10 Japanese Dog Breeds with Curly-Que Tails and Protective Dispositions

The origins of today’s Japanese dog breeds can be traced back thousands of years. After millennia of crossbreeding and fine-tuning, it is widely accepted that there are just six breeds native to Japan: Shiba Inu, Hokkaido Inu, Kai Ken, Shikoku Ken, Kishu Ken and Akita Inu. (Haruo Isogai, a Japanese cynologist, identified these breeds in his 1930 study on the history of Japanese dogs.) Other breeds have emerged over time, and have often been crossbred with one of these six native breeds. In recent years, additional studies have found fascinating similarities among Japanese breeds that unite them—and set them apart—from Western breeds. For instance, many Japanese dog breeds have curly-que tails, pointed ears and narrow snouts with fluffy double coats. Japanese canines also tend to be protective and serious. Sure, they’ll slather their favorite family members with love and attention, but they’re often wary of strangers and territorial around other dogs. These are sweeping generalizations, but firm training and lots of early socialization are key if you’re considering making a Japanese “inu” or “ken” (the two words for “dog” in Japanese) part of your family.

Ancient History

Humans and dogs go way back. Like, 15,000 years back. This is when people in Eastern Asia began domesticating wolves. The Jomon people were hunter-gatherers who existed about 12,000 years ago and said to themselves, “Let’s ditch continental Asia and bring our dogs to the island of Japan!” They did, relying on their pups for companionship, protection and assistance (because dogs are actually much better at hunting wild boars than people). These medium-sized dogs are the ancestors of the six native Japanese breeds identified by Isogai.

As groups of people migrated from the Korean Peninsula and China to Japan, crossbreeding occurred. The dog-human relationship also began to shift. In the 16th century, the Japan Kennel Club says owning a dog was often a sign of wealth and power. Animals like the Japanese chin became popular gifts and show dogs along the Silk Road trade routes.

Then, for more than 200 years, Japan was pretty much closed off from the rest of the world when it came to trade and travel. This period, called Sakoku, lasted from 1635 until 1854 and gave native Japanese dog breeds time to blossom without influence from Western breeds.

Modern Japanese Dog Breeds

After Sakoku ended, European breeds practically flooded into Japan. Cities were bursting with pups and many dogs were crossbred with each other to create new versions of older breeds. Simultaneously, rural hunting and farming communities kept their dogs isolated, thus preserving native Japanese dog breed lineage.

As World War I ended, two things happened: Japan’s economy tanked, and the people of Japan rediscovered an intense pride for all things Japanese. This meant not as many people were able to own dogs as pets, but a lot of people were eager to uphold Japanese traditions. Enter: NIPPO.

The Nihon Ken Hozonkai, or NIPPO, is roughly translated to The Japanese Dog Preservation Society. It was formed in 1928 with the goal of preserving and promoting the six native Japanese dog breeds. NIPPO would prove invaluable in the coming decades as breeders developed standards and started organizations dedicated to the preservation of these remarkably proud and loyal dogs.

Without further ado, ten Japanese dog breeds that are equally cute and loyal.

This Is the Single Best Dog Breed for Renters

japanese dog breeds japanese spitz
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1. Japanese Spitz

Average Height: 12-15 inches

Average Weight: 10-25 pounds

Temperament: Playful, Intelligent

Shedding Factor: Seasonal

Activity Level: Moderate

Life Expectancy: 12-14 years

Spitzes of all types are known for their smiling faces, pointy ears and curly-que tails. The snow-white Japanese spitz has a double coat that sheds a ton, but only seasonally (usually twice per year). They are incredibly affectionate, playful pets who love to frolic wildly, yet are content to relax when you’re ready to settle down. Bred from the German spitz as companion dogs in the 1920s, the Japan Kennel Club finalized the breed standard in 1948. According to the Japanese Spitz Club of America, these pups will follow you to the ends of the earth.

japanese dog breeds japanese chin
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2. Japanese Chin

Average Height: 8-11 inches

Average Weight: 7-11 pounds

Temperament: Mellow, Regal

Shedding Factor: Moderate

Activity Level: Low to Moderate

Life Expectancy: 10-12 years

A member of the toy group, the cat-like Japanese chin is a small, noble canine. This regal sensibility is to be expected given the chins’ history as companion animals to Imperial family members. According to the Japanese Chin Club of America, at one point these dogs were valued higher than gold and presented as gifts and works of art (in fact, the lower classes weren’t even allowed to own a chin). These pups have silky coats that come in a variety of colors, usually a combination of white and black, tan or red.

japanese dog breeds shiba inu
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3. Shiba Inu

Average Height: 13.5-16.5 inches

Average Weight: 17-23 pounds

Temperament: Affectionate, Protective

Shedding Factor: High

Activity Level: High

Life Expectancy: 13-16 years

It’s hard not to fall in love with the devoted Shiba Inu—and they make excellent companions for introverts. Said to be named after boldly colored brushwood in the forests where they were bred to hunt, Shibas come in shades of red, copper or sesame, and black and tan. Though the smallest of the native Japanese dog breeds, Shiba Inus exude affection for their families and aren’t afraid to protect their loved ones (or their food bowls) from strangers. The National Shiba Club of America recommends plenty of exercise—both mental and physical—for Shiba Inus.

