The Akita is a strong and striking member of the Working Group. First recognized by the AKC in 1972, this ancient breed has deep roots in its native Japan. For centuries, the Japanese have appreciated the Akita’s loyalty and courage. Bred to hunt in the mountains of northern Japan, this breed eventually became a symbol of protection and prosperity. The devotion common throughout Akita history comes to life in the true story of Hachikō.
Hachikō and the Disappearing Akita
Born in 1923, Hachikō belonged to Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. When his owner died unexpectedly at work, Hachikō refused to give up hope that Ueno would return. The golden-red Akita returned to Shibuya Station in Tokyo every day for a decade – until his own death in 1935.
Hachikō was memorialized in books, movies, and statues – including one in front of the train station where he waited in vain. He came to symbolize the breed’s unrelenting devotion. He also became became the example Japanese parents held up to their children as a symbol of family loyalty.
Even as Hachikō gained fame, the Akita was already disappearing from Japan’s northwestern Akita Prefecture, which gave the breed its name. For centuries, Hachikō’s kind had crossed its snowy mountains, hunting elk, wild boar, and even bear.
Eventually, a fascination with dogfighting led to cross-breeding with various European breeds. The goal was to increase the size of these native dogs. However, this watered down the breed’s distinctive, spitz-type features, characterized by small, erect triangular eyes and a prominently curled tail. Indeed, photos of Hachikō show that one of his oversized ears was dropped, which today is a disqualification in the AKC Akita breed standard.
But misbehaving ears were the least of the problems facing Akita lovers as World War II closed in. While the Japanese government ordered all non-combat dogs to be destroyed, the military paid a premium for Akitas. They wanted to use the dogs’ thick, warm coats to line officers’ uniforms. To avoid that fate, some desperate owners turned their dogs loose in the hopes they might survive on their own, or crossbred them with German Shepherd Dogs, which were spared from culling because of their military role.
But at least one dog lover decided to keep two prized purebred Akitas alive in a shed on his remote mountain property – even as his family struggled to find food to feed themselves.
Preserving the Breed
Mitsubishi engineer Morie Sawataishi got his first Akita in 1944 while living with his wife and young children in rural Hachimantai. Around that same time, Japanese authorities removed the statue of Hachikō from in front of Shibuya Station. They wanted to encourage donations of metal to help in the war effort. By war’s end a year later, that government action had turned out to be an eerie omen: Only a small number of Akitas, two owned by Sawataishi, had survived.
Sawataishi spent his career building power plants in Japan’s brutally harsh snow country. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was drawn to those Akitas that demonstrated kisho, or spirit”– a kind of self-determined, focused energy. The handful of postwar breeders in Japan also had to have kisho. Like Sawataishi, they carefully worked to rebuild their war-battered breed by planning litters and organizing dog shows.
But good intentions weren’t the only requirement for the restoration of the Akita. With so few Akitas remaining, breeders had to cross their dogs with outside dogs to expand the gene pool. Some Japanese breeders turned to the Ichinoseki line, named for a wealthy landowner whose dogs carried the blood of the massive and impressive Tosa Inu. That native fighting dog had been crossed with Mastiffs and Bulldogs in the 1850s, when Japan opened to the West.
Other breeders chose the Dewa line. That family incorporated the German Shepherd Dog crosses popular during both World Wars. Its most famous dog, Kongo-Go, soon became one of most popular studs of the postwar era, advertised as a “national treasure.”
Akitas in America
Japanese breeders aimed to return the Akita to its original spitz type, with small, triangular ears and eyes like a fox’s. But the Dewa dogs – which had caught the notice of American GIs stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation – resisted this return to Japanese type. Instead, these dogs, with their heavier heads and bodies, resembled bears more than foxes.
The differences in the two Akita lines soon became an international one. Imported to the United States in significant numbers in the 1950s, the Kongo-Go-style dogs became popular here, so much so that they began to diverge significantly from their Japanese counterparts. (The very first Akitas in America belonged to Helen Keller, who was gifted with two in the late 1930s.)
In 1999, Europe’s Fedération Cynologique Internationale ensured that these two paths remained separate by recognizing two distinct breeds: the American Akita and the Akita Inu (today known as the Japanese Akitainu). For more than a half-century in the United States, however, the two continued to compete together in the same show ring. Recognizing the gap between the American and Japanese types of dogs, Akita Club of America members voted to formally define the two as separate breeds in the United States, as well. The Japanese Akitainu became part of the AKC’s Foundation Stock Service (FSS) in 2020.
By the end of his life, Morie Sawataishi had bred or trained some 100 Akitas at his remote mountainside home, all with inspiring names like Victory Princess, One Hundred Tigers, and Three Good Lucks (who, unfortunately, did not live up to his name, having been poisoned by a rival owner). But over the course of any individual breeding program – or any breed, for that matter – such tragedies, once mourned, only serve to reinforce the individual’s determination to continue on. Today, the Akita is a popular and well-established breed around the world. The greatest concentration of Akitas is here in the United States.
Back in Japan, in front of the busy train station that introduced the Akita breed to the world, the statue of Hachikō was replaced several years after World War II’s end. The bronze statue, its front legs polished by the affectionate rubs of well-wishers, is a popular meeting place, providing a focal point in the busy surrounding plaza. Thanks to the dedication of Akita breeders on both sides of the Pacific, the same can now be said of the breed they worked so equally hard to preserve and protect.