths to show their respect and appreciation to these wolves. Offerings of food were set out for them to eat, prayers were said to them, and temples and shrines were constructed in their honor. To this day there are Shinto shrines devoted to the Honshu wolf in some areas of Japan. Although the wolves were occasionally hunted if they somehow posed a threat, it was seen as bad luck to do so, and killing one was said to invite divine retribution.
The beginning of the end of the Honshu wolves is largely thought to have been heralded by a rabies epidemic that started in the mid to late 17th century and spread quickly through Japan. There were a large number of dead or sick wolves seen in the wilderness during this time, which is testament to the danger the disease posed. Rabies took a heavy toll on the wolf population of Japan, and had the further effect of negatively shifting people’s already changing perception of the wolves as well.
Modernization had already brought in new farming techniques and attitudes that did not leave much room for the wolves. New agricultural practices such as increased use of river valleys for farming rather than mountains meant less traditional reliance on the wolves for protecting crops. Increased livestock production also created new tensions between the wolves and the residents they were once seen as protecting, as the wolves were seen as a threat to the animals. Rabies only aggravated these already shifting attitudes. Not only were the wolves seen as vectors of the disease, but the idea of rabid wolves descending from the mountains into their villages sparked in people a growing, newfound fear of the wolves. It began to be seen as acceptable to hunt them, and farmers began to kill wolves when they could, the specter of spiritual retribution all but forgotten. The divine image that the Honshu wolf had held for so long began to crumble as fast as their numbers.
This became the age of the organized wolf hunts. During this time, large mobs of people from all levels of society came together in unity to take to the forests in an angry, bloodthirsty quest to slaughter as many of the wolves as they could possibly find. It must have been quite a sight to see these chaotic, motley groups of hundreds hunters, with farmers armed with whatever weapons they could find marching right alongside regal samurai in a united cause to scour the forests for wolves to kill. These hunts became major events, and over time came to produce fewer and fewer kills until they became more excuses to gather together rather than any expectations to find any more remaining wolves to actually kill. It seemed that the days of the Honshu wolf’s status as mountain gods, and indeed their very existence, were coming to an end.
The final death rattle of the Honshu wolf would come in the early 20th century. In the early 1900s, a zoologist by the name of Malcolm Anderson had come to Japan to collect exotic animal specimens. On January 23, 1905, some village men in Nara prefecture brought in the carcass of a Honshu wolf which they claimed to have shot two days earlier near a woodpile as it chased a deer. The men initially had thrown the carcass away but then had remembered the foreigner collecting specimens in the area, and figured that they could fetch a price for it. They were correct. Anderson purchased the remains and sent them back to London along with the carcasses of other Japanese animals he had collected such as deer, boar, and Japanese serow. This Honshu wolf specimen was taxidermed and put on display in the Museum of Natural History in London where it remains to this day. It was the last of its kind. Or was it?
The date of extinction of the Honshu wolf has long been accepted as 1905, with the death of the specimen killed in Nara prefecture on Honshu island, Japan which the zoologist Anderson had procured. However, did the Honshu wolf survive past this date and thus defy the extinction orthodoxy? In August of 1910, five years after the death of the so-called “last one,” a strange canid was shot and killed at the Matsudaira agricultural station in rural Fukui prefecture. At first the animal was thought to be a feral dog or perhaps even an escaped Korean wolf from a zoo, but the following day zoo staff examined the carcass and refuted this, saying that the animal looked very much like a presumably extinct Honshu wolf. This was a somewhat controversial stance, as many in Japan held firmly to the 1905 extinction date.
Unfortunately, the preserved carcass of this specimen was destroyed in a fire during the years of the war, leaving merely some photographs and journal entries of the event to go on. For decades, the identity of the mysterious canid killed in 1910 was debated, the identity of the animal made more mysterious by the lack of any physical body to examine. There were many who disagreed with the initial analysis done by the zoo personnel at the time, pointing to perceived physical differences between the photographed animal and the Honshu wolf.
In the early 2000s, Japanese zoologist and wolf expert Yoshinori Imaizumi, former head of animal studies at the National Science Museum, and his colleague Mizuko Yoshiyuki, also of the National Science Museum, did a thorough and detailed analysis of the photographs as well as the journal entries made of the event at the agricultural station. The photograph was meticulously examined and the data on the animal recorded in the journal entries was carefully measured and compared to known information on the Honshu wolf. This was perhaps the most thorough and scientific examination of the event ever done. After careful consideration of the evidence on hand, the two scientists came to the conclusion that the pictured animal was indeed a Honshu wolf. They argued that the physical characteristics of the pictured animal, such as its coloration, the rounded tail, and body dimensions all fit in with the Honshu wolf. The low body weight, which was recorded as 18.75 kg in a journal entry by personnel at the Matsudaira station, also fit in with the known size of Honshu wolves. In addition, no escaped Korean wolves had been reported at the time.
