Scholar Finds Parallels Between U.S./Japanese Attitudes Toward Wolves

Evelyn Boswell / Bozeman MT


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-Bozeman.

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 getting him involved with biologists and ecologists. Besides reading manuscripts in classical Japanese, he is now measuring wolf skulls and inspecting elk carcasses.

From Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, he spent two days a week in Yellowstone National Park with scientists participating in the Yellowstone Wolf Project Winter Study. Last summer, he traveled to the Hokkaido University Museum of Natural History, under a Japan Foundation grant, where he collected enormous amounts of information about wolf extinction.

"I'm reading more books on wolf biology than I am on Japanese history any more. I'm kind of re-educating myself," Walker said.

His interest in wolves is one reason he and his wife moved to MSU from Yale University, Walker added. Walker was teaching Japanese history at Yale, but came to MSU last year to teach Japanese history and become director of the new Japan Studies Program ( His wife, Yuka Hara, teaches beginning and intermediate Japanese at MSU.

"We wanted to be closer to Yellowstone and an area that was experiencing wolves," Walker explained.

Walker is now writing a book on his findings. One chapter will focus on the history of wolf taxonomy in Japan. Some scholars debate whether these canids were wolves at all or merely wild mountain dogs. Another chapter will explore the portrayal of wolves in popular culture, including museums, comics and animated films. His book will include historical illustrations and early writings that trace the changing nature of Japanese attitudes toward wolves.

"Brett Walker has done a remarkable piece of research, weaving together history, science and culture," commented Ron Nowak, a nationally known taxonomist who reviewed a draft of Walker's taxonomy chapter. "His presentation should make a topic, canid taxonomy, ... interesting to a broad spectrum of the public.

"One of the most fascinating aspects of Walker's study is the revelation of parallels between Japan and eastern North America," Nowak continued.

Walker said his research reveals many correlations between Montana and Japan, too. The similarities should help Montanans see that Japan is more than simply a distant exotic land with a difficult language.

"Our mutual fear and admiration of these animals bring us together as people," he insisted.

"If there's a message," Walker added, "I think it's that there is a serious degree of regret that wolves are extinct in Japan. "I think that there's a feeling that an important part of Japan's natural heritage and culture has been eliminated.

"It would be a real shame," he said, "if the wolf program in Yellowstone ever reached the point where it wasn't working and somehow we turned to eliminating the wolves of this region again. Whether you love or hate wolves, I'd like to think that as a country we're moving closer to an age when we'll at least recognize that wolves have a right to exist. The alternative is that like Japan, we'll realize this when it's too late."