What do Russian President Vladimir Putin, French-Swiss actor Alain Delon and U.S. political activist Helen Keller have in common? They have all known the joy of owning an Akita, a breed of dog originating from the northern region of Tohoku.

The Akita is one of the oldest breeds in Japan and are believed to have descended from dogs that came to Honshu with hunters more than 2,000 years ago.

Today’s Akita developed primarily from the breed of dogs that lived in Akita Prefecture, which explains how the breed got its name.

Hachiko’s statue near Shibuya Station in Tokyo. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Known for its loyalty, the breed was catapulted into popular imagination by the tale of Hachiko. Hachiko was born in 1923 and owned by professor Hidesaburo Ueno, who lived near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station. The dog accompanied his master to and from the station each day.

In 1925, Ueno suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage at work and yet Hachiko continued to return to the station and wait for his master to return from work each day until his death nine years later.

In April 1934, less than a year before his death, Hachiko was immortalized in a bronze statue at Shibuya Station. The statue was melted down for munitions during World War II, but a new one was commissioned after the war, which now serves as a popular meeting spot for Tokyoites as well as a tourist attraction.

In 2015, another statue to the famous pooch was unveiled at the University of Tokyo campus — this time depicting Hachiko as finally reuniting with his master.

The enduring popularity of the Akita is also reflected in pop culture. Films such as “Hachiko Monogatari” (1987), “Snow Prince” (2009) and “Wasao” (2011) star the breed in various roles. Wasao, who plays himself in the 2011 film, was later named as an ambassador for world heritage activities by UNESCO in a bid to “promote a connection between humans and nature.”

Scandinavian nations, however, might be more familiar with Yoshihiro Takahashi’s manga series “Ginga Nagareboshi Gin” (“Silver Fang”), in which a silver Akita appeared in the starring role. The 1980s series was popular in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

More recently, the Akita-Inu Tourism Association has produced a music video in which the heads of three Akita dogs are superimposed on human bodies as they sing and dance to a catchy tune. The video has to date attracted more than 1.2 million views.

The clearest illustration of the Akita’s popularity can be seen in the results of a 1999 poll that was conducted by the national postal service, in which respondents were asked to choose a series of stamps that best represented the 20th century. Hachiko was selected as one of the winning designs.

Akita pilgrimages

On the second weekend of February each year, two festivals are held in Akita Prefecture in honor of the breed.

The ethereal Inukko festival is held in Yuzawa, a city that is famous for its heavy snowfall each winter.

Dozens of 3-meter-tall ice statues carved to look like standing Akitas are displayed around town, each adorned with a ceremonial rope around its neck, a Shinto symbol to indicate the effigy is sacred. The streets are lined with shrines that are also sculpted from ice, and talismans called inukko that are made of sticky rice and candles are placed inside.

Since it’s a dog festival, however, many visitors bring their pets, and the family atmosphere of the event coupled with the fireworks that follow are an enticing option.

The Amekko-ichi festival, meanwhile, is held in Odate, a town located 3½ hours from Yuzawa by train, which the Akita-Inu Tourism Association’s Jun Toriya calls “the Akita’s holy land.”

Women in traditional work pants stand in front of a shrine at the Inukko festival in Yuzawa in 2015.
Women in traditional work pants stand in front of a shrine at the Inukko festival in Yuzawa in 2015. | JORDAN OXBOROUGH

The Akita are believed to have developed from dogs in Odate during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It’s perhaps worth noting that Hachiko was born on a farm near the city.

Toriya says people in Akita Prefecture have lived for generations in close proximity with the breed, which are considered to be a cultural symbol of the region alongside the matagi (bear hunters) of yesteryear and kiritanpo, a regional delicacy consisting of pounded rice toasted on cedar skewers the hunters ate during their excursions to the mountains. The hunters used Akitas to track their prey, making the dogs invaluable partners. The three cultural icons, Toriya says, are “inextricably intertwined.”

Odate is filled with Akita images, from monuments and souvenirs to manhole covers and household items. The town is also the location of Roken Shrine, which was built to appease the spirit of a legendary Akita called Shiro, who had tried unsuccessfully to save his master, Sadaroku, from officers of a neighboring domain who had arrested him.

The Amekko-ichi festival has a history that stretches back 400 years or so. It takes place in the middle of Odate on the aptly named Hachiko Street, which is lined with numerous stands selling auspicious sweets that are said to ward off illness. The festival typically attracts as many as 100,000 people from neighboring prefectures, making it the largest winter event in the region.

The University of Tokyo has a statue of Hachiko reuniting with professor Hidesaburo Ueno.
The University of Tokyo has a statue of Hachiko reuniting with professor Hidesaburo Ueno. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

The real attraction of the festival, however, is a parade hosted by the Akita Dog Preservation Society that features a dozen or so of its local stars.

The organization, which started in 1927, is the oldest Akita club in the world. It’s responsible for helping the Akita to be officially declared a Japanese National Monument in 1931. The society also manages a museum in Odate, which displays photos of champion Akitas going back over eight decades alongside Akita-related art and historical artifacts.

Last year’s parade in Odate featured the mother of Yume, an Akita who was given to Putin after the Tohoku region received sizable donations from Russia in response to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Paws for thought

The Akita Dog Preservation Society was established in an effort to protect purebred dogs after their numbers were pushed to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century.

“Back then, you had to be rich to own an Akita, as most people were struggling to eat themselves,” says Yasutami Togashi, manager of the Akita Dog Preservation Society. “Families would own a professional dog carer, but it had a different connotation to what it means to own a pet these days.”

Odate was once a thriving center of dog-fighting during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and Akitas were often crossbred with larger breeds to enhance their performance in the ring.

