Tag Archives: Japan

The Man Who Saved Akitas

Dog ManThe 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?

Morie SawataishiAs 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.

Nagareboshi Gin and other dangerous dogs


Reality Check Haiku

Tatsumi Shimura

Image: Tatsumi Shimura, Portrait of a Lady (detail), 1930
Haiku: Reality Check Haiku, Nicky Kaa Walker

Stupeur et Tremblements

Stupeur et TremblementsJapan beckons, alluring and elusive; foreigners pay court, but their attentions often remain unrequited. The relationship between Japan and the foreign suitor — a dance of seduction, misunderstanding and rejection — has inspired its own literary subgenre.

In Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling), the protagonist is excluded because she are foreign and typecast because she is a woman. The novel offers a grim, sometimes mordantly funny, vision of a Japan that seems determined to keep outsiders outside — where they belong.

When well-meaning but all too often obtuse Westerners bump up against Japanese standards, the comedy in this novel — and its underlying sadness — emerges. Stupeur et Tremblements takes place at the headquarters of a Japanese corporation in Tokyo.

Elegantly written (as translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) and now — elegantly filmed — it is a chronicle of the startlingly rapid fall of a young Belgian who tries to find a place in a Japanese company. Amélie, the heroine, is a child of foreign diplomats who spent her early years in Japan and so is fluent in Japanese. But it is soon clear that she is hapless when it comes to translating what isn’t said.

She fails her first test: understanding a lesson in humility that her boss tries to teach her by repeatedly tearing up an assignment without telling her what she’s done wrong. Amélie stumbles again when she takes the initiative by performing a task that hasn’t been assigned to her. Yet her fatal error is more deeply personal: failing to understand the psychology of the beautiful, brilliant and underappreciated Fubuki Mori, the woman who is her immediate superior. Amélie senses Fubuki’s desperate wish to be married — achieving a status that would free her from the tyranny of the company but confine her in a different sphere.

Amélie doesn’t see that her own success may be a threat to a woman who has labored for years to attain what little status she has in a country where women are often denied opportunities for promotion. And then she makes the classic Western mistake of attempting to talk over a problem with Fubuki rather than finding unspoken ways to make amends. Matters become even more complicated after she clumsily tries to offer sympathy when Fubuki is rebuked by her own boss. By witnessing Fubuki’s humiliation, Amélie has shamed her, and Fubuki proceeds to exact her revenge.

Nothomb (herself the daughter of Belgian diplomats who served in Japan) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation dead to rights, sketching out the often mindless and capricious hierarchy, the dangers of spontaneity and the condescending superiority with which many Japanese regard Westerners. While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system.

At times, Stupeur et Tremblements may seem unduly bleak, and they offer only glimpses of the kindness and decency of those Japanese who do open their hearts to foreigners. Yet each book captures a truth that the foreign suitor might use to find some degree of peace: loving without blinders means accepting the inevitability of distance.

Excerpted from: Susan Chira, Lost in Translation, New York Times, March 25, 2001.

Hachiko and the Sawtelle Dogs

Edgar SawtelleEarlier, we wrote about Hachiko, the loyal akita inu revered by the Japanese for his dedication to his master.

Hachiko features in David Wroblewski’s stunning first book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and in this reader’s opinion, contributes to the brilliant sensitivity of the unusual Sawtelle dogs.

In the backwoods of Wisconsin, the Sawtelle family—Gar, Trudy and their young son, Edgar—carry on the family business of breeding and training dogs. These are no ordinary working dogs.

Edgar, born mute, has developed a special relationship and a unique means of communicating with Almondine, one of the Sawtelle dogs, a fictional breed distinguished by personality, temperament and the dogs’ ability to intuit commands and to make decisions.

Raising them is an arduous life, but a satisfying one for the family until Gar’s brother, Claude, a mystifying mixture of charm and menace, arrives. When Gar unexpectedly dies, mute Edgar cannot summon help via the telephone.

