Environment

In search of Japan's extinct wolves: Sightings of a mysterious canine in Chichibu have been captivating animal enthusiasts

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

It was around 3 p.m. on a chilly day in December. The sky was overcast and the scent of rain hung in the air when Rina Kambayashi happened upon a creature she had never seen before. Opening the front door to her family’s gracefully weathered 150-year-old traditional wooden house, Kambayashi stepped out into the garden. She froze when she noticed a lone, dog-like animal standing among the withered shrubs growing by the rim of a small, empty, man-made pond. The distance between them was around 3 to 4 meters, the 53-year-old homemaker recalls when we meet in April at her residence on the outskirts of Chichibu, a mountain-ringed city in Saitama Prefecture.

Kambayashi says the animal stared at her for a few seconds before she called inside for her aging mother, Chiyo, to bring a camera. Her voice prompted the mysterious canine to disappear into the bamboo forest bordering a valley leading to the Anya River, a tributary of the Arakawa, one of the longest rivers in Japan.

The animal had an elongated, triangular snout. Unlike dogs, which typically have prominent foreheads, its face seemed relatively flat from the top of the skull to the nose, she recalls. It had a straight tail and patchy, black-and-brown fur. Around the size of a medium-sized dog, it looked hungry, with its ribs showing.

“It definitely wasn’t a dog,” she says. “I think it was a wolf.”

A stuffed specimen of a Japanese wolf is stored at the University of Tokyo's Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO'S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE
A stuffed specimen of a Japanese wolf is stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO’S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE

A wolf pelt in London

In early 1905, a 25-year-old American traveler named Malcolm Anderson was in Japan collecting exotic animal specimens for the London Zoological Society and the British Museum of Natural History under the patronage of an English zoologist, the Duke of Bedford. Anderson had checked into an inn called the Hogetsuro in Washikaguchi, a remote logging community in Nara Prefecture that is now part of the village of Higashiyoshino. With the assistance of Kiyoshi Kanai, who served as his interpreter, Anderson gathered carcasses of rabbits, weasels, deer and other animals.

On the morning of Jan. 23, three hunters who had learned of Anderson’s mission hauled in the stiff body of a wolf. After some arguments over the price of the dead beast, Anderson purchased the wolf and sent its pelt, along with other specimens, to London, where curators placed them in the British Museum of Natural History.

“It was inconceivable at the time that this would be the last wolf captured in Japan,” Kanai, who later served as mayor of Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, wrote in an article published in 1939. The animal Anderson bought for the price of ¥8 and 50 sen (the sen, a now-defunct currency unit, was worth one-hundredth of a yen) would be the last Japanese wolf the world would see.

Along with the Hokkaido wolf (also called the Ezo wolf; scientific name Canis lupus hattai), the Japanese wolf (or the Honshu wolf; Canis lupus hodophilax) is said to have become extinct over a century ago, gradually killed off as Japan marched toward industrialization in the late 19th century.

After having been worshipped for centuries as deities offering farmers protection against crop raiders such as wild boar and deer, these terrestrial carnivores were exterminated by what is believed to be a combination of rabies (transmitted from dogs) and humans using strychnine and bounty systems to poison and hunt them down in the name of protecting livestock and, by doing so, forever changing the nation’s ecological landscape.

Their story didn’t end there, however. From the early 20th century to Rina Kambayashi’s recent encounter, numerous accounts of sightings, reports of howling and discoveries of purported wolf droppings, bones and fur have prompted some to argue that the nihon ōkami (as the Japanese wolf is known in Japanese) — once the apex predator ruling the forests and mountains of the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu — is still alive and waiting to be rediscovered.

As the late Yoshinori Imaizumi, who was a zoologist at the National Science Museum in Tokyo and a renowned taxonomist, once wrote in his diary about the quest to find the Japanese wolf, “It’s over once you believe it’s gone.”

OOne of Hiroshi Yagi's 19 photographs of the Chichibu yaken (wild dog). | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI
One of Hiroshi Yagi’s 19 photographs of the Chichibu yaken (wild dog). | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI

Close encounters?

On Oct. 14, 1996, Hiroshi Yagi took 19 photos of a medium-sized canine he had come across while driving on a lonely road deep in the mountains of Chichibu, an area traditionally considered the center of wolf-worship in the Kanto region.