It would appear that the extinction timeline should have been more thoroughly revised in light of these findings, yet debate continues and most widely available information still lists the Honshu wolf as becoming extinct in 1905. Is there a chance that the Honshu wolf survived until 1910? It certainly appears that this may be the case, but what of the wolves’ survival beyond that? Could it have even perhaps survived into the present? Over the years, sightings and circumstantial evidence have suggested that the Honshu wolf may very well have eked out an existence in the mountainous Japanese wilderness. From the early 1900s all the way up until well into the 2000s, alleged Honshu wolf sightings, photos, and even reports of captures or carcasses have continued to pop up from time to time. Let’s look at a few standout cases, although this list is by no means comprehensive.
-In 1934 a group of foresters hunting deer claimed to have come across not one, but a whole pack of Honshu wolves, comprised of 5 or 6 individuals.
-In 1936, a villager on the Kii peninsula claimed to have actually captured a live wolf cub, however the man was reported to have released it back into the wild out of fear the mother wolf would come looking for it.
-The 1940s and 50s saw a sharp increase in wolf sightings. This spate of sightings is thought to be due in part to the huge conscription effort that was going on in Japan in the years around the war. Consequently, a large number of people were leaving the countryside during this time frame, which could have had led to a population boost for the wolves brought on by decreased hunting and increased populations of prey species.
-In 1964, a Mr. Kenji Yanai was mountaineering with his son and a co-worker near Ryogami Mountain when they heard a series of strange howls. Soon after, they came across a lone wolf, which is reported to have studied them for a moment before dashing into the forest, leaving its kill of a small hare behind in its escape.
– In 1966, a photograph was taken of an alleged Honshu wolf by a Hiroshi Yagi on a forest road in Saitama prefecture. The photo was inconclusive, and has been criticized as being a photo of nothing more than a dog.
– In the 70s, there was purportedly a carcass of an apparent Honshu wolf brought in to researchers for study. The body is said to have disappeared and it is unclear of whatever became of it or of any analysis done on it.
-Between the years of 1908 and 1978, Aomori and Oita prefectures were the source of at least 26 separate sighting reports of alleged Honshu wolves.
-In 1998, there was a flap of mystery canid sightings in Chichibu, in the mountains not too far from Tokyo. On many occasions the mysterious canids were seen running through brush, across roads, through yards, and heard yipping or howling. One resident complained that a wolf-like animal had attempted to attack chickens he kept on his rural property.
– On July 8, 2000, a high school principal by the name of Satoshi Nishida photographed an alleged Honshu wolf in Kyushu while he was hiking. The animal photographed was a medium sized canine that was grey and white in color, with orange coloration on its legs as well as behind the ears. A series of photographs were snapped from 10 to 15 feet away before the animal disappeared into thick underbrush. These photographs were compelling to the previously mentioned Japanese zoologist and wolf expert, Yoshinori Imaizumi.
-In 2006, an eyewitness account was relayed to me personally by a Japanese woman who claimed to have seen two of the animals while hiking near her hometown in Wakayama prefecture, which is a hotspot for reported Honshu wold activity. As she was hiking, the woman claimed to have heard a commotion coming from the brush to the side of the trail. The woman said that as she approached, she noticed two animals that she at first took to be Shiba dogs wrestling around in the bushes. However, on closer inspection, she came to the conclusion that something about them looked off, not quite like any type of dog she was familiar with. The animals seemed to be fighting over the carcass of some small animal, oblivious to her approach. When they noticed the woman, one of the canids darted away with the carcass and was quickly followed by the other.
Sightings are not the only evidence on offer. In many areas, alleged wolf tracks have been found, as well as purported wolf hairs and scat. Some shrines also claim to have pelts or other relics gathered from Honshu wolves that died after their supposed extinction date. For instance, in 1994 a shrine in Tottori prefecture was found to possess a wolf specimen that is thought to have possibly died as recently as the 1950s. An alleged wolf pelt was also found in the possession of a man who claimed it was killed sometime in the 70s, although this has not been confirmed. Occasionally wolf howls are reported as well. In 1994, for instance, at least 70 people reported wolf-like howls around the Kii peninsula, an area long considered a major hot spot for Honshu wolf sightings and activity.
So what is the chance that this evidence amounts to anything? Is it possible that Honshu wolves are still roaming the Japanese mountains? The habitat in Japan is certainly able to sustain a population of wolves. Although the population density of Japan is quite high, this data can be misleading. The terrain is largely mountainous and forested, with the bulk of the human population concentrated into major urban centers on the coastal plains. Something like 90% of Japan’s population inhabits only around 10% of the actual land area. Looking at population density statistics on paper does not do justice to just how much rugged, unpopulated wilderness there really is in this island nation.
The forests of Japan abound with abundant prey species, to the point that animals such as deer and wild boar have become serious pests in many areas. The ecosystem would be quite comfortable for a predator such as the Honshu wolf. In fact, the wolf’s biological niche in Japan has never really been filled since its disappearance. Other Japanese predators are geared towards smaller prey, and even the closest thing to the wolves, the raccoon dog, or tanuki, does not prey on the same animals the wolves once did. The Honshu was a keystone predator and as such its apparent disappearance has had a negative effect on the Japanese ecosystem. With the population boom experienced by wild boar and deer, not only is the habitat in Japan suitable for sustaining the wolves, it sorely needs them. It seems at least possible that considering the vast swaths of sparsely populated mountain wilderness, small populations of these wolves could stay adequately hidden from people. While these areas are further encroached upon by urban centers, much of Japan’s wilderness remains remote and an increasing number of people are moving away from rural areas to pursue a different life in the country's many bustling cities.