His guilt and grief give way to the realization that his father was murdered; the resemblance to Hamlet resonates. After another tragedy, Edgar goes on the run, accompanied by three loyal dogs.

At the heart of the book is a pup from an extremely rare breed, thanks to a family interest in Mendelian genetics; so rare is Almondine, indeed, that she finds ways to communicate with Edgar that no other dog and human have yet worked out. Edgar’s grandfather had a term for dogs like this: canis posterus – “next dogs”.

Edgar may be voiceless, but he is capable of expressing sorrow and rage when his father suddenly dies, and he realizes that his father’s brother, who has been spending a great deal of time with Edgar’s mother, is responsible for the crime.

In one eerie episode during a spring downpour, Edgar is awakened by the barking of the kennel dogs. Going out to investigate, he sees his father’s ghost. Gar’s ghost convinces Edgar that he really does exist by interacting with one of the pups. The pup can clearly sense Edgar’s father and, eventually, so can Edgar.

Edgar’s father makes an enigmatic sign to him: “Find H-A-A”.

Edgar is conflicted: “You’re not real. You can’t be real.”

But when Edgar finds a letter to his grandfather from the US Ambassador to Japan, he reads that, while following Hachiko from the train station, the Ambassador felt “…a third presence accompanied us, someone whom only Hachiko could see.”

This had happened before.

HachikoWroblewski comments on the Hachiko link:

I first learned about Hachiko back in the mid-1990s when I was doing early research for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The more I read, the more amazed I became, if only because I’d never heard of Hachiko before. I decided to find a way to include him, somehow, in the story. And so the basic facts of Hachiko’s life (that he accompanied his owner, Professor Ueno, to the Shibuya train station in Tokyo each day, and met him there again each afternoon; that Professor Ueno died suddenly at the university; that Hachiko continued to come to the train station to greet his master for years afterward; that a statue in the dog’s honor was erected at the station even while he was still alive) are suggested in some of the letters Edgar finds, though I embroidered upon those events to tie them to Edgar’s immediate predicament.

I didn’t mention that Hachiko was an Akita only because it didn’t seem important for the story—John Sawtelle drew on many breeds to create the Sawtelle dogs, and what was significant was Hachiko’s astonishing devotion, not his breed credentials. That, and the fact that John Sawtelle was sly and inventive enough to somehow wrangle a puppy from Hachiko’s bloodline after reading about his situation in a newspaper.

By the way, 2008 has been a great year for Hachiko devotees. Besides his appearance in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Hachiko is mentioned in Martha Sherrill’s superb book Dog Man, a biography of the man credited with rescuing the Akita breed from extinction after World War II. Hachiko is also the subject of a forthcoming motion picture, Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, directed by Lasse Halström and starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen.

An interesting twist to the Sawtelle story is that Edgar shares the traits of the marvellous dogs. He cannot speak, he sees ghosts, and he communicates by signs. He is loyal, but he chooses to run away and make it on his own by foraging and stealing, it is as alpha of his own pack.

Note to David Wroblewski: Those of us who share our lives with the Japanese spitz already know about canis posterus. Shhh. It’s our little secret…

Hachikō Waits

Hachiko WaitsHachikō Waits is a children’s book, written by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Machiyo Kodaira. It uses the true story of Hachikō the Akita dog from Japan and adds Yasuo, a young boy, to the story. It won the ASPCA Children’s Book Honor in 2004

Hachikō (November 10, 1923–March 8, 1935), known in Japanese as chūken Hachikō (“faithful dog Hachikō”), was born in the city of Odate, Akita Prefecture, and remembered for his loyalty to his master.

In 1924, Hachikō was brought to Tokyo by his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo. During his owner’s life Hachikō saw him off from the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station.

What a good dog you are. What a fine dog you are. Hachi, you are the best dog in all of Japan.

Professor Ueno speaks these words to his faithful dog before boarding the train every morning. And every afternoon, Hachiko returns to the train station to greet his master.