It was early evening when Yagi, then 47, saw through his car’s front window a furry, short-legged animal with pointed ears and a black-tipped tail standing at the edge of the forestry road. The encounter was, in a sense, an unexpected bonus in Yagi’s decades-long efforts to track down and prove the existence of an animal now included on the Environment Ministry’s extinct species list.

Hiroshi Yagi's photographs of a wolf-like creature he encountered in the mountains of Chichibu stirred up a heated taxonomical debate. | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI
Hiroshi Yagi’s photographs of a wolf-like creature he encountered in the mountains of Chichibu stirred up a heated taxonomical debate. | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI

Yagi’s photos quickly stirred a heated taxonomical debate. Yagi sent them to Imaizumi, then known as one of Japan’s foremost researchers of the Japanese wolf, who said the dog-like beast Yagi captured in his lens bore a strong resemblance to the Japanese wolf specimen acquired by Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German physician and botanist who first resided in Japan between 1823 and 1829. That specimen is now mounted and stored as part of his collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, the Netherlands. Imaizumi called the creature Yagi photographed a Chichibu yaken (wild dog).

On July 8, 2000, during a hiking trip in Oita Prefecture, Satoshi Nishida photographed a mostly gray-and-black medium-sized canine that had shades of orange on its legs and behind its ears. The high school principal also shared the images with Imaizumi, who said it resembled the Japanese wolf and called it Sobo yaken (in reference to Mount Sobo, where the photos were shot).

Nishida’s photos immediately drew skeptics. Naoki Maruyama, an honorary professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology who heads the Japan Wolf Association, an organization campaigning to reintroduce wolves into the nation to restore balance in the ecosystem, said that while the animal shared some traits of the Japanese wolf, it appeared more likely to be a German Shepherd or a German Shepherd hybrid. He argued it was unlikely that a lone wolf would be spotted since they were known to move in tightly knit packs.

For wolf enthusiasts such as Yagi and Nishida to prove the existence of the Japanese wolf, photographs were not enough. They needed harder evidence, ideally a live specimen that could be scientifically analyzed.

Legend has it that a white wolf once guided war hero Yamato Takeru back to safety when the warrior became lost in the Okuchichibu mountains. | ALEX MARTIN
Legend has it that a white wolf once guided war hero Yamato Takeru back to safety when the warrior became lost in the Okuchichibu mountains. | ALEX MARTIN

Camera traps

My mother, who owns a weekend house in a mountainous village in Arakawa, a district in Chichibu, is a close friend of Rina Kambayashi and her mother. Initially somewhat incredulous at Kambayashi’s tale of her encounter with a strange canine, she found it interesting enough to relay to me.

I contacted Yagi. After all, Chichibu is an area with numerous shrines dedicated to wolves and has been known for occasional sightings of wolf-like animals. If there is one place in Japan where the legendary creature both feared and revered as Oguchi no Magami (Large-Mouthed Pure God) could emerge from the mist of extinction, it might as well be Chichibu.

Yagi, who will turn 70 this year, originally hails from Niigata Prefecture and lives in Ageo, a suburb in Saitama. Holder of a black belt in karate, he is sturdily built and comes across as friendly, talkative and youthful for his age, although his demeanor takes on an air of intensity when the conversation turns to the creatures that are his life-long passion.

“I belonged to the mountaineering club in high school and, after graduating, began working at a mountain hut on Mount Naeba,” he says, referring to a 2,145-meter volcano on the border of Nagano and Niigata prefectures.

One night, when he was 19, he heard a howling cry pierce the air of the beechwood forest. He was convinced it was no regular dog. “I knew then that it came from an animal that shouldn’t exist,” he says.

The incident would propel Yagi to embark on his mission. Half a century later, his quest continues.

