Much has been written about the loyalty of the Akita, which was personified – or is that dogified? – in the famous story of Hachikō.
After his master died unexpectedly at work, that golden-red Akita refused to give up hope, returning to Shibuya Station in Tokyo every day for a decade, until his own death in 1935 put an end to his persistent pilgrimages. Memorialized in books, movies, and statues – including one in front of the train station where he waited so fruitlessly – Hachikō came to symbolize the unrelenting devotion for which his breed is known, and became the example Japanese parents held up to their children as the embodiment of family loyalty.
A decade after Hachikō’s death, in the aftermath of World War II, humankind got the opportunity to return the favor.
Hachikō and the Disappearing Akita
Even as he was accompanying his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, to his job as a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, Hachikō was part of a disappearing breed from Japan’s northwestern Akita Prefecture, from which the breed gets its name. For centuries, Hachikō’s kind had traversed its snowy mountains, hunting elk, wild boar, and even bear. Eventually, a fascination with dogfighting led to cross-breeding with various European breeds to increase the size of these native dogs. But this incursion of foreign blood also diluted their distinctive spitz-type, characterized by small, erect triangular eyes and a prominent curled tail. Indeed, photos of Hachikō show that one of his oversized ears was dropped, which today is a disqualification in the AKC Akita 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, whose thick, warm coats were sought after to line the uniforms of officers. To avoid that fate, some desperate owners turned their dogs loose in the hopes they might survive on their own wits, 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 subvert the law, keeping 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 acquired his first Akita in 1944 while living with his wife and young children in rural Hachimantai. Around that same time, the statue of Hachikō in front of Shibuya station was removed by Japanese authorities, in an effort 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 had survived – and two of them were owned by Sawataishi.
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 same was required of the handful of postwar breeders in Japan, who, like Sawataishi, worked meticulously 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 dogs remaining, crosses to outside dogs were required 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 itself been crossed with Mastiffs and Bulldogs in the 1850s, when Japan opened to the West. But other Atika breeders chose the Dewa line, which incorporated the German Shepherd crosses that had proliferated 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.”
Akita in America
The goal of Japanese breeders was to return the Akita to its original spitz-type, with small triangular ears and eyes that remind of a fox. 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, with their heavier heads and bodies, these dogs resembled more bears than foxes.
This dichotomy in Akita lines soon became an international one: Imported to the United States in significant numbers in the 1950s, the Kongo-Go style dogs became entrenched 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, also referred to as the Japanese Akita. For more than a half-century in the United States, however, the two continued to compete together in the same show ring.
That will likely change in the near future: Recognizing the chasm between the American and Japanese type dogs, Akita Club of America members voted last year to formally define the two as separate breeds here in the United States, just as they now are in much of the world.
By the end of his life, Morie Sawataishi had bred or trained some 100 Akitas at his remote mountainside home, all with evocative 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 determination to continue on. Today, the Akita is a popular and well-established breed around the world, with its greatest concentration of dogs 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 war’s end. The bronze statue, its front legs burnished by the affectionate rubs of well-wishers, is a popular meeting place, providing a constant focal point in the bustlingly chaotic plaza that surrounds it. 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.