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Tosa Inu, Tosa Ken
(Japanese Mastiff, Tosa Dog,
Tosa Touken, Tosa Tôken)


Without doubt, the Tosa Inu is one of the most fascinating but at the same time least well understood dog breeds, much like the culture they originate from. The native country of the Tosa Inu breed is Shikoku, the smallest of the four Japanese islands. Their character reflects many attributes of the Japanese culture and mentality.

Definition and Etymology

The dogs were named after the area where they were bred, the old Tosa province, now known as the Kochi prefecture.

At that time, the Tosa province was one of the two most popular dog fighting areas, the other one being the prefecture of Akita, the northernmost area on the island of Honshu. At first, the Akita breed was stronger than the Tosa, but gradually, the situation reversed because of cross-breeding of the Tosa breed with European breeds.
The Akitas and Tosas were also cross bred, with the resulting off-spring labeled as "Shin Akita".

Tosa Inu 土佐犬 literally means "Tosa dog", the two first ideograms (Kanji) representing the word 'Tosa' and the last one that one of 'dog'. In English the suffix 'Inu' is sometimes left out. A variant of this name is Tosa Ken. Both 'Inu' and 'Ken' mean dog in Japanese. It is not another word but basically the Sino-Japanese pronunciation (on-reading) of the same "dog-Kanji"
犬, as KEN, instead of INU (kun-reading, indigenous Japanese reading). Both are correct, but the expression Tosa-Ken is more generally used in the spoken language.
Tosa's are also known as Japanese Mastiffs or Japanese fighting dogs, after the Japanese 土佐闘犬, Tosa Touken or Tosa Tôken, which literally means 'Tosa Fighting dog'. 'Tôken' takes a long -o in Japanese and the correct transcription in English  therefore is either 'Tôken' or 'Touken'.
Related pages:
History of the molossor breeds
Guard dog breeds
Bull-and-Terrier breeds
Bulldog breeds

Origin and History

When the Japanese politics of isolation ended with the Meiji Restoration from 1866 to 1869, more and more foreigners with big-sized dogs entered the country. The Japanese were impressed by the size, strength and endurance of these Western dogs.  As a result, they started to crossbreed some of their native breeds with these dogs.  To create the Tosa they crossbred the Shikoku ken with Bulldogs (1872), Mastiffs (1874). German Pointers (1876) and Great Danes (1924), Bull Terrier and St. Bernards all of which were used to improve the breed by sequential mating.

See also:
English Mastiff
French Mastiff
Argentinean Mastiff
Brazilian Mastiff
Japanese Mastiff
Note that the Great Dane were not as giant as today's Danes and that the English Bulldog and Bull Terrier looked substantially different from today's exemplars. Within  a short period of time they succeeded in fixing a type that concentrated the characteristics of the japanese 'Sumo'. In 1925 the breed was already well defined and in 1930 an official association was founded for the preservation and diffusion of the breed.

The original Japanese Tosa Inu is courageous, prudent, well-tempered and docile. It displays an enormous strength and high pain threshold.

They are probably the only dogs in the world which are still used quite legally to this day for dog fights. However, the Japanese developed a type of fight according to their mentality that bears no comparison with the notorious pit dog fights held illegally in other parts of the world.

In Japan dogs are carefully bred and trained and the game is conducted under strict rules and accompanied by holy rituals and processions. The dog fights among Tosa's should never be cruel or bloody and they never end with the death of one of the participants.  On the contrary, the fights are designed to last long and, contrary to pit dog fights, a dog that goes for a fast and easy victory, is not considered a good specimen. Similar to Sumo wrestling, the dogs try to bring and hold each other down on the floor. If he dominates  for more than 3 min. (or 5 min. if the fight lasted for more than 15 min.) he is declared the winner. A whining or growling dog is declared the loser. The same goes for a dog that turns its hind to the opponent or moves back three steps when attacked.  The fight ends in any case after 30 min. in a nil draw if neither of the dogs has proved superior to the other.  Unlike most other fighting dog breeds, the original Tosa is conscious of the symbolic value of the fight and it respects the rules of the game and its opponents.
Like sumo wrestlers, the dogs are graded into a hierarchy according to the points they have recently earned. The greatest Tosa "wrestlers" receive the title of Yokozuna, like the famous sumo's.

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Two times in the twentieth century all the japanese breeds, including the Tosa, were in imminent danger of extinction. First the food crisis during World War II and the invasion by the allied forces, then a distemper epidemic brought the Tosa to the verge of extinction.  The Association for the preservation of the Tosa decided to save 12 Tosa's which by their character and type were the most authentic representatives of the breed and took them to the Aormi prefecture at the north of Japan, an area little involved in the war.  From those 12 exemplars descend the majority of the genuine Tosa's today.
Appearance and Temperament

The overall appearance of the Tosa should be that of a massive but dynamic and flexible athlete, with a large, broad head, a boxy muzzle and clearly observable dewlap. Contrary to the Japan Kennel Club (JKC) and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) which require red as the preferred color, the traditional Tosa breeding in Kochi City accepts a variety of colors, solid or brindle, black with markings, or pied.

It is very difficult to find good quality Tosa's outside Japan with the typical Tosa character as sought after by the Japanese breeders: a dog that is calm and quiet, but vigilant and conscious of its own strength and with an innate sense of prudence, that will only react in case of emergency, then demonstrating great courage and unequalled strength.

Even in Japan things are changing.  Many influential people do not wish to promote the positive, humble side of the Tosa, as they fear that if the breed is perceived as other than a fighting breed, it will be more easily replaced by another breed at the shows.

Some conscientious breeders in the Netherlands, Germany and the United States are carrying on the legacy of the true Tosa inu. Prospective buyers should be particularly careful in selecting a responsible and reputable breeder who breeds to this genuine character of the Tosa Inu.
Molossser breeds
Dogo argentino
Tosa Inu
Bulldog breeds
Japanese dog breeds

by Catherine Marien-de Luca for
and Dog Breeds of the World 2003-2010 © All rights reserved by and
Dog Breeds of the World > Guard dogs, Molossers and Japanese dogs > Tosa inu
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Dog Breeds of the World 2004-2009 © All rights reserved and Tosa photos courtesy of Anita Sluyp, Octopus Tosa Inu's. Original idea, design and development by Catherine Marien-de Luca. Photos of the Dog Breeds of the World sphere of flags by Mark Stay.
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contains a piece about the
Tosa Inu
More information:
Tosa ken in ceremonial fighting outfit
 owner: Octopus Tosa Inu's
 Octopus Aîbo Bokels Inu Zatto
Photo courtesy: R. & A. Sluyp
Tosa links:
Octopus Tosa Inu's (the Netherlands)
Tosa Inu Friends Germany
Shakuhachi Imperial Tosa Inu's
(New York)