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The Ryukyuken


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

Just as there are unchināchu humans—in other words, Okinawans—there are also unchināchu dogs. The Ryukyuken dog breed is indigenous to Okinawa. For a time, these dogs crossbred with breeds from outside the island and their numbers began declining, but recently, people have taken notice and there are efforts to protect the breed. If you asked the oldest Okinawans if they’ve ever heard of a Ryukyuken, they might look at you with incredulity. In the past Ryukyuken were called turā or akain, but when the movement to preserve the breed first emerged, the dogs were given the proper name Ryukyuken. Turā refers to tiger stripes and akain means “red dog,” but there are also Ryukyuken with white coats. 

The Ryukyuken’s characteristics include a shallow stop (the indented part of the skull that runs between a dog’s eyes and down its nose). Like wolves, Ryukyuken have a narrow muzzle that extends in a straight line from the eyes. These two features are both characteristic of ancient dogs. A Ryukuken’s ears stick straight up and are spaced far apart, forming a wide V-shape on the inner profile of the head. Their chests are deep and spotted with white, and their front legs are well-developed. Many Ryukyuken now have a variant tail that does not curl over but rather stands straight up.

The Ryukyuken’s overall appearance is sharp and smart, but these dogs are not vicious. They are obedient and loyal to humans; they don’t bark without reason, their sense of smell is acute, and their movements are quick. They are also a very fertile breed, and the mother dogs are devoted to raising their young. Today’s spoiled lap dogs would do well to take a leaf from the Ryukyuken’s book.

In Okinawa, the breed was initially developed for boar hunting. From time immemorial, inbiki—dog-leading—has been the favored method of hunting in Okinawa; hunters have dogs corral the boar to a place where the hunters can kill it with a spear or polearm. This hunting method exists in other parts of Asia as well, but even today in the Yanbaru region of the main island, there are those who still practice inbiki. Hunters put a pack of Ryukyuken in the bed of a truck and drive out along a mountain road, and the moment the lead dog scents a boar, it leaps out of the still-moving truck. Once the leader has gone, the other dogs follow, dashing off into the mountains. If the boar is particularly large, it must be taken by spear with a single stab to a vital organ, but if it’s small, the dogs will fell it themselves and drag it back to their masters. After that, all that’s left is to lash the prey to a spear and sling the spear over one’s shoulders to carry it down the mountain. In this case, the dogs are the distinguished hunters.

It’s said that dogs are the first animals that humans domesticated. Domestic dogs first appeared in Japan alongside the Jomon people, who were themselves hunter-gatherers; eventually other dog breeds were brought by the Yayoi people, who entered Japan via the Korean Peninsula. Ryukyuken are more closely related to the dogs of the Jomon than those of the Yayoi, which means they contain the blood of dogs who have been in Japan since the dawn of history. And interestingly, the Ryukyuken genome also greatly resembles that of the Hokkaido dog breed (also called the Ainu-ken) found on Japan’s northernmost island. On the Japanese mainland, the older dog breeds have intermixed with Yayoi dogs, but Hokkaido and Okinawa are separated from the mainland by the sea, which means that at least in those places the Jomon dogs remained. People often mention all the similarities between Okinawans and the Ainu, and one might say the same for their dogs, providing proof that people and dogs really do move together.

Additionally, there’s one other place where dogs very similar to the Ryukyuken are found. On the island of Bali in Indonesia. From the stop to the ears to the tiger stripes, these dogs are nearly identical to the Ryukyuken. Only a survey of their genome would provide a truly accurate comparison, but still, I am moved by the thought that on island nations, we see examples of how it’s easier for the old blood to survive.