If you ever plan to go hiking in Japan, chances are that you will never encounter a Japanese wolf despite its depiction in art and appearances in shrines like Mitsumine Shrine. “Why’s that?” you may ask. Sadly, the Japanese wolf has been extinct for quite some time, though not so long ago. In fact, the last Japanese wolf died in 1905, almost 120 years ago. This brings into question what exactly happened to the Japanese wolf, and why it ended up disappearing a century ago.
There were two types of wolves in Japan: the Japanese wolf or Honshu wolf, and the Hokkaido wolf or Ezo wolf. The Japanese wolf was endemic to Japan, meaning it could only be found in the Japanese archipelago. The Hokkaido wolf, on the other hand, could be found in the islands of Hokkaido, Japan, and Sakhalin, Russia.
The Japanese wolf was smaller than its relatives, standing at 58 cm at the withers. The Hokkaido wolf was much larger at 80 cm at the withers, being similar in size to that of other gray wolves found in North America and Asia.
The Japanese wolf lived peacefully among humans for centuries. Farmers used to appreciate wolves because their howls would warn them of other animals that could come to ruin their crops. However, things changed during the 1700s when rabies spreading from China made it to the Japanese archipelago. When wolves became infected, the perception towards these canines took a turn for the worst as people started to see them as human-killing beasts. During the Meiji Restoration, killing wolves became a national policy, which led to the disappearance of the Japanese wolf and the Hokkaido wolf from Japan.
After the Japanese wolf became extinct, various people started claiming to having seen the elusive wolves. The sightings were similar in nature to those of the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, which have never been able to be confirmed. Zoologists claim that the Japanese wolf sightings are actually associated to feral dogs that people fail to identify correctly.
As for the Hokkaido wolf, some people still believe that it can be found in Sakhalin; but again, there is no evidence to support that claim, and the wolf has not been seen in ages.
The demise of the Japanese wolf and the Hokkaido wolf is a very sad part of Japanese history that illustrates what happens when there is a conflict between wildlife and humans. What happened continues to remind Japanese that they lost something that cannot return. As a result, there is a monument in the village of Higashiyoshino, Nara that shows the statue of a wolf with a haiku by Toshio Mihashi. The haiku reads: “I walk/ With that wolf/ That is no more.”
For those who would still like to see what these wolves looked like, there are some specimens left in Japan. In Hokkaido, there are some taxidermied Hokkaido wolves in the Hokkaido Museum and the Hokkaido University Museum; and in Tokyo, Ueno Park has a mounted Japanese wolf and a skeleton.
These might not be the sightings we would like to see, but there are sadly the last remains of the beautiful Japanese wolf.