Dog Man – The Savior of Japan’s Akitas

Pet Travel Tuesday

Dog Man (Japanese Akita)
Destination: Japan

Book: Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, by Martha Sherrill (2008)

By Pamela Douglas Webster

See Pam’s thoughts about Breeds at Something Wagging This Way Comes. 

Weakened by wars and deprivation, the Japanese people nearly lost a precious piece of their cultural heritage in the early 20th century: their Akitas.

An informal count in 1945 identified only 16 of these primitive dogs in the entire nation of Japan. Starving families in the mountainous, snowy region of northern Japan ate the dogs for survival and sold their pelts to line military officers’ coats.

Akitas are a proud and noble primitive breed.
A proud and noble Akita.

Although he had never been interested in them before he turned thirty years old, Morie Sawataishi developed a sudden craving to have a dog. And when his work took him to Akita prefecture, Morie found his ideal dog.

These fierce and beautiful dogs were too important to be lost forever. He, along with a small group of dedicated dog lovers, revived the breed. Today, thanks to Sawataishi the Dog Man, there are thousands of Akitas all over the world. The Japanese emperor even recognized Sawataishi in 2002 for his contribution to preserving Japanese culture by raising dogs.

But his dedication to Akitas came at a personal cost. Sawataishi sacrificed his time, devoting most of his off-hours as a Mitsubishi engineer to breeding, raising, and showing dogs. He brought great tension to his marriage—when he paid six month’s salary for his first dog, his wife Kitako refused to speak to him for a week.

And Sawataishi never sold the dogs he bred, so the reward was not financial.

So what drove this man to devote his life to preserving Akita dogs?

The author of Dog Man, former Washington Post staff writer Martha Sherrill, felt the answer lay in Sawataishi’s roots in the  land itself.

Akita is a winter wonderland covered in snow.
Akita as a winter wonderland

The Japanese north, where Sawataishi was raised and lived most of his life, is mountainous snow country. Few Japanese tourists ever see it much less outsiders. Many parts of the region didn’t receive electricity until the 1950s and 1960s. Heavy snows blocked the roads throughout the winter.

Only a rugged person would thrive there. Or a rugged dog.

Akitas are perfect snow dogs.
The Akita’s thick coat and rugged nature make it a perfect snow dog.

Akitas expressed the flesh and bones spirit of the mountainous region. It was that spirit that Sawataishi wanted to embody as well.

Sometimes Morie dreamt of… knowing all the secrets of the mountains. He wanted to be able to survive in the wild by skill and intelligence and awareness and kisho [fighting spirit]. Maybe all the things he looked for in his dogs were things that he wanted in himself, or wanted to encourage, and keep alive in the face of the changing requirements of modern life.

Every day, until a 2008 earthquake forced him from his home, Sawataishi walked the mountain trails with his dogs.  He led a renegade life in a culture that rewards getting along.

Sawataishi’s need to live life on his own terms gave him the force of will to save a dog breed few seemed to care about in the dark days following the end of the war. But this same force of will made him a domineering husband and father.

The first time I read this book, I walked away fascinated but not certain I liked its central character. As I reread it, vowing not to judge, I appreciated Sawataishi more—especially since I wasn’t married to him.

Sawataishi and his beautiful dogs are a link to an ancient Japan that bears little resemblance to the consumer paradise of today. I understand his desire to connect with the primal nature of this ancient breed. And I believe the world is a better place for his work to restore it.

Visit the British on-line newspaper, the Telegraph, to read Martha Sherrill’s brief biography of Morie Sawataishi upon his death and to see pictures of him with his dogs. The video below is from Animal Planet. (If it does not appear on your screen, try reloading the page.)



I’ve illustrated this post with photos from Flickr used under the Creative Commons license. Click on the picture to learn more about the photographer and the image. The book titles are links to allow you to buy them at Amazon. If you buy though this link, you won’t spend any more but we’ll make a small commission to help cover blogging costs. Thank you.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

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