A view over the mountains of Chichibu from Mitsumine Shrine. The Okuchichibu mountain range has been an abundant source of legends and folklore involving Japanese wolves. Sightings of the animal continue to this day, leading some to believe the extinct canine could still be roaming the forests of Japan. | ALEX MARTIN
A view over the mountains of Chichibu from Mitsumine Shrine. The Okuchichibu mountain range has been an abundant source of legends and folklore involving Japanese wolves. Sightings of the animal continue to this day, leading some to believe the extinct canine could still be roaming the forests of Japan. | ALEX MARTIN

Yagi and members of his nonprofit organization have set up roughly 70 motion-sensitive infrared cameras in the Okuchichibu Mountains — a vast mountain range covering several prefectures in the Kanto and Koshinetsu regions — in a bid to capture images of the Japanese wolf. Once a week, he would hike up mountain trails to replace SD memory cards for later review and change the batteries of cameras that were running low on juice. It’s no easy task for a man his age, but Yagi’s dedication and commitment — perhaps bordering on obsession — are unwavering.

In “Kenroki,” a 2012 NHK documentary focusing on the ongoing search and wolf mythology, Yagi tells the film crew that upon his death he wants his remains to be buried in a shallow pit in the mountains so that hungry wolves can devour them.

After exchanging several emails, Yagi and I decided to visit Kambayashi at her home. On April 11, Yagi picked me up in his van at Seibu Chichibu Station, some 75 minutes by express train from Tokyo, and we drove southwest on route 140 to listen to what he said was the most recent account of a purported wolf sighting he had heard of.

Lost wolves

The debate over what exactly the Japanese wolf is has been complicated by the fact that the zoological status of the animal has only been determined recently, Brett L. Walker writes in his book, “The Lost Wolves of Japan.”

“Prior to the early 20th century, the categories of canine remained diverse and dependent on social situations and ecological contexts,” Walker writes. “Wolves (ōkami), sick wolves (byōro), mountain dogs (yamainu), honorable dogs (o-inu) big dogs (ōinu), wild dogs (yaken), bad dogs (akuken), village dogs (sato inu), domesticated dogs (kai inu) and hunting dogs (kari inu) all loped across the boundaries of status and of occupational, religious and regional understandings of the categories of canines.”

It was only in the early 20th century, after debates spawned by Carolus Linnaeus’ introduction of his taxonomical system of classifying living organisms hierarchically, and after changes brought by the Meiji Restoration, that the stable category of the Japanese wolf emerged, Walker writes.

The Japanese wolf, along with the Hokkaido wolf, is believed to have gone extinct over a century ago. There are only four stuffed specimens of the Japanese wolf remaining in the world, including the one pictured above stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO'S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE
The Japanese wolf, along with the Hokkaido wolf, is believed to have gone extinct over a century ago. There are only four stuffed specimens of the Japanese wolf remaining in the world, including the one pictured above stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO’S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE

Still, specimens remain scarce. Besides Siebold’s mounted wolf, there are only three other stuffed specimens remaining in the world: one at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, another stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture and one more at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum of Natural History.

There also appear to have been instances in the past when dogs and wolves were encouraged to crossbreed to enhance hunting instincts.

“While the Japanese wolf and Japanese dog breeds trace back to different roots, they have most likely crossbred at some point in time, although we have yet to determine what percentage of their populations were hybrid,” says Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University's School of Veterinary Medicine | ALEX MARTIN
Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University’s School of Veterinary Medicine | ALEX MARTIN

Interestingly, Kikusui also says that Japanese dog breeds such as the Shiba and Akita are considered among the closest genetic relatives to wolves, and still exhibit wolf-like behavior, especially during hunting expeditions. Such traits may have led to some of the murkiness when it came to distinguishing wolves from dogs in pre-modern Japan.

Siebold’s Japanese wolf — considered a type specimen, or a specimen originally used to name a species or subspecies — has itself been a source of confusion. The doctor bought two canine specimens in Osaka in 1826, labeling one “okame,” or wolf, and the other “jamainu,” or mountain dog. Only one appears to have made it to Leiden intact, however, and the distinctions were blurred, with the jamainu specimen listed as the Japanese wolf.

Furthermore, the term yamainu is open to interpretation and has no concrete etymology, Kikusui says. Depending on where in Japan the term is used, it could be another name for wolf or a wolf subspecies, or it could simply refer to feral dogs.

A stone statue of a wolf sits in Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
A stone statue of a wolf sits in Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

Genetic evolution

Modern technology is helping to shed some light on the mystery.

