AKITA – After winning gold in women’s ice skating at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, 15-year old Alina Zagitova has her eyes set on another prize — a Japanese puppy named after Akita, the prefecture from which it originates.
While training in Japan for the Olympics, the Russian figure skater fell in love with the fluffy breed from the moment she saw a photo of it and promptly asked her mother to buy one.
In a quandary, her mother promised to do so only if Zagitova did well in the games.
Upon hearing the story, the Akita Dog Preservation Society based in Odate was quick to respond and is preparing to give a puppy to the Olympic champion.
The plan is seen as part of efforts to attract more tourists to the prefecture, and there are signs that it is already working.
Amid what some have dubbed the “Zagitova effect,” stuffed Akita dog toys with triangular ears and curly tails have been selling well at airport gift shops.
Though domestic ownership of the breed has not been climbing in recent years, its popularity is soaring abroad.
“It warmed my heart to see people around the world taking an interest in Japanese Akita, a treasure of traditional Japanese and Akita culture,” said Takashi Endo, head of the preservation society.
An Akita owner himself, Endo said he hopes the breed’s popularity abroad will keep the tradition alive and help revitalize the prefecture.
In 2006, only 76 new purebred Japanese Akita were registered overseas. But last year’s number reached a staggering 3,967 — far above the 2,704 registered at home, according to the preservation society.
Nearly 80 percent of the overseas Akita registered with the organization are in China, but their popularity is a worldwide phenomenon.
Any purebred Akita can be registered with the association, even those not born in Japan. But there are no reliable estimates on how many of the dogs exist internationally, and some countries have their own statistics.
Endo said the increasing trend of international ownership can be traced by its registries.
“We also see the purebreds in countries like France and Italy, not just in China,” he pointed out.
Ownership in Italy has grown from 280 in 2009 to 1,742 in 2017, according to a register held by the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies.
“Everywhere I go, people take pictures of my two Akitas,” said Carolina Marquez, a 24-year-old American living outside Venice.
“Some people would take pictures without asking,” she said. “But my dogs love the attention.”
The dog is not only photogenic, with its fluffy coat, rugged stance and pointy ears, but also has a loyal and affectionate temperament that has led to its international acclaim.
Akita have appeared in a number of Hollywood films, including the 2009 movie “Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale.”
Akita were bred to hunt bears, with the physical strength to back it up. With a fierce hunting instinct and aggressive tendencies, it can be a challenging dog for first-time owners. But for some that might be part of the allure.
In a symbolic gesture of gratitude for assistance after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with an Akita puppy named Yume in 2012.
The puppy’s cuteness has captured the hearts of Russians and its roughness has given Putin the chance to show off his mastery of the tough dog to the media.
Following the gift, other high-level Russian politicians have flocked to get Akita of their own.
Without even knowing the name of the breed, people came asking for an Akita puppy “just like the one Mr. Putin has,” said Natalia Stroich, a breeder based in Moscow.
But its fast-growing popularity has a negative side as well. Stroich said thousands of people are trying to “make some quick money” off the trend.
The average price in Russia of an Akita puppy with a good pedigree is ¥140,000, leading some breeders to sacrifice quality for quantity.
“You can buy a puppy for the price of a cell phone,” if a buyer does not care much about pedigree, Stroich said.
A similar tendency is visible in Italy. Marinella Arminio, a Naples-based breeder, said. “Many import dogs from Japan.”
Regardless of genetic problems the dogs might have, they are placed in commercial breeding facilities where their health is secondary to profit, according to Arminio.
For buyers, their Japanese origins matter more than their pedigree.
“Many dogs get sick,” Arminio said, noting that skin and joint diseases that were once rare have now become “a real problem.”
A problem that has rebounded on the owners.
“The puppy market has dropped,” said Marta Maccarrone, a 23-year-old Italian whose Akita recently gave birth to a litter.
When Maccarrone set out to sell her puppies to responsible owners, she found that some of those who approached her were more interested in them as fashion items.
Maccarrone added that she had to sell the puppies for prices previously unthinkable because careless breeders had pushed the price down.
But more pitiful are those puppies bred without consideration of their health.
“I hope the dog’s popularity will quiet down,” she said.
Back in Japan, government officials hope the dog’s popularity overseas will translate into revenue at home.
Two years ago, Odate set up an organization called Akita Inu Tourism, aiming to draw more Japanese and tourists to the prefecture.
Among its staff are the dogs Asuka and Ako, which have their own Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
Using their charm, the agency promotes pet-friendly lodgings and local specialties including kiritanpo (tube-shaped rice patties) and bear stew, in addition to tour guide services.
Once Zagitova’s puppy is cleared for shipment to Russia, Endo said he will travel to Moscow to hand it to her himself. That will not be until late May or early June, but she has already picked its name.
“The dog is a girl, and I will name it Masaru,” she told a news conference after winning the medal.
Masaru, a distinctly masculine name in Japanese, means ‘victory,’ and sex aside, seems to be a fitting name for the prize of a gold medalist.
Oeystein Sollesnes and Alina Friel are graduate students at Akita International University, Japan. This article is part of their course work in journalism at the Graduate School of Global Communication Practices.