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Japan: the history behind its love affair with dogs

by Jeff Kingston

Empire of Dogs: Canine, Japan and the Making of the Modern World, by Aaron Skabelund. Cornell University Press, 2011, 312 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

The Japanese fascination with dogs is long-standing, but the pampered pooches of today would cringe at the horrid treatment of their predecessors during wartime Japan and extensive extermination campaigns before that. In Empire of Dogs, author Aaron Skabelund explains how the dog-eat-dog world of late 19th-century imperialism transformed canines’ place and role in Japan and how Japanese breeds evolved from reviled targets of eradication into paragons of national identity. There is much to be learned about a society from a dog’s eye view and readers will never look at the statue of Hachiko in quite the same way after reading the back-story of this celebrated Akita.

All the imperial nations brought dogs with them as they spread across the globe conquering and occupying. Canine imperialism propagated Western breeding and dog keeping norms and also played out in the relationships between colonizer and colonized. Certain breeds came to represent nations and symbolize national traits such as the English bulldog, German shepherd and French poodle. Racist discourse naturally spilled over into concerns about bloodlines and pedigrees and dogs spread from companions for the elite to accessories of the middle class.

As in the human world, dogs were divided by class — with recognized breeds and coddled pets lording it over mongrels and strays — while the traits of colonial dogs were invoked in assertions of superiority over indigenous people and their curs. Japanese emulated the same prejudices and favored Western breeds over local varieties until the 1930s when the rising tide of nationalism boosted the status of Japanese dogs.

The elevation of national breeds owes much to the venerated Hachiko whose statue outside Shibuya Station is certainly one of the most popular meeting spots in the world. This statue is not the original, which was melted down during the war to make spare train parts. But it remains faithful to the controversial prototype.

Saito Hirokichi, the self-appointed promoter and guardian of “purebred” Japanese dogs, raised funds for the original statue and insisted on depicting Hachiko with both ears upright, arguing this is how a pedigree should look. The artist refused and Hachiko’s floppy left ear was immortalized.

Ear controversy also surrounded the casting of Saigo Takamori’s statue unveiled in Ueno Park in 1898. Saigo was being rehabilitated into a national hero and exemplar of samurai spirit despite his fateful rebellion against the national government. Inconveniently, his favorite dog was a large floppy eared Western dog.

The sculptor unveiled a mockup that provoked criticism because the dog looked like a mongrel rather than Japanese and had floppy ears deemed to resemble those of a Chinese lapdog. In response, the sculptor recast the diminutive dog with “rabbitlike pointy ears” so that it would look suitably Japanese. Skabelund notes that the dog’s Chinese appearance was seen as a, “stain on the dignity of the newly canonized national hero [and] bore ugly traces of a popular chauvinism that the Sino-Japanese War had recently stirred into a frenzy.”

Returning to the story of Hachiko, everyday he met his master in front of Shibuya Station and kept coming for nine years even after the professor died in 1925. The abovementioned Saito met Hachiko and mobilized media attention for a dog that embodied unswerving loyalty and duty, desirable traits in the wake of the 1931 Manchurian Incident. In this feverish climate Hachiko’s romanticized story was published and the Education Ministry included it in texts to inculcate fealty and patriotism. Unlike most national heroes, Hachiko actually lived to see his statue unveiled a year before he died in 1935, but he was probably unaware of the snarling going on behind the scenes concerning his floppy ear or role in promoting imperial devotion.

Skabelund argues that “dogs and imperialism were inextricably intertwined and mutually sustaining.” National identity was linked to loyalty and the nation state required obedience, helping to explain why dogs were valorized and useful symbols. He further notes that “imperialism shaped the world of dog-breeding and dog keeping as we know it today.”

Indigenous dogs were transformed into accessories of empire as Saito redefined them as repositories of national character and played an instrumental role in the official recognition of seven Japanese breeds during the 1930s. Interestingly, the Tosa was not one of this first batch of Japanese pedigrees because it is a cross-breed with the Western mastiff, a decision that speaks volumes about prevailing anxieties.

Ironically, undercutting the new obsession with purity, the most famous wartime dog was the cartoon character Norakuro (1931-41), a mongrel orphan who rose from private to colonel in a dog army whose feats, blunders and victories captured the popular imagination. Depicting the emperor’s army as a pack of dogs was always risky and it is not surprising the Norakura series was terminated after irking (and embarrassing) military authorities when he decided to retire from the army and engage in some profiteering in Manchuria.

Skabelund mines the rich cache of dog metaphors and sayings with wit and scant restraint, but it seems churlish to accuse him of barking up the wrong tree or straining to give every dog his day. Readers need not be dog lovers to appreciate this dogged and deft analysis of empire and its social and cultural repercussions, but those so inclined will find a rewarding trove of lore about dogs in Japan.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan