The following is in response to the first several chapters of Brett L. Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan:
Walker points out that the “westernness” of the Linnean taxonomic system makes historical inquiry into Japanese wolves difficult. He says “the emergence of Nihon ōkami, or the Japanese wolf, became possible only with the emergence of many other distinctly ‘Japanese’ things at the turn of the century, such as Japan’s unique brand of ethnic nationalism and its imperial ideology.” The identification of a distinct species of Japanese wolf was therefore somewhat of a product of globalisation, whereby Japan began both to export elements of its culture and to import western science, among other things.
This helps to explain the strange polarization of historical Japanese attitudes toward wolves. Walker comments on the rapid shift from Japanese reverence of wolves (“grain farmers worshipped wolves at shrines, beseeching this elusive canine to protect their crops from the sharp hooves and voracious appetites of wild boars and deer”) to the persecution of the same. Prior to the introduction of western taxonomy, wolves and dogs were not so distinct from each other in Japanese reasoning—indeed, wolves have variously been referred to as “mountain dogs.” This is because Japan, a culture which prioritized grain-farming over animal husbandry, did not have the need to villain-ize wolves as distinct from dogs. This changed with the introduction of western taxonomic distinctions and the introduction of cattle ranching. This both made wolves into a species distinct enough from dogs to cast one as good and the other as bad, and provided a context for wolves to be cast as the villain (as they now could prey not on the defilers of the crop, but on the “crop” itself).
Finally, some linguistic speculation: Walker mentions that the people of Morioka “referred to the wolf as oinu, attaching the honorific o to inu, ‘dog’ in Japanese and thus rendering it ‘honorable dog.’” Walker uses this point to illustrate the honor attached to the wolf in this region, but it also appears that the modern Japanese name for the wolf, okami, attaches the honorific o to kami, or deity. This serves to highlight the venerated status of wolves. Furthermore, the word inu also appears as a constituent part of the name of the Ainu people, who featured wolves in their origin stories, had hunting patterns based on the native Hokkaido wolf, and, like much of Japan, revered wolves in their religious ceremonies.
(Edit: after some research, it appears that my linguistic speculation hits off the mark. Oh well, it was worth a shot!)