My name is Astor, and I live in the UK with a Kai Ken named Akiko, who has more than made herself known in the Ginga community over the years.
Due to Kai Ken taking a prominent role in the series, I’m often asked about what the breed is like, and what has been my experiences so far, so I thought I would answer some of the frequently asked questions from my life with the breed.
How did you discover the breed?
Like many Ginga fans, the series is how I learnt about the Nihon Ken breeds. Back in 2007 when I first watched Ginga Nagareboshi Gin and Ginga Densetsu Weed, I fell in love with both Kishu Ken and Kai Ken. I didn’t expect that 13 years later, I’d be involved with both breeds.
What type of dog are Kai Ken? What were they bred for?
Kai Ken can best be described as a primitive hound type dog in how they behave and work, though they are a typical spitz in appearance. The Kai Ken was bred for hunting in the Yamanashi region of Japan, for use mainly on kamoshika, or Japanese Serow. The breed has also over the years been used for hunting deer, boar, bear and small game. While there are not many Kai Ken hunting in Japan today, the breed has picked up another use among Japanese search-and-rescue teams.
Are Kai Ken intelligent? How trainable are they?
In my experience, Kai Ken can sometimes be too intelligent for their own good. My girl is very quick to learn, but she also knows that often when training, she will gain something from it, so if I’m not quick to reward her, she will lose interest! That said, they are a very versatile breed in what they can be trained to do, which I think their history speaks for. Many Kai Ken, particularly in the US, have been successful sport dogs. My own Kai, Akiko, has shown a great interest in agility and lure coursing. In my opinion, they are just as, if not more trainable than some more popular dog breeds, you just have to get past that primitive stubbornness that sometimes comes with it.
What are their energy levels like?
Kai Ken have a fantastic off switch. I use the word versatile to describe their trainability, but I think it works well for this too. I myself have some serious health issues, which means every day is different. Some days we can hike for four miles, and some days we will take a 15 minute walk around the block. Both of these are fine. I find that as long as we’re together, Akiko doesn’t mind what we do. She will happily run at full speed for hours, but she does not become unruly and disruptive if she only gets a short walk either.
How are they with strangers/kids/other dogs/cats/small animals?
With strangers, aloof is a word often used to describe Kai Ken, but this doesn’t mean that they should be fearful. I find Akiko will often avoid strangers for a few minutes until she can form an opinion of them, and then she will be friendly and engaging.
Children, Akiko is more weary of. Kai Ken typically make fantastic family pets, but like with all dogs, children should be taught to respect their boundaries, as Kai Ken tend to like their own space, and will take themselves off if they want to be left alone. Akiko gets along excellently with my dog-savvy 9 year old niece.
Animals are more of a difficult section.
In my experience, most Kai Ken typically are tolerant of other dogs. Same sex aggression does exist in the breed, but it does not seem to be as prevalent as in the other Nihon Ken breeds. Akiko was extremely dog social up until around her third birthday, where she has become a little less tolerant of rude behaviour. That said, she gets along very well with almost every dog she meets.
Small animals are often more of an issue. Like most hunting breeds, Kai Ken have an extremely powerful prey drive. I would not trust Akiko around small animals.
Cats can fall into this category too. Akiko gets along very well with the cat she lives with, but when we are out in the street, she considers them to be prey like any other small animal. She did however once find an injured cat out on a hike, so we were able to get that to safety, which makes me think she would not hurt one like she would with other prey animals. I still do not fully trust her though!
Are they loud, vocal dogs?
I do not consider Akiko to be a particularly loud dog. Unlike the Shiba, Kai don’t tend to scream. Hokkaido Ken also have a large range of vocalisations, but Kai Ken don’t seem to do these.
Akiko typically only barks if someone is at the door, where she will offer a loud, rolling bark. She quiets down quickly once we’re aware someone is there.
What about shedding and coat maintenance?
Kai Ken are a double coated breed, which means that twice a year they will ‘blow’ their coat, dumping out all the soft undercoat and leaving only the harsh guard hairs.
Akiko does not shed a hair outside of these two coat blows. I can wipe a wet cloth down her back and nothing will come out! It does mean that for a couple of weeks every six months, you have to hoover and brush a LOT, but outside of this, there is no maintenance.
They are very clean dogs in general, and I only bath Akiko every six or so months.
Can you only get Kai Ken from Japan? Did you go to another country to pick Akiko up?
Importing from Japan is an option, but there are other choices. Thankfully there are Kai Ken breeders all over the world now- except in the UK where I live. I drove to Belgium for Akiko, her father was a Japanese import, and her mother was bred in Denmark. There are many established breeders in Europe and America now.
So how does the breed compare to its representation in Ginga?
Well, unlike in Ginga, they are strong swimmers!
It’s difficult to compare, really, but I do think Ginga represents some of the good parts of the breed. They are a very loyal, genuine and devoted breed, which I think the character of Akatora shows well.
Ginga tends to show them as fearless too, though I think real Kai Ken have much more of a healthy respect for danger, and are willing to be more cautious compared to other breeds. In Ginga, the Kai brothers will choose to fight, whereas in real life, Kai Ken are much more likely to choose flight when compared to the other Nihon Ken breeds. If anything, I would almost say that the Kai and Kishu characters should swap breeds!