The Cryptid Zoo: Japanese Dwarf Wolf (or Shamanu)

A photograph of a stuffed specimen of the Japanese Wolf. I do not know who owns the copyright to this photo. Today, Japan is supposed to have no wolves. Once, it had two types of native wolf, the Ezo wolf which lived on the northern island called Hokkaido and a wolf called the shamanu which lived in the south. Islands tend to produce dwarfed or miniature versions of mainland animals, and these wolves were no exception. The Ezo wolf looked like a small version of the Asian mainland wolf, but the shamanu was even more dwarfed. In fact, many scientists think the shamanu might have been a different species altogether, and not just a dwarfed subspecies. Scientists who take this view have called the shamanu Canis hodophilax. Most books that speak of the Japanese wolf are talking about the shamanu, not the Ezo wolf. The shamanu is also called the Honshu wolf, the shamainu, the yamainu, the nihon-okami and the yama-inu (several of these translate as "mountain dog" or various corruptions thereof).

According to the scientific establishment, the last native wolf in Japan died in the first decade of the 20th century. The year 1905 is the most frequently mentioned official date of extinction, though most scientists now believe there was enough evidence to prove the shamanu existed in the wild until at least 1913.

Japanese attitudes towards wolves were very different from the ideas most common in western cultures. The Japanese wolves were not hated like European wolves, instead they were deified in shrines, especially in the Chichibu Mountains. Peasants saw wolf spirits as protectors of crops. They could see that the wolves controlled deer and hares that would have otherwise been too numerous and a threat to crops.

In the Edo period, the horse-breeding industry began seeing wolves as the enemy, and the introduction of the disease rabies from the mainland also created problems. As human populations expanded, wolves died. Either they were killed outright by humans or by rabies, or they simply lost food resources as wild prey died out.

However, sightings have continued to the present day. Although official science has not admitted it, we can be pretty sure that at least one shamanu actually survived until at least 1950, because an authentic skin dating to that time was found in a shrine (giving wolf pelts to shrines was considered a holy act). The Japanese wolf almost certainly survived for at least a few decades after it had been officially declared extinct. The real question is whether it is alive today.

In the 1970s a supposed wolf carcass was delivered to Japanese scientific authorities for identification. It was simply never seen again, nor was there any pronouncement on what it was. Japanese scientists have looked at a number of wolf-like animals of the same size as the shamanu since then, but they have not overturned the diagnosis of extinction. Believers say that the Japanese scientists are afraid to interfere with orthodox beliefs and official history. The Japanese have a long cultural history of respecting official pronouncements made by authority figures, to the extent that overturning a fact that has been accepted for decades would be extremely unsettling, much more so than it would be to scientists from western cultures. Supposedly, this cultural taboo is a strong reason to actively destroy any evidence that might make a fool out of authority figures. Whether the shamanu survived into the 1970s or not is hard to prove because of this missing evidence. Now, scientists may be too late. Most modern sightings are confined to the Kii Peninsula and these sightings become less numerous all the time. If the shamanu is not already extinct, it is surely struggling and more likely to go extinct with every passing year.

The question of whether the shamanu still exists is vitally important. The disappearance of the Japanese wolf from most or all of its habitat has completely disrupted Japanese forest ecology. Deer and boar populations skyrocket, devestating all edible plant life. The tanuki (another species of wild dog) and fox cannot fill the role that the wolf once filled. The Japanese wolf is what is known as a keystone species, a top predator that is needed in order for the ecosystem to function. Therefore, there is talk of introducing mainland Asian wolves to Japan in order to correct this imbalance. However, this introduction would be a disaster if any shamanu are left, because it would ensure their extinction through crossbreeding or competition. If any native Japanese wolves are left, they need to be saved before we introduce another type of wolf.

You can find out more about the Japanese Dwarf Wolf from the following sources:

Myotis, Mr. Cryptic Canids
Would you like your nonfiction book indexed
in The Cryptid Zoo? Ask if you can send a
review copy.

Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Pages 420-421

Shuker, Karl. The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals. New York: Paraview Press, 2003. Pages 216-221, 267

Wolf Song of Alaska. On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf

Wikipedia, The. Japanese Wolf

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