The Lost Wolves of Japan is a first-rate academically-oriented text that combs through the natural and cultural history of wolves on the Japanese archipelago. Author Brett Walker is a professor of history at Montana State University who specializes in Japanese history; this book was published by the Univ. of Washington Press. He used historical research methodologies to frame an inquiry into what the Japanese wolf was, and what led to its extinction. If you like historical detail, this book serves it up in helping after generous helping.
Walker explores many different themes in The Lost Wolves of Japan, most of which are centered around people, culture, wolves and nature. He pokes and prods the relationships of these entitites to each other by using various historical lenses. He examines the near-myth of Japanese “oneness” with nature; the culture of the Ainu (an indigenous people group in the Japanese archipelago) and their spiritual reverence for wild wolves, and their close relationship with domesticated hunting dogs; how early Japanese naturalists classified the wolves and mountain dogs that populated their islands; the Japanese government’s quest to modernize their society through ranching during the early years of the Meiji Restoration (ca. 1868); and theories of wolf extinction.
Walker first investigates the taxonomy of Japanese wolves, which was disputed and left unclear (similar to the red wolf) because there were so few whole specimens to study prior to their extinction around 1905 (though some say this date is wrong and they survived until the mid-1940s, post World War II). He concludes that true wolves of the Canis lupus variety migrated to the Japanese archipelago from mainland Siberia and underwent evolutionary insular dwarfism, resulting in a smaller-statured wolf than found on the mainland. These animals historically followed prey like red deer and several now-extinct variety of large deer, as well as (possibly) boar, fish and the occassional beached whale. Walkers writes that the ungulate prey species likely traveled to the Pacific-side of the islands in winter because these held less snow and forage was found more easily, and the wolves followed the prey seasonally. (I’ll be the first to admit I got confused by the different islands he discussed, and the differences in their topography, climate and prey — so I’m over-generalizing here.)
But when the Meiji Restoration took place and Japan was unified from the comparatively-looser knit feudal system of the Tokugawa-family shoguns, the new government was myopically focused on modernizing the country. Part of this entailed introducing ranching (all the other modernized countries ranched), so they brought in ranchers and wolfers from the West to teach them how to raise horses and cows and kill wolves. At the same time, the native prey of wolves was decimated by over-hunting, and the wolves had quickly turned to eating the new hoofed ungulates on their landscape: horses and cows. What ensued is an age-old, pan-cultural story of predator eradication that included not only wolves, but bears too.
When Walker turns his attention to examining why the Japanese wolf went extinct, it seems to me to be a case of multiple factors adding up to a survival burden that the Japanese wolf simply could not fight. Hybridization with regional, semi-domesticated mountain dogs, a massive outbreak of rabies, changing cultural attitudes in response to both the rabid wolves and modernization, organized wolf hunts and bounty systems, anti-predator crusades complete with stuffing baited carcasses with strychnine, and finally, massive deforestation that obliterated their habitat.
The book includes some nice gray-scale images from Walker’s boots-on-the-ground travels in Japan, including photos of wolves in traditional Japanese artwork, shrines to wolves, and a memorial in Nara Prefecture said to be a replica of the last wolf which was shot nearby. There are also maps of wolf-people conflicts and wolf-kill sites, which are helpful for understanding the different phases of interactions people had with wolves on these islands.
If you pick this book up, just keep in mind that it’s a deeply academic text written for (I venture to guess) a more research-minded audience versus a true general reader. There were times I longed for a bit more story-telling and literary devices, but these moments were overshadowed by the sheer depth of scholarship that Walker performed to create The Lost Wolves of Japan.