A friend of mine asked me the other day about hunting in Japan, and what types of breeds are used. I meant to type a quick reply over a cup of tea, but as usual I ended up with a WOT (Wall of Text) reply. Yes, I am long winded. My wife reminds me all the time. I try to explain everything and anything.
Well seeing as I typed this up, I figured I'd throw in on my poor abused blog that doesn't get nearly the amount of attention it should get since my Nikon died.
As far as hunters and their dogs, almost all bird dogs in Japan are western breeds (pointers, retrievers, spaniels). Most big game hunters run mixes, and usually include Nihon Ken/Hound bloodlines. Everything over here is cramped, including hunting areas, and hounds are extremely far ranging. Hunters add Nihon Ken blood as they are closer ranging.
There are Japanese breeds that are not recognized (even here in Japan), some are old hunting lines, some are newer breeds, and many hunters use/mix them. Some examples are the Yakushima, Nitta, and the Matsuda Corporation's 'Luggers'.
Hunters that hunt in large groups usually run hounds, with solo hunters (tandoku-ryoshi) using Nihon Ken or mixes. There are some hunters that run a 'catch dog' or two in their packs, like Pitties, Amstaffs, Dogos, or Staffies. Dogos were big around 15-20 years ago, and there were lots of imports, but they didn't fare too well over here. It's a combination of the mountainous terrain, their size, and hunting style.
Lastly, there is the minority that run purebred Nihon Ken. Kishu are boar/deer dogs, and are probably the most widely used Nihon Ken for hunting. Kai are probably second and are mostly used for bird, and a smaller percentage on boar. Shikoku are boar/deer dogs as well, but I only know a handful of hunters that have purebred Shikoku. Right under the Shikoku is the Hokkaido. I know a couple of hunters that have tried Hokkas down here on the main island, but because of their thicker coats, they tend to overheat. They are also built more for hunting in snow, they have stockier stronger front ends, but not much speed. Hunting with Shiba is something I hear about very rarely, and I've only ever seen them on birds. The Akita, well I don't know of anyone that hunts with Akita. The present 'type' and bloodlines are not working dogs, they're too big, and not really built for hunting.
The hunters that run Japanese breeds do so mostly for their hunting style. Of course there are some who are just very into the preserving the breeds and want to 'work' them. I'm sure a bit of the 'national heritage pride' factors in as well. I used to hunt with Jack Russell Terriers, and when choosing my next breed I decided that there are plenty of people hunting with western breeds. Owning AND working the Japanese breeds is something only a handful of people in the world are able to do, and seeing as I'm in that position I picked the Kai to start with as it's a 'all round' hunting dog and suits my hunting style.
The Japanese breeds are perfectly suited to hunting in Japan. An agile medium sized dog has an easier time in hilly terrain with thick underbrush. There are not many big open spaces, where a large long limbed dog would have an advantage in running down prey. The thick double coat that sheds twice a year as the temperatures change is also invaluable in protecting dogs hunting in thick, prickly brush.
Nihon Ken aren't 'trained' to hunt per se. This is one reason hunters enjoy hunting with them. Most western breeds are bred to very specialized hunting tasks or styles, and require a lot of training (especially bird dogs) but the Nihon Ken develop their own hunting techniques and style, through plain instinct mostly it seems. It's just a matter of getting them out to the mountains early and often, and instinct takes over. In my experience hunting with them is like going on a hunt with a wild animal. If you have a dog with the drive, smarts, and eventually experience as well, the hunter's job is just to read what the dog is doing and try to keep up. They don't need any commands, and aren't really trained to do anything, they're just reacting naturally to being on the hunt. In hunting big game, the dogs learn that if they stop the animal for long enough, the human will come and dispatch it for them.
There are downsides to hunting with Nihon Ken. They're very quiet on the hunt, and it can be difficult to know if they're on the chase, or which direction they've gone. They generally have a much smaller search range than say hounds, and will give up the chase and come back rather quickly if they feel there's too much distance between them and the hunter. They also do a lot of the 'thinking' themselves, and will develop bad habits if the hunter is not careful. For example a friend of mine had a dog that was a turning into a great baying dog, but after a few incidents where my friend took too long to find him when he had a boar bayed up (or spooked the boar by making too much noise when closing distance), completely stopped baying and would just chase the boar for a bit and come back.
I guess the main difference in hunting with Nihon Ken as opposed to Western breeds is rather subtle. It's hard to explain, but I guess it's working to bring out the dog's naturally present qualities and instincts as opposed to 'teaching' the dog how to hunt.
Hmmm hard to explain, and I have again created a wall of text.