The Japanese wolf (Japanese: ニホンオオカミ（日本狼）, Hepburn: Nihon ōkami, or 山犬, yamainu ; Canis lupus hodophilax ), also known as the Honshū wolf, is an extinct subspecies of the gray wolf that was once endemic to the islands of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū in the Japanese archipelago.Show More
It was one of two subspecies that were once found in the Japanese archipelago, the other being the Hokkaido wolf. Phylogenetic evidence indicates that Japanese wolf was the last surviving wild member of the Pleistocene wolf lineage (in contrast to the Hokkaido wolf which belonged to the lineage of the modern day gray wolf), and may have been the closest wild relative of the domestic dog. Many dog breeds originating from Japan also have Japanese wolf DNA from past hybridization.
Despite long being revered in Japan, the introduction of rabies and canine distemper to Japan led to the decimation of the population, and policies enacted during the Meiji Restoration led to the persecution and eventual total extermination of the subspecies by the early 20th century. Well-documented observations of similar canids have been made throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and have been suggested to be surviving wolves. However, due to environmental and behavioral factors, doubts persist over their identity.Show Less
C. hodopylax' s binomial name derives from the Greek Hodos (path) and phylax (guardian), in reference to Okuri-inu from Japanese folklore, which portrayed wolves or weasels as the protectors of travelers.Show More
There had been numerous other aliases referring to Japanese wolf, and the name ōkami (wolf) is derived from the Old Japanese öpö-kamï, meaning either "great-spirit" where wild animals were associated with the mountain spirit Yama-no-kami in the Shinto religion, or "big dog", or "big bite" (ōkami or ōkame), and "big mouth"; Ōkuchi-no-Makami (Japanese) was an old and deified alias for Japanese wolf where it was both worshipped and feared, and it meant "a true god with big-mouth" based on several theories; either referring to wolf's mouth with associations with several legends and folklore such as the wolf guided Yamato Takeru and was titled so by the prince, or a region in Asuka called Ōkuchi-no-Makami-no-Hara where Asuka no Kinunui no Konoha (Japanese) lived and a number of people were said to be killed by an old wolf there.Show Less
In the Shinto belief, the ōkami ("wolf") is regarded as a messenger of the kami spirits and also offers protection against crop raiders such as the wild boar and deer. Wild animals were associated with the mountain spirit Yama-no-kami. The mountains of Japan, seen as a dangerous, deadly place, were highly associated with the wolf, which was believed to be their protector and guardian. Many mountain villages, such as Okamiiwa ("Wolf Rock") and Okamitaira ("Wolf Plateau"), are named after the wolf; this could be due to a sighting at the location, or a simple homage to the species.Show More
There are an estimated 20 Shinto wolf shrines on Honshu alone. The most famous national shrine is located at Mitsumine in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture and there are a number of smaller wolf shrines on the Kii Peninsula, including the Tamaki Shrine and the Katakati Shrine at Totsukawa village.
In Japanese folklore, there is the widely recorded belief of the okuriōkami ("escort wolf") that followed someone walking alone through a forest at night until they reach their home without doing them any harm. An offering was sometimes made for this escort. Another belief was of wolves that raised an infant who had been abandoned in the forests of the Kii Peninsula, and later became the clan leader Fujiwara no Hidehira. Another belief from the Kanto area of eastern Japan was that feeding an infant wolf's milk would make them grow up strong. Some legends portray the Japanese wolf as being prophetic creatures. In the Tamaki Mountains the location of a tree called “the cypress of dog-howls” is said to be the site where wolves howled immediately before a flood in 1889 warning the villagers, and before the great earthquake of 1923 even though the wolf was extinct by that time. Another belief was the "wolf notification" where a traveller does not return home, then a wolf comes to their home and makes a sad howling that signalled their death.
Some villages had wolf charms called shishiyoke that were believed to protect their village and their crops against wild boar. Wolf fangs, hide, and hair were carried by travelers to ward off evil spirits, and wolf skulls were kept in some home shrines to ward off misfortune. In some villages such as in Gifu Prefecture, the skull of the wolf was used as the charm for both protection as well as curing possessed villagers. In addition to protecting the crops, the wolf may leave prey for villagers.
The Japanese wolf is the prime concept in the hit 2012 anime movie, Wolf Children, about the life of the last Japanese wolf who can turn into a human, and a human wife who raised their two wolf-human children as a single mother, after her husband was killed. The Japanese wolf has also played a major role in other popular media, such as in the 1997 Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke, the 2006 video game Ōkami., and the 2019 show Kamen Rider Zero-One.Show Less
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Canis lupus hodophilax was described by Temminck in 1839 as smaller than Canis lupus lupus (Linnaeus 1758) and of shorter legs, with its coat smooth and short. The Japanese wolf was smaller in size compared to the Hokkaido wolf and other gray wolves from the Asian and North American continents. It stood 56–58 cm at the withers.Show More
There are four mounted specimens believed to be Canis lupus hodophilax located at: the National Museum of Nature and Science, Japan; University of Tokyo, Japan; Wakayama University, Japan; Siebold Collection, and the National Museum of Natural History, Leiden, Netherlands.Show Less
The Japanese wolf inhabited Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu Islands but not Hokkaido Island. The remains of a 28,000-year-old wolf specimen from the Yana River on the northern coast of arctic Siberia matched the mDNA haplotype of the Japanese wolf, which indicates that they shared common ancestry and a wider distribution.