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A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Nagoya in Japan for a conference on environmental history where I took a photo of a statue (below) of a dog in the city centre.

 

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Not being unable to read Japanese, I’m not sure what this statute commemorates (if anyone does know, please get in touch!). I was reminded of this statue when reading Aaron Herald Skabelund’s recent book Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan and the Making of the Modern Imperial World (2011) which discusses another Japanese dog statue, this time in Tokyo. This statue commemorates Hachikō, a Akita dog who would follow his master, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, to Shibuya station each day until the day his master died suddenly at work in May 1925. Echoing the actions of Greyfriars Bobby (see my previous blog) Hachikō, pictured below, waited for his dead master at the station for many years afterwards.

 

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Hachikō became celebrated as a symbol of devotion and loyalty and on 21 April 1934 a statue was unveiled to him amidst huge crowds. A mini-souvenir industry sprung up around Hachikō and he made it into school textbooks as a way of imparting the importance of devotion and self-sacrifice to Japanese school children. Numerous books and other publications have celebrated Hachikō’s story, which was also made into a 2009 film starring Richard Gere.

I didn’t get a chance to see the Hachikō statue when I was in Japan. But judging by comments on Trip Advisor, it provokes strong emotions. One reviewer wrote ‘I stepped out and saw the statue right there, and I cried like a baby. In fact, the statue does not seem to be a sophisticated artwork, just a simple dog statue that you may walk by if you don’t know about the story before. Thank you to those who built this statue.’

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But Skabelund reminds us that there is a darker, and more interesting, history behind the Hachikō statue. At a time when the Japanese state was flexing its imperial muscles and creating a stridently nationalist culture (which can be described as fascist), Saitō Hirokichi founded the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog, with the aim of protecting and promoting “native” Japanese dog breeds (those with pointy ears and curly tails). Saitō believed that Japanese dogs were superior to Western breeds, characterized as they were by their strength and devotion, and their close bonds with the Japanese people: ‘No other dog has been the recipient of the superior attributes of the Japanese national spirit – courage, composure, boldness, and loyalty – that have been ingrained and preserved through interacting and dwelling with the Japanese nation for thousands of years.’ But Saitō fretted that Japanese dogs had been weakened through contact with Western dogs and he persuaded government officials to protect seven dog breeds under the 1919 Law for Preserving Scenery and Historic and Natural Monuments. Saitō also played a key role in making Hachikō a symbol of the supposedly superior Japanese dog, even though some unconvinced observers noted that one of his ears drooped and that he may have been drawn to the station by the chicken kebabs sold by nearby vendors.

The history of Hachikō shows the ease with which dogs are incorporated into national identity (think of the British bulldog) and how dogs’ apparent devotion can be mobilized for a variety of cultural and political objectives. It also shows how we have to look beyond the sentimentalization of dogs if we are to better understand the complexity, and darker side, of human-canine histories.

To find out more about Hachikō and the “invention” of the modern Japanese dog, Empire of Dogs is well worth a closer look.