A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Dogs in Japanese Prehistory and Early History (for the Year of the Dog)


Hamiwa Terra-cotta  dog figurine - 5th century. Unearthed in present-day Saga Prefecture

Hamiwa Terra-cotta dog figurine – 5th century. Unearthed in present-day Saga Prefecture

By Avi Landau

Disappointment at the National Museum Millions of Japanese people visited temples and shrines during the first week of the year for HATSUMODEH (the first pilgrimage of the year) praying for health and success, buying lucky charms, drawing their fortunes, or just having a good time out with family or friends. And while I eventually did do a HATSUMODE of my own (at a shrine I will tell you about in an upcoming post, I kept up my custom of recent years (being the hard-core humanist that I am) of visiting the National Museum in Tokyo on January 3rd, for a week-long event they call: “Make Your First Pilgrimage of the Year at the Museum”. I was really looking forward to it, too. Especially the exhibition that they usually put together focusing on the new year`s animal (according to the Japanese zodiac). In past years the curators have scoured the museum`s vast collection for the most interesting paintings, sculptures, folk-crafts, books and other documents featuring the animal of the year. Since this year happens to be the year of my favorite animal – the dog – I was excited about what I might find.

Three thousand year old dogu figurine depicting a dog - a dog dogu! Discovered in what is now Tochigi Prefecture.

Three thousand year old dogu figurine depicting a dog – a dog dogu! Discovered in what is now Tochigi Prefecture. No one is exactly what this was made for, but since most other figurines from the period appear to be fertility goddesses, might not this be a charm for “easy delivery” in childbirth. In present day Japan pregnant women still offer prayers to dogs and wear something called an INU-OBI (dog-sash)

When I got there though, I imediately felt disappointed. The huge banner announcing the event that they had hanging on the main hall`s facade featured not a dog or dogs – but last year`s zodiac animal, the rooster.  And my premonition turned out to be on the mark. As I went through the single side of the small hall that they`d set aside for  the event, I felt all the winds of enthusiasm draining from the sail that had driven me all the way from Tsukuba to Ueno. Besides a solitary koma-inu ( guardian-lion) figurine (not even a dog!) all they had on display were a dozen or so UKIYOE woodblock prints, each featuring somewhere in it a little dog of some sort (Without even a mention that these were all imported lap dog breeds and not what we would recognize today as any of Japan`s eight distinctive dog breeds. Not a very fitting tribute to the first domesticated animal (not only in Japan, but in the whole world), one that has since the stone age had an important relationship with the inhabitants of the Japanese Archipelago as a hunting companion, guardian (and as dinner!) – and an animal that in folk-culture came to symbolically represent easy delivery in childbirth. There are so many dog themed works, from the thousands of years old DOGU to the works of contemporary artists and craftsment (but all there were were those few Edo Period prints!)

And when talking of dogs in Japan, who could ignore the story of the 5th Shogun of the Edo Period, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), who came to be known as the “Dog Shogun”. At wits end at not being able to produce an heir, he consulted with the priests of the Gokokuji Temple in Edo (closely affiliated with the Omido Temple that once stood on the site of what is now the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine)and was told that in a past life he had cruel to animals. If he wanted a son he would have to make up for these misdeeds by caring for all creatures – especially the zodiac animal of his birth-year – the dog!

Anyway, to make up for my disappointment I went through my own library and put together lots of interesting information about dogs in Japanese history and culture.

Here is Part 1.

Sixth century haniwa terracotta figurine depicting a dog - notice the lack of a forehead. (unearthed in Osaka Prefecture)

Sixth century haniwa terracotta figurine depicting a dog – notice the lack of a forehead. (unearthed in Osaka Prefecture)

Dogs in Japanese Prehistory

Dogs were clearly an important part of the lives of the hunter-gatherers living throughout the Japanese Islands during what is now known as the Jomon Period (10,000 BC – ca. 300 BC) From among the 397 Jomon Period archaeological sites at which dog remains have been discovered to date, the oldest bones are from  9,500 years ago, unearthed at the Natsushima Shell Middens in Kanagawa Prefecture ( these about the same age as the oldest remains found in Europe and North America – though quite new when compared with the much older remains found in the middle east and Russia).

The most interesting fact about Jomon Period dog remains is that quite a few of these pooches were found carefully and respectfully put to rest in graves – either alone, with other dogs, or together with humans! Many of these skeletons show signs of healed fractures suggesting that the dogs had been treated and cared for after being injured – perhaps battling wild boar, deer or bear, in the hunt.

