The first dog came into their lives in 1944. They were living in Hachimantai, an undeveloped and remote part of Akita, the north-westernmost prefecture of Japan, after which the dog breed was named, and a 22-hour train ride from Tokyo in those days. Kitako Sawatoishi was 23, raising their first two children, a toddler and an infant. Her husband, Morie, was 28 and an engineer for Mitsubishi, assigned to electrify the far north, a region that had struggled with poverty and harsh weather for centuries. Even in the best of times, it was a forbiddingly beautiful but neglected part of Japan. Only two cities in the region had power in those days – Odate and Akita City – and the rest of the large prefecture of Akita was without electricity, piped-in gas, or heat throughout the long winter.
After decades of wars and skirmishes in Asia, Japan was now fighting the West. Three years into the Second World War, millions of Japanese had died on the battlefront and millions more were starving at home. But every day on the radio, the news was always encouraging. ‘We were winning, they always said, and victory was just around the corner,’ Kitako says.
But the war dragged on, and food became almost impossible to come by. Proper winter clothes – coats and boots – weren’t available either. Kitako learnt to make sandals out of straw, the same shoes she had been horrified to see the locals wearing when she first arrived in Akita. The air strikes on the cities of Japan began, city after city turned to ash. It seemed relatively safe in the mountains, but nobody knew when things had been worse.
Morie was on his way to another snow-country village that winter when he met up with a doctor he knew, a man who had kept akitas before the war. Morie and the doctor discussed the war, swapping stories about how bad things had got. ‘You know how bad things are?’ the doctor asked Morie. ‘People are eating their dogs.’ Desperate for money, they were selling the pelts to the military, which used them to line winter coats.
In some snow-country villages it was illegal to have a dog at all. The police rounded them up and clubbed them. The doctor had been trying to keep track of how many akitas were left. It was widely acknowledged that they would soon be wiped out.
He thought of Hachiko, the most famous dog in Japan, a pale-yellow akita owned by a Tokyo University professor in 1920. The professor had taught his dog, as a puppy, to accompany him every morning to the Shibuya train station and then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, to return to meet his train. The two of them were a familiar sight at the station, and people marvelled at the dog’s loyalty and obedience. When Hachiko was two years old, though, the professor had a stroke at work and was taken to hospital where he eventually died, never seeing his dog again. Yet Hachiko continued to meet the four o’clock train at Shibuya every day for the next nine years.
Souvenirs and postcard pictures of Hachiko were sold at the station. A song was written – Loyal Hachiko – and taught to schoolchildren all over Japan. Morie was 11 years old in 1927 when he read in the newspaper that a bronze statue of the akita had been erected at Shibuya, on the spot where the dog liked to wait.
Morie knew the Japanese government had used the story of Hachiko as propaganda to promote loyalty to the emperor and it bothered him to have heard, not long before, that the bronze statue of the dog had been melted down. So many things of Morie’s childhood weren’t surviving the war. And so many things that he loved about his country didn’t seem important to most people any more. What had happened to Japan? Who would be as loyal as a dog if there were no dogs left?
As he walked home in the snow, a thought occurred to Morie. What if he bought the best akita he could find and kept it alive until the war was over? Perhaps there were dogs available to save and a network could be assembled.
By the time Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, there were said to be only 16 akitas left in the country. Morie owned two of them. The following spring, with a litter of puppies on the way, Morie hosted the first post-war dog show in the snow country, an informal gathering of all the men who had kept dogs hidden during the war – a backyard affair that sounds, from his descriptions, as much about sake as it was about dogs.
The restitution of the akita breed became Morie’s passion and the decisive factor of his life. He raised four children with Kitako, and continued to build power plants for Mitsubishi until he retired at 63, but every spare moment of his life Morie spent training or showing his dogs, or hunting in the mountains with them. Eventually, as the akita breed began to stabilize genetically and conform to a set of physical standards, Morie gravitated to dogs with kisho, or spirit – energy, shrewdness, intelligence, courage.
Over the years, he guesses that he has raised or trained 100 akitas – many of them superb show champions as well as hunters. There was Three Good Lucks, a beautiful red dog who was poisoned by a rival owner. There was One Hundred Tigers, a very promising puppy for the show ring, until he lost his tail in a fence. Victory Princess was a stray with a biting problem who was dropped off at Morie’s door.
In autumn 2007, when Morie’s beautiful champion akita Shiro died at 15 – an unimaginably old age for an akita – Morie wondered if it wasn’t time for him to go, too. He planned a big funeral for his great white champion. A priest and dozens of mourners came. Morie still had two younger akitas left, but he lacked the energy to show them or take them hunting.
In June 2008, an earthquake came – the largest earthquake in Japan for seven years. Its epicentre was in Kurikoma, not too far from the Sawataishis’ house. Windows were shattered, a landslide caused a boulder to roll into the kitchen. Morie and Kitako, as well as the dogs, were forced to evacuate to the suburbs of Tokyo where their daughter Ryoko, a university professor of veterinary medicine, has a house and small animal clinic. It was a very difficult transition for Morie. ‘From having unlimited space in the mountains to being in a crowded suburb – it was a big adjustment,’ Mamoru says.
Not long after the ministry of disaster declared the Sawataishis’ mountain house uninhabitable for the time being, Morie was taken to hospital for high blood pressure and various other ailments. He stubbornly refused life-saving drugs or treatments. On October 22 he died with Kitako at his side. He was 92.
‘I’ve over-lived,’ Morie used to joke. He lasted much longer than he had expected. And he wasn’t afraid to die. He had seemed quite happy as he talked about dying – almost joyful. ‘At least I know what my life has been about.’
Full story at Telegraph UK
Dog Man by Martha Sherrill on Amazon.