By Sari Brewster-Tietjen
Like gaily-wrapped presents beneath a Christmas tree, the Japanese Chin is a bundle of joy, surprise and mischief cloaked in an air of serenity and superiority. These little dogs lord over their household and, make no mistake about it, it is their household. They give humans the permission to take care of them according to their desires and wishes. Not that they are difficult to take care of – it is just that they decree the how, why, and wherefore of everything to do with their lives. They may be small, but their impact is considerable. They have a unique way of mentally raising themselves at least twenty feet high and looking down on you so that you become their slave. You may think you are the master, but they know they are the Lords – much loved, treasured and admired.
The origin of the Japanese Chin is clouded in the mysticism of Far Eastern ancient rites. Small dogs were known to have crisscrossed the Silk Road accompanying travelers as both presentations of trade and companions on the long journeys. Some of these dogs became the pets of Buddhist Monks, who nurtured and mated various types in their sheltered monasteries: eventually, gifts to traveling dignitaries. They quickly assumed their rightful position in the Imperial palaces, where they were closely kept and guarded for the Imperial family by private eunuchs who were charged with looking after the little dogs’ every need, every desire. Mere peasants were not allowed to own them as the small dogs became treasures more valuable than gold.
Navigating the globe by ship soon changed the way merchants traded their goods: During the fifteenth century, traders from the west arrived by sea using merchant ships. Looking for good will and favorable deals, they always brought gifts for members of the local nobility and government. Included as items of good will were usually a couple of dogs from the native lands – some dogs were large hunters, while others were of the small lap type. Eventually, these little dogs were crossed with the existing ‘pai’ dogs, whose roots rested with the caravans of the Silk Road, and other varieties emerged. Countries such as Portugal, Italy, Spain, Holland, England, and later the United States, covered the seas in search of trade and wealth changing the lives of all involved, including the little dogs.
“As relations between the various countries swayed to and fro, so did the fate of the small four-legged creatures. They were presents of peace, bounties of war, and purveyors of trade. Gradually, particular types began to materialize as households specialized in one foundation aspect or another of key breed characteristics. Various toy breeds, among them the Pekingese, Tibetan Spaniel, Shih Tzu, Pug and Japanese Chin, owe their origins to cultivation in the Far East.”
The name Japanese Chin is actually a misnomer for the breed owes its basic origins not to Japan, but to China. It has long been surmised that the Japanese Chin and Pekingese were once the same breed with the Pekingese having been bred out to create the short, bowed-legged, long-back, pear-shape bodied breed of dog known today. The Chin is believed to have been kept basically pure, but in searching through Far Eastern works of art dating from the 17th to 20th Century, several patterns clearly emerge:
1. an early small Japanese dog resembled the old Continental Toy Spaniel of Europe – aristocratic in bearing, square-bodied, up-on-the leg, distinctive long muzzle and luxurious flowing silky coati
2. the Chinese Chin was the flat-faced, straight-legged, a bit long-backed, parti-color dog called the Imperial Chin
3. these two types were blended together to bring about the Japanese Chin of today dainty, square-bodied, flat-faced, and richly coated, elegant toy breed.
With the exception of a small Dutch trading post and limited contacts through China and Korea, Japan closed its doors in 1636 to the outside world in an effort to prevent foreigners from further influencing their people and culture. This self-imposed isolationist policy lasted for more than two centuries. It wa1 not until Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened Japan in the mid-1850s that Westerners again stepped foot in the country on a regular trading basis. Perry had been sent to Japan by United States President Franklin Pierce, with the good wishes of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. Both countries wanted to establish trading. posts in the closed Empire. When Perry finally accomplished the task, his ships returned home laden with many Imperial gifts for himself, for President Pierce and for Queen Victoria. Among the gifts presented were three pairs of small Imperial dogs – one pair for Perry, another for Pierce and a third for Victoria. Out of the six, the only ones known to have survived the voyage were those given to Perry. According to official ships’ logs, Presidential and Palace papers, the remaining dogs never reached their destinations.
Perry gave his two little canine presents to his daughter, Caroline Perry Belmont, who was married to August Belmont. Their son, August Belmont, Jr., served as President of The American Kennel Club from 1888-1915. According to the Belmont family, the two Chins from Japan – one a dog and the other a bitch – were never bred and died as beloved house pets without issue.
By 1858, a full trade treaty had been negotiated between America and Japan. Thus opening the way for more ships, more gifts. An exodus of the small Imperial dogs soon followed – being given as gifts, or, sometimes, stolen by Palace, personnel and then sold to sailors. Additional trading with China and other Asian countries meant that more little dogs soon found their way, officially and otherwise, onto clipper ships and steamers. The long ocean voyage was difficult, arduous and taxing to the small frail dogs. Many perished en-route. Their bodies wrapped in silk as they were buried at sea. Those who did survive helped to establish the breed on the Continent, in England and in America. They became not only pets, in castles and palaces throughout the western world, but also beloved treasures for the sailors’ wives, mistresses and girlfriends. The Japanese Chin lorded over his environment an cared not whether it was a hundred-and-fifty room palace or a three room cottage: his concern was only that he was considered to be the most important object within and life catered to his every whim.
It was Britain’s Queen Alexandra who drew worldwide attention to the Japanese Chin, or Japanese Spaniel – as the breed had been known in America until 1977. Alexandra, a Danish Princess prior to her marriage to the future King Edward VII of Great Britain, received her first Chin as a gift shortly after marrying into the British Royal family in 1863. Other Chins soon followed coming from both China and Japan, as well as the Continent. She had many and they were always at her side. One of her biographers, Richard Hough, described her devotion to the breed in his book Edward & Alexandra: Their Private and Public Lives (St. Martin’s Press, 1992): “She never entered a room or sat down without dogs around her, and often on her lap. When she played the piano, they would be at her feet; and there would often be one lying across her, too. There might be half a dozen of them beside her at a time, and all though they looked so similar, she never got their name wrong.”
Alexandra popularized the breed and it became a favorite with members of her “Marlborough House” set. This led to increased attention for the Chin, not only in England, where it became much sought after lapdog, but also Europe, where it was the darling of the many extended Royal cousins. It was also highly favored in America among the well-to-do. The Japanese Spaniel was one of the early breeds accepted into the registry of The American Kennel Club. In 1888, a dog simply called Jap, with pedigree and breeder unknown, was the first Japanese Spaniel’ registered by AKC. The breed quickly gained stature in the hearts and minds of people all over America and presently stands mid-way in the list of AKC registered breeds.
This is a unique breed – loving, but independent; eager, but stubborn; snooty, but demure. The Japanese Chin is a naturally clean dog. They are easy to bathe and are sometimes referred to as the “wash-and-wear” breed. Their coat seldom mats and they require no special grooming or scissoring. They will wash each other’s faces and clean their feet at night. They do not like to live in dirty surroundings and are easy to housetrain. They prefer to be on top of things – much as a cat does. They like simple living – a plush pile of pillows on the bed is their idea of a perfect spot for sleeping. They are extremely playful, mischievous and good-natured. They are perfect companions for anyone, from the well-behaved young child to the infirmed elderly. They are good travelers, whether by car boat, plane, or bike basket.
If the breed has a drawback, it is that they are too smart; you cannot own a Japanese Chin, for the Japanese Chin owns you! You cannot train a Chin, for the Chin trains you! And, I the words of many old breeders – once you have lived with one you will never want to be without one. And, trust me, one is not enough!