In dog-loving Japan, a year for the mutts among us to make our marks

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Canine-lovers have plenty to celebrate, what with this year being 戌年 (Inu-doshi, the Year of the Dog). If you’re wondering why Inu-doshi uses the kanji 戌 instead of the more familiar 犬, the former means “a good or valuable dog,” the latter your garden-variety plain mutt. The 干支 (eto, Chinese zodiac) uses special kanji, so it’s 戌.

Dogs and the Japanese go way back, as attested by the presence of the 狛犬 (komainu, lion-dog deity statue) adorning the gates and grounds of Shinto shrines all over Japan. In the late Edo Period (1842, to be precise), the best-selling novel series of the time was 南総 里見八犬伝 (Nansō Satomi Hakkenden, “Eight Dog Chronicles”), which actually had very little to do with dogs per se, the focus being on the dog character 犬 that figures in the characters’ names. Dogs were trendy for most of the Edo Period thanks to the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, and his famed 生類憐みの令 (Shōrui Awaremi no Rei, Law Prohibiting Cruelty to Animals).

Tsunayoshi had a lot of angst about being childless and consulted his mother’s favorite monk. This monk told him to put a ban on animal killing, with special emphasis on the dog (Tsunayoshi himself was an Inu-doshi man), which would appease the gods — enough to grant the shogun an heir.

Tsunayoshi subsequently spent the whole of his 29-year reign as a champion of canine rights and even opened an 犬屋敷 (inu-yashiki, “dog palace”) for strays in Nakano, right where the 区役所 (kuyakusho, ward office) stands today. Edo citizens had to foot the bill for the inu-yashiki with tax hikes, and any grumblings were met with heavy punishment. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Tsunayoshi remained childless.

On his deathbed, Tsunayoshi asked his successor, Tokugawa Ienobu, to continue with the law and protect his beloved dogs. Ienobu agreed, but as soon as Tsunayoshi drew his last breath, turned right around and ditched the law. Edo heaved a huge sigh of relief as the inu-yashiki was dismantled and life resumed its feudal course.

Still, dogs have always been in public favor. A much-loved folk tale is 花咲か爺さん (Hanasaka Jiisan — literally, “Flower Blossoming Grandpa”), which features an old man and his loyal dog ポチ (Pochi) (sometimes known as Shiro). Pochi tells the old man to dig up the yard for buried gold, which he proceeds to do, thereby coming into a huge fortune. Jealous of this old man’s good luck, a spiteful next-door neighbor kills poor Pochi. The old man is heartbroken over the loss of his pet and scatters the dog’s ashes on a withered tree whereupon the branches suddenly burst into 桜 (sakura) blossoms.

Such tales of canine loyalty abound. Very few Japanese can tell you the names of the explorers on Japan’s first postwar expedition to Antarctica, but most everyone knows the dogs タロ (Taro) and ジロ (Jiro), which were part of the dog sleigh team and managed to survive for a year on their own after the explorers returned to Japan. Their commemorative statues stand outside Tokyo Tower.

One of the first things the Western visitor discovers upon arrival in this country is that dogs bark “wan wan” instead of “bow wow,” and you haven’t really, truly arrived until you’ve taken a selfie in front of the Hachiko statue outside Shibuya Station. The station exit is even named after Hachi, the loving and loyal 秋田犬 (Akita-ken, Akita dog (Akita is a breed)) who waited outside the station exit for his deceased master to come home every night for nearly 10 years.

Which brings us to “Hachi,” the Hollywood remake of same-titled Japanese movie, that starred Richard Gere. In the U.S., Gere may be synonymous with the studly officer in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but in Japan he’s best known as Hachi’s American master.

Inu-doshi people are known to be faithful, tenacious and family-oriented. Inu women are said to make excellent mothers, since dogs have easy births and are responsible caretakers of their litter. Inu men are said to display too much loyalty sometimes, though they are said to shine in professions like 議員秘書 (gi’in hisho, parliamentary aide), 消防士 (shōbōshi, firefighter), 警察官 (keisatsukan, policeman) and others who have no trouble with authority figures.

Inu women and inu men are said to make great marriages together, whereas the inu and the 猿 (saru, monkey) will be at each other’s throats. There’s a phrase about how dogs and monkeys don’t get along: 犬猿の仲 (ken’en no naka, the dog-monkey relationship).

Interestingly, inu men are said to be friendly and outgoing, but the women are more likely to give strangers a wide berth until they have been proven trustworthy. Inu women are also said to make hardworking entrepreneurs, but they have no organizational skills and are bad at household chores.

The verdict on 今年の運勢 (kotoshi no unsei, this year’s fortune) for inu folks is that 2018 will be 穏やか (odayaka, quiet and gentle). Apparently it’s the year for rest and self-care, because on other years dog people internalize their anger and hoard a lot of stress.

On the other hand, here’s an old dog-related phrase: 犬も歩けば棒に当たる (Inu mo arukeba bō ni ataru, When a dog goes walking, it can bump into a stick). The phrase has a double meaning: 1) It’s best not to get too adventurous, so as to avoid unforeseen disaster, or 2) Once you get out there, you may have a run of unexpected good luck.

Just something to chew on, for all the dog people out there.