Once near extinction, Akita Inu dogs still thrive
April 24, 2013
By KYOKO TANAKA
ODATE, Akita Prefecture–Yume isn’t here to celebrate her 1st birthday on April 24, but she probably doesn’t miss her hometown.
Last July, the red-haired female puppy was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a token of Japan’s friendship, and she was given a first-class VIP seat on an airplane. Earlier this month, the Presidential Executive Office of Russia released photos of Yume happily playing with Putin.
Yume, whose name means “dream” in Japanese, is an Akita Inu, a breed native to this country. At her send-off ceremony here, Yume wore a sash around her body that read, “Sekai e todoke” (Send the dream to the world).
The world today would no longer have purebred Akita Inu dogs if the Akita Inu hozon kai (Akita Inu dog preservation association) had not been established in 1927.
At one time, Akita Inu dogs were in danger of extinction. In the Taisho Era (1912-1926), as a result of cross breeding with larger dogs to create competitive fight dogs, mongrel types of Akita Inu dogs increased.
Through the association’s efforts, Akita Inu dogs were designated as a protected species in 1931.
The same year, the Manchurian Incident occurred. With Japan plunging deeper into war, the Akita Inu dogs were treated as a nuisance since they needed a large amount of food.
“People had no choice but to keep the dogs in secret on the mountain far from town,” said Keiichi Ogasawara, who served as a vice chief of the association.
The 81-year-old veterinarian recalled, “Only a dozen of them could survive after the war.”
He worked together with other members at the association to protect the precious dogs and kept breeding them.
In Japan, the Akita Inu is known for its extreme loyalty largely in part to the story of Hachiko. A male Akita Inu dog from Odate, Hachiko waited at Shibuya Station in Tokyo every day for his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agriculture at what is now the University of Tokyo, to return from work. He continued to do so for 10 years even after Ueno’s death.
Today a bronze statue of Hachiko at Shibuya Station has become a bustling meeting place for people visiting the fashion and entertainment district.
Despite their great love of Hachiko, the Japanese are no longer so fond of the breed.
Ichiro Ishikawa, of the Japan Kennel Club, said Japan is in the middle of a fad of small dogs that can be kept in apartments.
The Akita Inu dog ranked only 42nd in 2012, according to the breed ranking by the Japan Kennel Club, which issues pedigree certificates.
However, the 46-year-old Ishikawa said that their popularity has been growing overseas, particularly in Europe. The public exposure Yume has received through her association with the Russian president is also helping.
“It is good news that the excellent quality of Akita Inu dogs has been recognized internationally,” Ishikawa said. “I think that the Akita Inu dog, which has avoided extinction thanks to many people’s efforts, will increase abroad.”
In addition, the Akita Inu dogs were brought to the United States more than 60 years ago, and American-style Akita dogs are still well known there.
For Shoji Hatakeyama, Yume’s former owner, the Akita Inu will always be ranked No. 1. As a farmer, he has lived with dogs for some 20 years.
The resident of Odate currently owns three, including Lala, Yume’s mother, and takes them for a walk twice a day for 90 minutes each time. He says the dogs are so friendly that they always run to greet people they know, and they never growl or bark.
“I have had different breed dogs before, but the Akita Inu dogs are the best,” said Hatakeyama, 70. “They are large, gentle and honest.”