Dogs Landing page banner

The relationship between dogs and people in Japan has a long history. From ancient funerary rituals to literature and art, evidence shows that in Japan dogs have been hunting partners, subjects of interest and companions - in both life and death - for thousands of years.

Dog bones dating back to the Jōmon period (c. 14,500 – c. 500 BCE) have been found buried with as much care as human remains, while a haniwa figurine (ritualistic terracotta clay figures) of a dog wearing a collar was unearthed from a Kofun period site (300–538 CE). Later on in Japan's history, literary works from the Heian period (794–1185 CE) such as The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji depict dogs roaming freely among courtiers in the early capital of Heian-kyō, and foreign breeds were valued as hunting dogs for falconry in the Kamakura period (1185–1333 CE).  

Up until the late 1800s, dogs have helped warriors of nobility in their training through the sport of inuoumono (犬追物 - 'dog hunting events'), while leading artists in the Edo period (1603–1868 CE) painted puppies, and stories featuring anthropomorphized dogs grew in popularity. 

Today, adverts and stories that give human characteristics to dogs are still produced in abundance. The relationship between dogs and people in Japan may have changed over time, but, just as they did in the past, people in Japan today cherish their canine companions.

The six Japanese breeds

Akita, Kai, Kishu, Shiba, Shikoku, and Hokkaido: these six breeds, known as 'Nihon-ken' ('Japanese dogs'), are unique to Japan and have been designated a Natural Monument. Admired abroad, these breeds are protected by international conservation associations. Nihon-ken were often used as hunting dogs in Japan, for as well as being physically able, they are said to be brave, honest, and loyal to the person they consider their master, and capable of forming strong bonds.

Dogs and belief

A deep spiritual connection between dogs and humans is expressed through some Japanese objects of belief. Dog-like statue guardians (komainu) at the entrances to many shrines and temples do not represent dogs, but were nevertheless adopted as talismans out of respect for the important role dogs played in hunting. Because of their easy labour, dogs are also connected to notions of safe childbirth. Many amulets in Japan feature dogs, such as inuhariko papier-mâché dogs which are meant to ensure safe delivery.

Dogs and art

Leading Edo-period artists such as Itō Jakuchū, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, and Yosa Buson were so drawn to dogs, they made them the subject of their paintings. In particular, the roly-poly dogs of Maruyama Ōkyo, with their cherubic expressions and artless poses encapsulating the playful nature of a puppy, were known as ‘Ōkyo puppies’, and continue to capture the hearts of people both within and outside of Japan today.

Year of the dog

The Chinese zodiac, based on the solar calendar in Japan (juunishi), incorporates the dog. People born under the Year of the Dog are believed to have positive dog-like personality traits such as courage and loyalty. 2018 was the latest Year of the Dog, which comes around once every twelve years. Nengajō (greetings cards exchanged at New Year) often feature designs based on the New Year's zodiac sign. In 2018, nengajō created by specialist paper trading company Takeo demonstrated a variety of such ‘dog’ motifs.

Celebrated Japanese dogs

Today, dogs still feature heavily in pop culture and folk stories. Hachikō is possibly Japan's most well-known dog, famous throughout the country for his loyalty. His bronze statue stands outside of Shibuya station, Tokyo, and a number of films tell his story. Other loyal dogs have been similarly enshrined across Japan in statues, such as Fukushima Prefecture’s Okage inu who visited Ise Shrine on behalf of his master and Shizuoka Prefecture’s Shippei Taro who saved the villagers from monsters. There are said to be more than 60 anecdotes and statues of faithful dogs around the country.

Contemporary life

Popular social channels such as Instagram reflect the relationship between people in Japan and their dogs today. With approximately nine million dogs living with families around Japan, they appear to be as popular as ever.

Architecture for Dogs

Showing at Japan House London from 19 September 2020 - 10 January 2021 is the Architecture for Dogs exhibition - an architecture project, started in 2012, that is dedicated to human and canine happiness. By reimagining structures on a dog’s scale, it explores the possibilities of architecture. The official website features architectural designs by 16 teams of architects and designers, along with freely downloadable blueprints, photos and videos. Items made for, and featuring, dogs will soon be available at The Shop


Contributors: Monchan Ikka, 日本犬祭 2018 (Nippon Dog’s Carnival 2018) Organizing Committee, Takeo Co., Ltd., Architecture for Dogs