Officially, there are no more wolves in Japan. The Honshū wolf (Canis lupus hodophylax
), or ōkami
, is believed to have gone extinct in 1905 (16 years after its cousin in Hokkaidō). The smallest of all wolf varieties, barely over a foot high at the shoulder, it still managed to garner a great amount of respect from its human neighbors. It still has a strong presence in the folklore and religion of the people who live in the vicinity of Japan's deep mountain forests, and perhaps as a result, there exists a common local belief in the animal's continued existence, and unconfirmed sightings are still frequently reported.
The wolf in Japan, like the fox and the raccoon dog, is often seen as a supernatural creature, but unlike other small fur-bearers which may change their shape to deceive, bewitch, and swindle humans, the wolf is generally an honest and, if dealt with properly, benevolent beast. Strongly associated with the kami
of the mountains, the wolf may be the pet, messenger (otsukai
お使い), or avatar of the gods. It may also be a type of deity itself, as one obvious etymology of its name means "great kami
(大神)", and wolf figures such as the Ōguchi-no-makami
(大口真神, "true god of the great mouth") worshipped at Saitama Prefecture's Mitsumine Shrine, often figure into local folk religions.
A common name for the wolf is yama-inu
, or mountain dog, and like the dogs that live in human habitation the wolf may be seen as a protector of humankind while in the wilderness. The okuri-inu
("escorting wolf") is a supernatural creature spoken of in the south and central parts of Honshū and Shikoku, which follows people walking in the mountains and protects them, often from other wolves. It is sometimes said that there are two sorts of wolves or okuri-ōkami
, those that follow people in order to protect them and those that stalk and devour them. Alternatively these may be different behaviors of the same wolves, depending on the action of the person involved. Falling over is thought to invite a wolf's attack, while not showing resistance to the wolves and asking for them to spare your life will invoke their protection. People in okuri-ōkami
stories often reward protective wolves with their favorite foods (salt or azuki beans and rice) once they reach their destination, further ensuring the positive relationship with these creatures.
1. Knight, John. "On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf." Asian Folklore Studies 56:1 (1997): pp. 129-59.
Murakami 2005, pp. 64-65, 335.
Murakami 2000 p. 75-76.