The Japanese Chin is the perfect combination of wonderful Toy Dog traits and uniquely cat-like traits. The uniqueness of this combination of traits helps to explain why Chin quickly capture the hearts of their owners. It makes sense, then, for the Japanese Chin breed’s history to also have elements of uniqueness. This uniqueness extends to those who have loved and bred Chin over the centuries, too.
In America, current fanciers of Japanese Chin remember Sari Brewster Tietjen, who left us in 2019. Sari is remembered as a noted Chin breeder and historian for over 40 years, a champion of the breed, and a well-respected AKC Judge, as well as for her writings as Japanese Chin Club of America Historian. (See AKC Gazette, Dec. 1998.) This article is dedicated to her memory.
Like many dog breeds, the Japanese Chin’s origins are shrouded in the mysteries of centuries past. However, unlike some breeds, the unique history of the Japanese Chin is woven into tapestries, depicted in paintings and on china, or told through great stories which have been documented down through the ages. I have used numerous publications (see the source list at the end of this article) listing these great works to which I am indebted. Here are some of the mysteries.
Where did the Chin originate? Although called a “Japanese” Chin, it had long been believed the Chin originated in China, with some speculating even Korea. Why Korea? In A.D. 732, a Korean prince went to Japan taking gifts to Mikado of small dogs called Shoku-Ken. They were tiny dogs with snub noses. Why China? Even earlier, in the 5th century, Buddhist monks brought Shoku-Ken from China to Japan when they came as missionaries. Chinese royalty owned small dogs, Imperial Ch’in, which supposedly were related to the Chinese Temple Dog and the Japanese Spaniel. Most historians agree, the Chin was first present in China; however, its long history of development is credited to the Japanese.
How did the Japanese Chin come to have its name? There is documentation of small “chin-like” dogs in 5th Century China called Shoku-Ken and in the 6th Century called “Pai.” In the 1800s, they were commonly referred to as Japanese Pugs. Often, one reads of them simply called “Japanese.” By the late 1800s, the name Japanese Spaniel emerges. In 1977, in America, the name was officially changed to Japanese Chin as it is today. Some believe Chin refers to a Sino-Tibetan race from western Burma.
Most historians agree, the Chin was first present in China; however, its long history of development is credited to the Japanese.
Another mystery begged the question: Which breeds originally contributed to the development of the Chin? The breeds speculated to have contributed include the Pug, Pekingese, Tibetan Spaniel, Maltese, and King Charles Spaniels. Many stories abound. Marco Polo, while in China during the Yuan Dynasty (1270-1368), wrote of small dogs which were short of body. Collier, in Dogs of China and Japan, wrote, “It is quite possible that the modern Japanese spaniel has varied from the black and white Pekingese, common in Peking, only within recent years.”
What we do know is Chin-like dogs existed beginning in the 5th Century in China, Korea, and perhaps, Tibet. Early art forms from these countries often depicted dogs closely resembling our modern-day Chin. It was well-documented that China and Korea often presented gifts of small dogs to Japan. The Japanese Royalty treasured these small, cat-like creatures and kept them in their palaces. The very small ones (around 3-lbs.) were said to have been kept in elegant bird cages! They even had their own servants.
According to the American Kennel Club’s history of the breed, the servants hand-fed ice chips to them. They were pampered royalty that lived in the palace with the royal family. Since the Japanese considered the Chin royalty, the common person could not own them and Westerners very seldom were allowed to see them. The Chin was bred and refined by the Emperors of Japan as unique treasures.
If an important foreign visitor came to the palace, the Chin might be given as gifts. Often, a small dog or pair of dogs was gifted. In that manner, the Japanese Chin was introduced to other countries. There were reports that the Chin might have come first to Europe via England in the 16th century via the East India Company. One expedition was in 1614 by Captain John Saris, and dogs were likely a part of the gifts with which he returned home. The custom of dogs as gifts continued until 1633 when the Sakoku policy to close Japan to almost all foreign influence and trade was enacted. For 220 years, Japan was basically a closed nation.
However, America desired to renew trade to the Far East, and so, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry was sent to Japan to open it to trade with the West. Perry brought gifts for the Japanese and they gave gifts in return. Of prime interest to Chin fanciers was the gift of seven Japanese Chin: Two for Queen Victoria, two for President Millard Fillmore, two were given to Perry’s daughter, Mrs. Augusta Belmont (whose son became the President of the American Kennel Club in 1888), and one Chin was given to the fleet purser’s son.
The two Chin gifted to Queen Victoria began her life-long love of the breed. She, along with her daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandra, became one of the breed’s cherished admirers. Russia also sent a delegation to protect their interests in Japan. It was speculated that Chin may also have been sent to Russia as gifts as well, since the Chin has remained a popular breed in that country to this day. Japan’s custom of presenting dogs as part of their Imperial gift to foreign visitors persisted through the mid-19th Century.
Fortunately, from the late 1880s on, we have much information about the Japanese Spaniel (Chin). As to the Chin in America, nine Japanese were entered at the New York dog show of 1882. In 1888, the American Kennel Club admitted the breed, and the first Chin named “Jap,” owned by Fred Senn, was registered. America’s first Chin champion was named Nanki Poo, a black and white owned by Charles E. Lewis. In 1883, the first American breed club was established; the Japanese Spaniel Club. It has evolved into the Japanese Chin Club of America today.
Due to distemper and WWII, the Chin breed struggled around the world. A few breeders who worked at keeping the breed going, during and after the war, included Mrs. Ineko Shimogawa, born in America but living in Japan from childhood on, and Mrs. Berendsohn of Brooklyn, New York, as well as Catherine Cross from California. Likely, there were others whose names time has forgotten. Fortunately for later generations, they were so dedicated to this lovely breed.
Over the decades since WWII, the breed has grown in popularity worldwide, but still remains one of the best-kept secrets of the dog world. The AKC Breed Standard’s description states: “The Japanese Chin is a small, well balanced, lively, aristocratic toy dog with a distinctive Oriental expression.” One could use these same words to describe a Chin from the ancient past. How wonderful! Chin have remained true to their historical roots. Yes, Japanese Chin are a unique breed with a unique history.
Anyone who owns a Chin knows that they will never be without one—and one is never enough!
Sources for this Article:
The Complete Japanese Chin by Pamela Cross Stern and Tom Mather 1997 Ringpress Books, Howell Book House, Macmillian Company
The Japanese Chin: Dog from the Land of the Rising Sun, Revised Edition by Elisabeth Legl 2002, 2008 Alpine Publications
The Lion-Dog of Buddhist Asia by Elsie P. Mitchell 1991 Fugaisha New York, NY
Japanese Chin, American Champions Vol. One by Michael and Carole Benson 1987 Self-Published