japanese dog breeds shikoku
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4. Shikoku

Average Height: 17-22 inches

Average Weight: 35-55 pounds

Temperament: Alert, Energetic

Shedding Factor: Moderate to High

Activity Level: Moderate to High

Life Expectancy: 10-12 years

Sometimes called the Shikoku Ken or Kochi Ken, these dogs are named after the island where they originated, off Japan’s southeastern coast. Bred to hunt big game (like boars) in the mountains, it’s no wonder they look like small wolves. Though medium-size, Shikokus have big dog energy and are incredibly athletic. The North American Shikoku club says the dog comes in four main colors: goma (sesame), aka (red), kuro (black or black and tan) and shiro (white or cream). Shikokus tend to be independent and territorial, so firm training early on is necessary. In 1937, NIPPO declared the Shikoku Ken a "Living Natural Monument" of Japan.

japanese dog breeds akita
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5. Akita

Average Height: 24-28 inches

Average Weight: 70-130 pounds

Temperament: Loyal, Brave

Shedding Factor: Seasonal

Activity Level: High

Life Expectancy: 10-13 years

Say hello to one of the most loyal breeds around. The Akita is almost protective to a fault—which makes them great watchdogs, but not such great playmates for other canines. Wary of strangers and eager to chase after small critters, it’s wise to leash train them early and expose them to lots of people when they’re puppies. Though the first Akita arrived in America in 1937 (with none other than Helen Keller, who called her Akita an “angel in fur”), the breed didn’t gain widespread popularity in the U.S. until after World War II. These are large dogs with thick, fluffy fur and spitz-like curved tails. In 1931, Akitas were declared “National Monuments” in Japan.

japanese dog breeds tosa
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6. Tosa

Average Height: 21-24 inches

Average Weight: 100-200 pounds

Temperament: Easy-going, Loving

Shedding Factor: Low

Activity Level: Low

Life Expectancy: 10-12 years

Unfortunately, Tosas were originally bred as fighting dogs. However, today they are embraced by families around the world as gentle giants, ready to give and receive as much affection as possible. Tosas may be the largest Japanese breed, but they take the longest to mature, reaching adulthood around four years old. Their short coats can be reddish brown, fawn and apricot, with dark brown or black noses. The American Kennel Club says Tosas were bred in the 1800s by combining bulldogs, mastiffs, German pointers and Great Danes.

japanese dog breeds japanese terrier

7. Japanese Terrier

Average Height: 8-13 inches

Average Weight: 5-9 pounds

Temperament: Cheerful, Lively

Shedding Factor: Moderate

Activity Level: Moderate to High

Life Expectancy: 12-15 years

A much more modern breed (relatively speaking), the Japanese terrier emerged in the 17th century when Smooth Fox terriers were introduced to Japan by travelers from the Netherlands. These are active little dogs who enjoy chasing anything that moves. Their short coat is usually white with black or brown spots. Japanese terriers also have tiny bob tails, adding extra points to their cuteness factor.

japanese dog breeds kai ken

8. Kai Ken

Average Height: 15-20 inches

Average Weight: 20-40 pounds

Temperament: Loyal, Athletic

Shedding Factor: Moderate

Activity Level: High

Life Expectancy: 12-15 years

The Kai Ken is more eager to please its owners than some other Japanese breeds (looking at you, Akita). These dogs are also smart and learn commands quickly. Bred in the mountains, Kai Kens are very agile athletes with brindle coloring that helped camouflage them while out on hunts. They’re also super rare, even in Japan. Not to fear, though Kai Kens were declared “Natural Monuments” in 1934.

japanese dog breeds hokkaido
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9. Hokkaido

Average Height: 18-20 inches

Average Weight: 44-66 pounds

Temperament: Smart, Devoted

Shedding Factor: Seasonal

Activity Level: High

Life Expectancy: 12-15 years

Talk about a triple threat! Hokkaidos are smart, athletic and loving animals. They are as affectionate with their families as they are protective of their homestead and they adore having a job to do (like guarding the house). Hokkaidos spent centuries in the snow and cold of the Hokkaido mountains with the indigenous Ainu people. Thus, their coats are thick, weatherproof and can be white, red, black, tan or grey. Their “National Monument” designation came in 1937.

japanese dog breeds kishu
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10. Kishu

Average Height: 17-22 inches

Average Weight: 30-60 pounds

Temperament: Athletic, Dedicated

Shedding Factor: Minimal

Activity Level: Moderate to High

Life Expectancy: 11-13 years

The American Kishu Registry and Breed Club advises against trying to keep a Kishu Ken fenced in. These dogs thrive in a wide-open environment where they can roam, just like they did for centuries in Kyushu in southern Japan. Kishu Kens enjoy playtime and interactive games. After they earned their “National Monument” status in 1934, the breed floundered a bit, but is making a comeback thanks to breed clubs. More often than not they are bright white, but can also be tan. Look out for a high prey drive—and lots of affection.

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Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...