The Amekko-ichi festival in Odate, Akita Prefecture, features a parade hosted by the Akita Dog Preservation Society.
The Amekko-ichi festival in Odate, Akita Prefecture, features a parade hosted by the Akita Dog Preservation Society. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Dog-fighting was banned in 1909 and legislation was passed in 1919 to protect Japanese dogs in Akita Prefecture in an attempt to save the breed. This, however, did little to stabilize the population.

“During World War II, owning an Akita was seen as a luxury and people thought that giving them food was a waste,” Yasutami says. “In winter, they were killed for their pelts and locals were forced to turn them loose in the hills as they were ordered to be killed.”

The wartime government ordered all nonmilitary dogs to be killed on sight, forcing some dog owners to cross-breed Akitas with German Shepherds.

This series of events made it hard to find a purebred Akita in the years following the war.

Activist Helen Keller is believed to be the first person to take an Akita to the United States.
Activist Helen Keller is believed to be the first person to take an Akita to the United States. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Morie Sawataishi, a breeder and lover of the Akita, almost single-handedly helped to increase the numbers of this breed and, without his perseverance, it is quite likely that it would have disappeared altogether.

Around this time, a number of U.S. servicemen who were based in Japan during the Occupation fell in love with the animal, taking them back to the United States after finishing their posting.

Many U.S. servicemen preferred an Akita that had been crossed with a German Shepherd, and these dogs eventually diverged from the standardized purebred to become the American Akita.

However, U.S. servicemen can’t take all the credit for introducing the breed to America. Helen Keller took a puppy back across the Pacific after becoming familiar with the story of Hachiko during a speaking tour in Asia in 1937.

Named Kamikaze-Go, Keller’s Akita died of canine distemper at 7½ months old. Upon learning of the news, the minister of foreign affairs sent another puppy named Kenzan-Go to Keller in Connecticut in 1939. Keller described Kenzan-Go as a “splendid protector and companion and a precious part of my daily life.”


Road to recovery

The Los Angeles chapter of the Akita Dog Preservation Society is the largest in the world after Japan, boasting more than 100 members.

Steven Takamatsu, president of the LA chapter, says it was originally formed in 1970 “by a bunch of Japanese-Americans around Los Angeles, who had Japanese Akitas and were already having shows in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.”

Takamatsu adds that many Japanese-Americans still think of the Akita as a way to connect with Japanese culture.

The LA chapter aims to promote the Japanese Akita, striving to maintain the breed’s “ideal characteristics” and make sure there is no “fraud in the pedigrees.”

Takamatsu outlines some very specific traits he looks for when examining an Akita. He says that purebreds should have a long, coarse, outer coat and a plush, soft undercoat of hair; their eyes should be almond-shaped (not too narrow or too round); their ears should tilt slightly forward; their chests should be wide or barrel-chested; and, last but not least, they must have curly tails.

Takamatsu says the economic crisis between 2007 and 2009 negatively affected the number of Japanese Akita in the United States. The aging population of breeders thinned considerably, as many retired or moved on to other jobs.

However, the LA chapter’s membership has expanded over the past eight years, reflecting a growing interest in the breed.

Yasutami of the Akita Dog Preservation Society says 3,667 Akitas were registered with the organization as a pedigree in 2015. Given that the average life span of an Akita is 10 years or so, Yasutami estimates there are a total of around 30,000 worldwide.

He believes the decline in the Akita population worldwide has reversed, due in part to the popularity of the breed in places such as the United States and Russia.

The dark side of fame

The amount of attention the Akita has received in recent years has also led to some unfortunate consequences.

Animal rights campaigners have identified a number of unscrupulous breeders who look to profit from pedigree pets while raising the animals in appalling conditions.

British expat Elizabeth Oliver, owner of animal rescue organization Ark Refuge Kansai, recalls one particularly harrowing example that led to an international campaign.

Oliver was once involved in a court case with an Akita breeder in Saga Prefecture that kept dogs in “hell hole” conditions: dogs chained in cages surrounded by mountains of feces, and empty water bowls filled with green algae. The animals that didn’t make the grade were left to die, with skeletons and rotting corpses scattered around the premises.

For every registered breeder, there are manifold amounts of breeders who fly under the radar, Oliver said in a statement during the case. Moreover, she added, for every puppy purchased, 100 or more die in what is known in the industry as “puppy mills.”

Overzealous buyers are another area of concern. Stephanie Brown, chairman of the Akita Rescue and Welfare Trust in Britain, says that spikes in the popularity of Akita overseas are often spurred by films such as “The Twilight Saga” series, which featured wolves.

People see a “beautiful animal and simply want it, until they run into issues that they are not prepared to work with, nor adapt their lives to cope with,” Brown says, adding that Akitas are “not researched and understood.”

She says that social media has also contributed to the proliferation of sketchy breeders.

Takamatsu agrees.

“This has happened to Dalmatians after the ‘101 Dalmatians’ movie and Saint Bernards after the ‘Beethoven’ movies, just to list a couple of examples,” Takamatsu says. “When it does not work out, these people just dump them in animal shelters.”

As for the Akitas that have ended up at Ark over the years, Oliver says the dogs themselves aren’t the issue.

“It’s their owners’ personal situation,” Oliver says. “With a lot of the dogs, it is not the dog that is the problem, it is the circumstances.”

The popularity of the breed is a double-edged sword, Takamatsu says, but lovers of the breed typically find it hard to look past its devoted and chivalrous attributes.

As with any dog, Takamatsu says that research is key.

“I would recommend people should read about Japanese Akitas before buying one in order to avoid buyer’s remorse,” Takamatsu says.

Trends come and go but, as far as many dog lovers are concerned, a well-trained Akita will ultimately prove to be a loyal companion for life.

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