The Japanese once saw wolves as benign creatures that guarded their crops. Farmers went to shrines to buy wolf talismans they could place around their grain fields for protection. In some places, the kindly Canis lupus was even honored with stone sculptures.
"It was almost the exact opposite of our 18th and 19th centuries in the American West," says Brett Walker, assistant professor of history at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont.
But then came 1868, a critical year in Japanese history.
The feudal government of the Tokugawa shoguns fell that year, and Japan turned to the West for help. As part of its effort to create a more modern and western-style country, Japan invited Edwin Dun, a rancher from Ohio, to oversee the establishment of a ranching industry on the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
"They believed ranching represented the agricultural future of Hokkaido," Walker explained.
Dun introduced American ranching techniques to the Niikappu Ranch, but he also introduced American anxieties toward wolves, Walker continued. Dun advised the Hokkaido Development Board to poison wolves and wild dogs with strychnine. Hunting and bounty systems followed. Ultimately, persecution and other ecological factors caused the Hokkaido wolf to become extinct around 1890. The last Japanese wolf was killed in 1905. Both were distinct subspecies of Canis lupus and different from any wolf found in the United States.
"I'm interested in that historical shift. That is, how Japan went from a country that viewed wolves as benign creatures to one that viewed them as animals that needed to be erased from the landscape," Walker said.
Walker specializes in Japanese history during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and has always been interested in environmental history. He plans to teach a course on Japanese environmental history in the fall. But the discovery that Japan had wolves is taking him outside the normal realm of Japanese historians and
Contact: Annette Trinity-Stevens
Montana State University