This post has been a long time coming. The idea goes back several years, but it took a bit of luck and planning to bring it together.
There is a lot of disagreement and confusion when it comes to the Honshu wolf, one of two (or possibly more) wolves endemic to – and now extinct in – Japan. Scientists can’t agree whether it was a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) or a separate species (Canis hodophilax). No-one seems able to point to a single cause for their extinction (I can – I call it “the usual reasons”*). The locals couldn’t even agree on a single name.
What we do know is that the last confirmed wolf was killed in Nara in 1905. Apparently, there had been one kept in Ueno Zoo just over a decade before, but no photographs survive. (And, alas, neither did the wolves)
*The usual reasons: habitat destruction, hunting, and humans being generally greedy and/or stupid.
Honshu wolves were revered since time immemorial. The Japanese name for wolf (“okami” 狼) is believed to be derived from a homophone meaning “great spirit” (大神). For primative agrarian people, deer, wild pigs, and hares were no doubt a major problem, destroying crops and possibly pushing whole villages over the brink of starvation. Enter the wolf, which drives the pests away. For the ancient crop farmers, it was a divine protector.
Wolves found themselves as the centre of cults in various places around the country. Perhaps the most well-known is the one based around the Okutama-Chichibu-Kai region. Wolf skulls and jawbones were treated as amulets, and the possessors of such items believed their crops would be protected from foraging animals, while the wolves would leave enough deer and pigs for the farmers to hunt. (Exactly how one would come into possession of a wolf’s skull is not mentioned.) Some were kept as family heirlooms and handed down from generation to generation. However, according to the Mitsumine Shrine museum, some of the “wolf” skulls passed down have turned out to be dog, fox or bear skulls!
Farmers in the Kawakami region of Nagano and around the outer reaches of Chichibu would allow their dogs to mate with wolves, and the (rare) Kawakami breed of dog can claim descent from wolves. At least two other now extinct breeds – the Chichibu dog and Chichibu wolf dog – could also make similar claims.
The wolf got a a second shot at divinity by being the guide of a lost Yamato-Takeru. According to legend, the prince got lost in the fog in the mountains around the Chichibu-Okutama area, but a white dog guided him to safety. The dog in the myth is usually understood to be a wolf.
One of the difficulties here is that historically the division between dog and wolf was not very clear. Further blurring the distinction is the use of the word yamainu (山犬 or 豺). Some believe that the yamainu was just another name for wolf, while other theories include:
- The yamainu was a subspecies of the Honshu wolf
- The yamainu was a different species of wolf altogether
- The yamainu was in fact a wolf, and the Japanese wolf was a kind of wild dog
- The yamainu was a wild dog
- The yamainu was a hybrid of the Honshu wolf and a domesticated dog
Unfortunately, no samples with viable DNA have survived and so we are left to guess. The Wakansansaizue treats wolves and yamainu as separate animals but, given that this work depicts fanciful creatures too, it should be treated with caution.
Yamainu is the name used for heroic dogs in folk stories like Shippeitaro/Hayataro, but many of these date from the time Edo Period, a time when the term yamainu was popular. And while it may have its own agenda, the Mitsumine Shrine Museum claims that Shippeitaro/Hayataro was a wolf.
There was also said to be a kind of supernatural being known as the okuri-inu (sending dog) or okuri-okami (sending wolf) – again, blurring the dog-wolf distinction – which would follow travellers at night. According to legend, if someone being followed by visibly tripped and fell, the dogs or wolves would pounce and eat them. (This could be prevented by pretending that one was merely sitting down to take a rest) However, as long as the traveller was followed by the okuri-inu, they had no need to fear robbers or monsters.
Also blurring the dog/wolf distinction is the guardian deity Oguchinomagami (大口真神), who appears as a dog or wolf – this is said to the manifestation of the aforementioned creature which guided Yamato-Takeru out of danger. Some sources give this as the root word for “okami”. He is also known as Oinuama (御犬様) – literally “Lord Dog” – and is depicted around shrines such as Mitsumine and Mitake.
Interestingly, both the Mitsumine and Mitake shrines – connected to the wolf cults – make it clear that dogs are welcome.
Wolves can also be found in place of the far more common komainu lion dogs seen at most shrines or the foxes at Inari shrines. Again, the Mistumine Shrine is an excellent example of this.
And as for the real wolves? Rabies and distemper arrived with animals brought from overseas (curiously, the name for a rabid dog is yamainu); animal husbandry begun as an industry and wolves became seen as pests; forest land was cleared at a faster rate; freakish weather killed tens of thousands of deer – primary prey of the wolf – in Hokkaido, which seems to be a factor to the demise of the Hokkaido wolf equally as significant as poisoning. I also suspect a change from shrine Shinto to state Shinto weakened the status of the wolf and made hunting and baiting more acceptable. And the rest is history.
There are, from time to time, claimed sightings of wolves (for example, this one), but none have ever been confirmed.
There are also proposals to re-introduce wolves into the Japanese environment to help control deer and wild pigs. I hope to get around to writing about that someday.
In the meantime, I hope to hike up to the Mitake Shrine and Mitsumine Shrine for more pictures and insights.
Rest in peace, Honshu wolf.