Canis lupus hodophilax
Some of the most fascinating wolves were found in Japan. There were two sub-species of wolf in Japan, the dwarf wolf, Honshū wolf or Shamanu (Canis lupus hodophilax) and the Hokkaido wolf or Ezo wolf (Canis lupus hattai ). The former was the smallest of all wolf species at fourteen inches shoulder hight. It was also the most strinkingly marked wolf species,with grey, white and russet fur. The Shamanu occupied the islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. It was eradicated by a combination of rabies (perhapse were the myth of the mad Hito-okami first arose), that first appered in the area in 1732 and the introduction of fire arms. Troughout the 19th century they were extensivly hunted and the last known individual was killed near Washikaguchi on Honshū in 1905. In Higashi-Yoshino Village in Nara prefecture a requiem for the Shamanu is carred out each year. Despite this there are sightings that sugest the dwarf wolf might still be extant.
A wolf was killed and photographed in Fukui in 1910 but the body was destroyed by fire.
In 1934 a group of farmers northwest of Hongu reported seeing five or six wolves in a pack. After World War II, sightings increased. Forester and writer Ue Toshikatsu, thinks that this makes sense as conscription and war reduced the population of rural areas and produced an increase in the numbers of wild game such as boar and deer.
In 1993, Yanai Kenji published his own story of how, whilst mountaineering with his son and his co-worker, he was startled by a “horrible howling” near Ryogami Mountain in 1964. Soon after hearing the howls, the party encountered a lone wolf. The animal watched them briefly, then fled, leaving the half-eaten carcass of a hare behind.
In March 1994, a conference on the wolf’s possible survival was held in Nara. Over eighty professional and amateur researchers attended. They presented and analyzed reports from seventy witnesses who had seen wolves or heard howls. An accompanying story in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun stated that a shrine in Tottori Prefecture, just northwest of Nara, was discovered in January 1994 to hold a surprisingly recent specimen of a dwarf wolf. This animal may have been presented to the shrine as recently as 1950.
Most sightings have come from the Kii Peninsula. This rugged, mountainous block of land projecting into the Pacific from the southeastern coast of Honshu was the last stronghold of the Shamanu.
Canis lupus hattai
In 1966, a wolf expert named Hiroshi Yagi was driving on a forest road in Saitama prefecture (well north of the Kii) when he spotted what he believed was a wolf. He stopped, and the animal let him get close while he took photographs.
In 8th July 2000 Satoshi Nishida, a high school headmaster was on a camping trip in the mountains of central Kyūshū. He encountered a strange creature and took ten shots of it with an auto focus camera. Two of the best were taken at a range of only three to four meters from the left side of the animal.
Mr Nishida showed the pictures to Dr Yoshinori Imaizumi, a former chief at the National Museum’s animal research divistion and an expert on Japanese wolves. Dr Imaizumi noted several charactaristics inherent to the dwarf wolf including the rounded tip of the tail and the reddish orange fur behind the ears and on the outside of it’s legs. He thought it was a lactating female.
Thus far none of the alledged photos of Shamanu have reached the west.
Modern expeditions have focused on the Kii Peninsula but despite trapping efforts and playing recordings on Canadian wolf vocalizations the dwarf wolf remains elusive.
The Hokkaido wolf was closer in size to the average mainland wolf. It was found on Hokkaido, Shakhalin,the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka Penninsular. It was thought to have become extinct in Japan around 1889 during the Meiji restoration period. It was deemed a threat to livestock and a bounty was placed on the species. They were erradicated mainly by poison.
Like the dwarf wolf, sightings of the Hokkaido wolf are reported from time to time. It is also thought they may survive in Kamchatka.
There can be no greater metaphore for the ‘progress’ of ‘civilization’ than the transformation of the wolf in Japan from a spiritual creature to noxious vermin as it’s culture became modenized. There is a striking similarity here to the case of the thylacine or Tasmanian marsupial wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus). It too is offically extinct but continued reports from excellent eyewitnesses such as zoologists and park rangers sugest it still survives. If the same is true for the wolves of Japan it would be a triumph for both conservation and the Japanese nation. Let us hope that the howling gods still lurk in the fastness of the Japanese mountains.