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Japanese Dog Breeds
The native dogs of Japan are of the classic northern type. They have the typical Akita face, square bodies, wedge-shaped heads, small upright ears, short, thick stand-off coats, and the tail is curled up over the back. They are believed to have special characteristics associated with the concepts of spirit, obedience, loyalty and bravery and their temperaments are always calm and considerate, with great dignity. The eyes tend to be triangular and recessed, "suggesting the burning spirit within."
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Definition and Etymology
American Akita
(Great Japanese Dog)
Originally both the Akita-Inu, the largest of the Japanese dog of the spitz type, and the Tosa-Inu were considered native Japanese dogs. Strictly speaking, they are not pure native Japanese dog breeds. This is especially true for the Tosa inu, which was bred with various Western breeds. The history of the Akita Inu is somehow different. The first Akitas imported to the US were either of the fighting dog type or of the German Shepherd type. By the time the breed was recognized by the AKC in 1973, the Akitas bred in the US were substantially different from the ancient type Akita, the type promoted by the Japanese conservation societies. The Japan Kennel Club as well as AKIHO (the parent club for the Akita breed in Japan), did not recognize the American Akitas anymore as true Akitas. Over several years Japan convinced the FCI countries to ban any Akitas with black masks, pinto markings, or any black color on the body, from the shows, eventually leading to a seperate entry for this Akita-type under the name Great Japanese Dog (formerly American Akita).

In the United States, Canada, Britain, and the rest of the non-FCI all colors are allowed and no difference in type is made between the American Akita and Japanese Akita. However the differences are not merely a question of color. The Japanese dogs are not as large or massive and heavy boned as the American Akitas. They are square in proportion and have a much more pronounced tuck-up. The head proportions are about 50/50 whereas the American standard recommends a 40/60 ratio between muzzle and top skull. The red and brindle Japanese dogs must have white shading on the face, chest and inner part of the legs and under the tail.

The Tosa is also known as the Japanese Mastiff or Japanese fighting dog 土佐闘犬 and is probably the only dog in the world which is still used quite legally to this day for dog fights. However, the Japanese developed a type of fight according to their mentality that bears no comparison with the notorious pit dog fights held illegally in other parts of the world. More about the Tosa inu.

Most of the Japanese breeds of dogs are associated with particular areas of Japan. They include the Akita inu, Tosa inu, Hokkaido inu, Kishu inu, Kai inu, and Shikoku inu. The only breed which is not associated with a particular area is the Shiba inu ("Shiba" means "brushwood" (kindling) in Japanese, and probably refers to the small size of the breed. Both the terms inu and ken translate into the word "dog".

Many of the Japanese breeds originally carried one of these terms after their names, but modern usage tends to drop the suffix.
The breed differences lie in the sizes, colors, uses and a few other minor features. In fact, they are so much alike that in Japan, these native breeds are shown in one classification, divided into sub-groups: large (Akita), medium (Kai, Kishu, Ainu, Shikoku) and small (Shiba).
The Hokkaido dog, the Kai inu, the Kishu dog, the Shiba inu and the Shikoku inu are undoubtedly the native Japanese breeds. They were bred for hunting by ancient hunters of Japan, called "matagi." 
The Japanese Spitz, the Japanese Chin, and Japanese Terrier are not considered native Japanese dogs.

History and Evolution

In 1928 Nihon Ken Hozonkai (Nippo), what can be translated as "The organization for the preservation of the Japanese dogs", was founded. The organisation was recognized by the Japanese government as the official body with as mission statement to save the native Japanese dogs from extinction. The first Nippo dog show was held in 1928.

During World War II, the number of the Japanese breeds decreased sharply. But, thanks to the efforts of dog fanciers and the preservation societies, the breeds are now more protected than ever.

In 1948 the Japanese Kennel Club (JKC) was founded and was recognized by the Japanese government as a "common association for all dog breeds". Nippo and JKC work hand in hand for the preservation of the native dogs of Japan.

Most native Japanese breeds are known to be very quiet dogs, only barking "when there is something to bark about".
Although they have a history of hunting dogs, they need to be raised in-doors, as member of the family. When left unattended in the backyard, they tend to develop "personality" problems and become very destructive. They are highly pack oriented, thus, isolating them from the pack (i.e. owner and human family) causes them great stress.

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Further Reading
Japanese dogs
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Shikoku inu
Chinese dogs
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Guide to Owning an Akita:
Puppy Care, Grooming, Training, History, Health, Breed Standard
by Jason Taylor
More information:
The New Complete Akita
by Joan M. Linderman
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Akita: Treasure of Japan
by Barbara Bouyet
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by Gerald Mitchell

Japanese Dogs by Michiko Chiba
Canine Lexicon by Andrew De Prisco
Dogs by Desmond Morris
Japan Kennel Club (in Japanese)

External Links: (in Japanese and English)
Hokkaido Inu Museum
The Case for Two Separate Akita Breeds
by Sophia Kaluzniacki, DVM
Unsere Nordische Webseite (in German)