No one is sure, of course, what kind of relationship these partners-in-the-grave had while they were alive, but we can assume that the dogs meant a lot to the people they were buried with – either as hunting companions, guard dogs, trusted companions or magical protectors of some sort.

From a display at the Tohoku Archaeology Museum

Dog and woman sharing a grave. From a display at the Tohoku Archaeology Museum

From their skeletons we know that these Jomon Period dogs differed from today`s Japanese breeds in their smaller size and lack of a sloping forehead (meaning their snouts and heads formed a flat plane).

But are they the ancestors of todays Japanese breeds?

Well, of the eight distinctive native Japanese breeds that exist today, the Hokkaido-ken (Ainu-ken), Akita-ken, Kai-ken, Kishu-ken, Shikoku-ken, Shiba-ken, Mikawa-ken, and Ryukyu (Okinawa) ken (which have all, except for the Mikawa-ken, have been declared Natural Monuments), it is the dogs native to the northern and southern ends of Japan (the Hokkaido and Ryukyu dogs, respectively) that most closely resemble the Jomon dogs (both genetically and in physical charateristics).

This can be explained by the fact that the waves of immigrants that came from the continent during the Yayoi (300 BC – 300 AD) and Kofun Periods (300 – 710),bringing their own dogs with them, did not settle in the Ryukyus in the extreme south or on Hokkaido in the extreme north. We can assume that both the dogs and the people mixed with each other on the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu. This has been confirmed by test showing that the dog breeds from these islands are closely related to Korean dogs.

Thus we can probably say that the Jomon dogs arrived in the Japanese islands with early immigrants and ended up spread from the Ryukuyus up to Sakhalin north of Hokkaido, and then later, in the Yayoi Period, the TORAIJIN, brought their dogs to Kyushu, Shikoku and western Honshu – before spreading to the eastern and northern-eastern parts of that island, their dogs mixing with native breeds, everywhere there came.

Jomon Period dog skulls. Note their flatness, something that was lost when they mixed with dogs brought over from the continent in the Yayoi and Kofun Periods

Jomon Period dog skulls.
Note their flatness, something that was lost when they mixed with dogs brought over from the continent in the Yayoi and Kofun Periods

With the Yayoi Period (300 BC – 300 AD) and the spread of agriculture, there was a dramatic decrease in dog burial – and the practice of burying dogs together with humans came to an end. What is found instead at archaeological sites from this period is evidence of dogs having been an important food (bones of butchered dogs discarded with the rest of the trash).

In fact, evidence of dogs having been used as food can be found in abundance right through the middle ages.

During the so called Kofun Period (300 -710) it is clear that dogs were kept by the ruling class and used for hunting. Some of the distinctive Haniwa clay figurines that survive from the era show dogs wearing colors. And there is at least one dotaku (ceremonial bells) adorned with an image of dogs surrounding prey in an organized hunt.

Despite the fact that it is the Year of the Dog

Despite 2018 being the Year of the Dog, the National Museum in Ueno used last year`s banner, featuring last year`s zodiac animal – the rooster, to wish everyone a happy new year. A foretaste of the disappointment I would feel going through the museum`s exhibition of dog themed works.

Papier-mache dog

Papier-mache dog (Hariko Inu). The close relation the Jomon people had with dogs lives on in Japanese fol culture. These figurines are given to children as protective amulets.

Enormous flower arrangement

Enormous New Year`s flower arrangement at the National  Museum in Ueno

Dogs in early Japanese History

Japanese history came be said to begin in the 8th century with the appearance of written texts. In the second oldest extant text, the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan, of 720 AD)we can read of a  man named Mikaso who had a dog named Ayuki – giving us the the first recorded dog-name in Japan. According to the Nihon Shoki, Ayuki  killed and then ate a mujina (which could be a racoon-dog, a badger – or perhaps some other more fearsome creature that would have made it more worthy of being documented in such an important text.)

The Nihon Shoki lists numerous embassies from the continent who came bearing exotic gifts – including dogs, large and small, just about every time. We even know that during the Nara Period (710 – 794) the government had a special bureau for dog-keepers ( inukaibe), though, we don`t exactly what role it`s function was.

Another extant 8th century text, the Harima Fudoki (which describes the history of customs of what is now Hyogo Prefecture) we can read about Emperor Ojin`s dog Manashiro ( Adorable Shiro). Brave Manashiro is said to have pursued a wild boar up a hill where the two animals battled. Manashiro was killed and buried to the west of the hill upon which he died.

To be continued….

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