Naotaka Ishiguro, a researcher at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, has been using mitochondrial DNA testing and comparisons with other bone samples of the Japanese wolf to try to determine whether Siebold’s specimens belonged to the extinct animal.

Ishiguro has also analyzed the mitochondrial genome sequences of ancient specimens to determine the origins of the Japanese wolf, which he believes once numbered in the several thousands.

According to his research, the Japanese wolf appears to have colonized Japan in the late Pleistocene Era (25,000 to 125,000 years ago) via what is now the Korean Peninsula when the Japanese archipelago was still connected to the Asian continent. In contrast, the Hokkaido wolf was likely introduced much more recently — around 14,000 years ago — via a land bridge with Sakhalin Island.

Larger than the Japanese wolf, the Hokkaido wolf is considered a subspecies of the gray wolf. The Japanese wolf, however, is sometimes treated as an independent species due to its smaller body size compared with the continental gray wolf and some distinguishing skeletal characteristics.

To clear some of the mystery, Jonas Niemann, a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen, with colleagues analyzed the genome of a Japanese wolf skin from the Natural History Museum in London, at the behest of paleogeneticist Mikkel Sinding, who specializes in the evolution of wolves and dogs. Early results pointed to an intriguing possibility.

“Our preliminary data suggests that the genome of the Honshu wolf is similar to the hypercarnivorous Pleistocene wolf, which went extinct at some point around the late Pleistocene (Era),” Niemann says.

Most ancient wolves went extinct when the ice sheets that covered the Northern Hemisphere began to melt more than 20,000 years ago, killing off large mammals such as the mammoth, which wolves hunted. A story Science magazine published last year on the ongoing research by Niemann and his colleagues cited Sinding saying that some of these extinct wolves’ DNA lived on in the Japanese wolf, potentially offering a new window on the evolution of wolves and dogs.

Stone statue of wolves guard the entrance to Wakamiko Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
Stone statue of wolves guard the entrance to Wakamiko Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

Mountain guides

Tracing the genetic evolution of the Japanese wolf, however, is an entirely different matter from rediscovering an extinct species.

Kikusui of Azabu University, for one, is doubtful of their continued existence.

“Wolf packs typically consist of around five to 10 wolves led by an alpha male and female. To prevent incest and for them to survive, there will need to be a minimum of 50 to 100 wolves,” he says. “And if there were that many wolves around, there would be many more sightings.”

Journalist Mitsuru Munakata | COURTESY OF MITSURU MUNAKATA
Journalist Mitsuru Munakata | COURTESY OF MITSURU MUNAKATA

Journalist Mitsuru Munakata, who wrote a book titled “Nihon Okami wa Kietaka?” (“Has the Japanese Wolf Disappeared?”), isn’t as sure. During his research, he himself came across what he thought may be a wolf while driving back from Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu.

Munakata says he became interested in Japan’s lost wolves after reading Mieko Ogura’s nonfiction book, “Okami no Gofu” (“The Wolf Talisman”), which explores the history and folklore behind the ofuda talismans with wolf imprints, distributed by some shrines and still found in many homes in the Kanto region and beyond, which promise protection against fire, theft and other evils.

Mitsumine Shrine’s talismans, for example, feature a pair of wolves facing each other, one with its mouth open (symbolizing “a,” or the sound of an open mouth) and the other with its mouth closed (symbolizing un, or the sound of a closed mouth). Together, “a-un” is a Buddhist mantra representing the beginning and the end of all things.

Situated around 1,100 meters up the northwestern slope of Mount Myohogatake in Okuchichibu, the shrine is dedicated to the founding gods of Japan, Izanami and Izanagi, and has been home to wolf-worship and shugendo, an old ascetic religion combining aspects of mountain worship with Shintoism and esoteric Buddhism.

According to “A Brief Guide To Chichibu” by Geoffrey Tudor, legend has it that Yamato Takeru, a warrior hero from the province of Yamato, founded the mountaintop shrine.

On his way north on a mission to subdue troublesome tribes of non-Yamato affiliation, he became lost in a mist in what is now Okuchichibu. A large white wolf appeared from the mist, legend has it, and guided the warrior to the trail and safety.