Regardless of the potential for the habitat to support them, there are still certain problems that we are faced with when reviewing the evidence for the continued survival of the Honshu wolf. Physical evidence allegedly left behind by the wolves has so far been circumstantial at best. Tracks or scat could have been left by feral dogs or even domesticated ones that are allowed to roam. The dogs in many rural areas of Japan are often allowed to wander off into the forests at will, or live in an almost semi-feral state, which could result in canine tracks or droppings far out in the woods.
Attempts at DNA testing conducted on supposed evidence such as hairs or preserved physical evidence have run into problems as well. Mitochondrial DNA testing has failed to clear up the identity of alleged wolf hairs, and DNA testing of preserved evidence such as scraps of pelts or bone have so far produced similarly inconclusive results. Furthermore, obtaining a good sample of Honshu wolf genetic material from the handful of known mounted specimens for comparison has presented its own challenge as the harsh chemicals used in the taxidermy process can produce faulty results. We simply don’t even have a completely reliable, solid sample of Honshu wolf genetic material with which to compare in the first place.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that some Japanese breeds of dog such as the Shiba inu, Akita inu, and Shikoku inu (note that inu simply means “dog” in Japanese) bear a strong physical resemblance to Honshu wolves and the two are thought to be somewhat close, both phenotypically and genetically, to Honshu wolves. This is especially so if hybridization has occurred to any significant degree. The “Pariah” dogs that followed human migrations to Japan during the Jomon period (approximately 8,000 to 200 B.C.), became the basis for most Japanese dog breeds. The Shiba inu, for example, is thought to have changed very little from the hunting dog early Jomon settlers brought with them. It is thought that these Japanese breeds have possibly intermittently interbred with Honshu wolves over the centuries to various degrees depending on who you ask. Intentional interbreeding is not so far fetched, as these early settlers certainly valued certain wolf-like characteristics in their dogs, such as hunting prowess and a strong family bond (pack mentality). Unintentional hybridization also could have occurred. This possible genetic similarity between Japanese dog breeds and Honshu wolf, combined with the already strong genetic plasticity of canines in general, potentially makes it difficult to conclusively prove anything through DNA results.
Regardless of the specific genetic connections between Japanese dog breeds and the Honshu wolf, the clear and undeniable physical similarities between them certainly could at least have an effect on the credibility of sightings reports. The Shiba inu in some ways look quite a bit like the Honshu wolf, as does the Shikoku inu breed and to a somewhat lesser extent the larger Akita inu. These dog breeds could perhaps be mistaken for the wolves by witnesses under the right conditions. The superficial resemblance between these dog breeds and the Honshu wolf is apparent. It isn’t too hard to imagine someone coming across a feral or wandering specimen of one of these dogs out in the middle of the woods or only fleetingly, and coming to the conclusion that they had seen a wolf. Is it possible that all of the eyewitnesses for modern day Honshu wolf reports are merely seeing dogs?
The reports of wolf howls are a bit harder to dismiss, yet there is the slight possibility that certain dog sounds could be mistaken as being from something like a wolf. The Shiba inu and some other Japanese breeds for example are known to produce high pitched noises and screams rather than barking or typical dog sounds. The Hokkaido inu breed also howls very much like a wolf. Could these have perhaps be misconstrued as “wolf noises” by a startled witness out in the woods? There are no good recordings of Honshu wolf vocalizations, so we are without a basis of comparison and we are left with a compelling mystery. What is producing the howls that people are hearing and claiming to be those of wolves?
There have been attempts to further investigate these alleged wolf howls. In 1995, a team ventured into the wilderness of the Kii peninsula with recordings of howls from Canadian gray wolves with the intent to elicit howls in response from any Honshu wolves that may still be out there. It is totally unknown if the two types of wolves had compatible howls, but it was the best the expedition could come up with. After several nights of continuously blaring the recordings into the mountain wilderness, the team failed to get any answering howls at all. The following year, in 1996, a similar experiment was conducted in Saitama prefecture. The team made meticulous, hi-fidelity recordings of the forest sounds after regular blasting of grey wolf calls, yet close scrutiny of the tapes turned up no hint of answering wolf howls. It would be interesting to see if further experiments of this kind turn up anything, but so far there has been nothing but silence.
In modern times, the hunt for the Honshu wolf has become in a sense similar to that of Australia's Thylacine, a sort of Holy Grail of Japanese cryptozoology, yet for now if there are any left alive then they remain as elusive as ever. Where are the Honshu wolves? Are they still out there prowling Japan’s wilderness, or have they been regulated to museums, Shinto wolf shrines, and legends? Do they still pierce the night with their howls, or are they forever quiet? If we continue to search, will we find wolves, or merely stories and anecdotes of a long vanished animal? The mystery remains.