“To this day, the mountains of Okuchichibu are still often swathed in mist, but there are no longer wild dogs or wolves to help lost travelers,” Tudor writes. “However, their presence remains, in stone. Many local shrines have dog/wolf statues as guardian symbols, (a custom) that is unique to this remote district.”

At a museum adjacent to the shrine, enlarged photographs of Yagi’s Chichibu yaken and Nishida’s Sobo yaken are displayed alongside the pelt of the Japanese wolf discovered in 1996. Yagi is, in fact, a visiting researcher at the museum. It was on the way back from a forum on Japanese wolves Yagi hosted there that Munakata spotted a wolf-like creature.

A stone statue of a wolf guards the entrance to Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
A stone statue of a wolf guards the entrance to Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

At around 6 p.m. on Nov. 14, 2014, Munakata and a friend were driving the narrow, winding road from Mitsumine Shrine toward Futase Dam when the vehicle’s headlight caught a gray animal sprinting across the road.

It stopped momentarily before disappearing behind the bushes. Around the size of a Shiba, it had pointed ears and a straight tail, characteristics of a Japanese wolf. The encounter was enough to convince Munakata that the supposedly extinct animal might still be roaming the mountains of Chichibu.

“Wolves used to be found most everywhere in Japan. We assume they no longer exist but shifting that mind-set and actually trying to find traces of them could expand possibilities,” he says.

Munakata drew on the example of the Japanese river otter, last seen in 1979 and officially declared extinct by the Environment Ministry in 2012. Despite its official status, Munakata says there are still numerous otter sightings on the island of Shikoku.

And in 2010, a team of researchers at Kyoto University along with celebrity biologist “Sakana-kun” rediscovered living members of kunimasu, a Japanese species of salmon thought to have gone extinct in 1940, prompting the Environment Ministry to change its designation from “extinct” to “extinct in the wild.”

“It’s a matter of whether you actively search for them or not,” he says.

Rina Kambayashi, 53, speaks to Hiroshi Yagi in April about an encounter with a wolf-like animal at her home in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, in December last year. | ALEX MARTIN
Rina Kambayashi, 53, speaks to Hiroshi Yagi in April about an encounter with a wolf-like animal at her home in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, in December last year. | ALEX MARTIN

‘Connecting the dots’

At the Kambayashi residence, Yagi becomes visibly excited as we listen to her recall her canine encounter.

Standing by the shrubs where Kambayashi said the animal stood, Yagi takes out a tape measure and calculates its size according to her memory. Around 50 centimeters tall — somewhat small for a Japanese wolf, he says, but well within the margin of error.

Kambayashi’s description of the animal’s physique and other traits appear to resemble stuffed specimens of the Japanese wolf as well as photos of the Sobo yaken shot by Nishida in 2000.

Adding an air of authenticity to her claims, Kambayashi’s next-door neighbor had also witnessed a mysterious creature near her home in March and reported the incident to the local town office.

Hiroshi Yagi examines a location where the mysterious canine was spotted. | ALEX MARTIN
Hiroshi Yagi examines a location where the mysterious canine was spotted. | ALEX MARTIN

And while wolves are known to stay away from human communities, Yagi has his own reason to believe Kambayashi’s story: The Anya River running by her home had been a source of wolf sightings, and Yagi had traced the river upstream two decades earlier as part of his fieldwork.

“It’s like connecting the dots,” he says.

When the conversation turns to the howling that Yagi had heard 50 years earlier on Mount Naeba, Kambayashi nonchalantly cuts in.

“That reminds me. I hear howls quite frequently in the middle of the night from the direction of the stream just over yonder,” she says. To Yagi’s surprise, Kambayashi says this happens once or twice a month.

While some dogs are known to howl, Yagi says modern audio recognition technology can differentiate dog howls from wolf howls.

If the howls can be recorded, he says, it could potentially be used as evidence to prove the existence of wolves.

Before we leave, Yagi asks Kambayashi’s permission to install two infrared cameras focusing on animal trails leading up to her house, which he did the following week.

“Academics tend to reject these possibilities outright,” Yagi says. “I start by affirming. Of course, we can’t be sure of what she saw just yet. But so far, I haven’t heard anything she said that denies the existence of the Japanese wolf.”