The pair continued their daily routine until May 1925, when Professor Ueno didn’t return on the usual train one evening. The professor had suffered a stroke at the university that day. He died and never returned to the train station where his friend was waiting.

Hachiko StatueHachikō was given away after his master’s death, but he routinely escaped, showing up again and again at his old home. After time, Hachikō apparently realized that Professor Ueno no longer lived at the house. So he went to look for his master at the train station where he had accompanied him so many times before. Each day, Hachikō waited for Professor Ueno to return. And each day he didn’t see his friend among the commuters at the station.

Hachikō was a permanent fixture at the train station, and he attracted the attention of other commuters. Many of the people who frequented the Shibuya train station had seen Hachikō and Professor Ueno together each day. Realizing that Hachikō waited in vigil for his dead master, their hearts were touched. They brought Hachikō treats and food to nourish him during his wait.

This continued for 10 years, with Hachikō appearing only in the evening time, precisely when the train was due at the station.

HachikoThat same year, another of Ueno’s former students (who had become something of an expert on the Akita breed) saw the dog at the station and followed him to the Kobayashi home where he learned the history of Hachikō’s life. Shortly after this meeting, the former student published a documented census of Akitas in Japan. His research found only 30 purebred Akitas remaining, including Hachikō from Shibuya Station.

Professor Ueno’s former student returned frequently to visit the dog and over the years published several articles about Hachikō’s remarkable loyalty. In 1932 one of these articles, published in Tokyo’s largest newspaper, threw the dog into the national spotlight.

Hachikō became a national sensation. His faithfulness to his master’s memory impressed the people of Japan as a spirit of family loyalty all should strive to achieve. Teachers and parents used Hachikō’s vigil as an example for children to follow. A well-known Japanese artist rendered a sculpture of the dog, and throughout the country a new awareness of the Akita breed grew.

Hachikō Waits official website

Did Lady Murasaki Invent the Novel?

Tale of GenjiDid Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) invent the novel in 1000 AD? The Tale of Genji is read in Japanese schools as Shakespeare is read in English and North American schools today.

The 1,000-year-old Japanese novel is a testament to the continuity of human nature and to the unceasing variety of customs and social arrangements that civilizations engender. Reading it is in some ways a challenge, and yet it goes down easily, in a dreamlike way, not quite understandable yet consistently alluring.

The first part of the book is a biographical novel about “The Shining Genji,” a son of the emperor of Japan and one of his low-status concubines.

He is intelligent, graceful and wonderfully good-looking, and sets himself the task, early in his adult life, of knowing and loving as many women as he can. His task is complicated by the fact that most of the women he might come to know are sequestered and unavailable, but his charm and intelligence more or less overcome this difficulty.

He lives to the age of 48 or 50; he marries polygamously several times; he finds true love; he has several children; he finds wisdom.

It is this last that gives The Tale of Genji its enduring appeal.

Heian Japan (794 to 1185 AD) saw the popularization of Buddhism.
By the 10th century, there were well-established philosophical and poetic traditions that Lady Murasaki easily drew upon to infuse Genji’s career, but also his inner life, with meaning as well as lyrical power.

At one point about halfway into the novel, for example, when Genji is, to all appearances, at the height of fame and power, he and one of his wives discuss whether spring or autumn is to be preferred.

After Genji leaves, the wife reflects: “He brings everything altogether in himself, like a willow that is all of a sudden blooming like a cherry. It sets a person to shivering.”

Genji himself is only made more thoughtful and humble by his great career, and in the end dies lamenting his failures and flaws rather than celebrating his successes.


It is this, the author implies, not his looks or his intelligence or his achievements or his high connections, that raises him above all others.

The latter portion of the novel concerns the rivalry and intrigue between the two young men over a pair of sisters, daughters of a nobleman who lives at some distance from the imperial court.
Murasaki explores the contrasting psychologies of the four main characters and the consequences of their various choices as they attempt to wrestle with their desires and their conflicting loyalties.

As in the earlier section, formalities of birth and inheritance only temporarily veil realities — characters discover that they are not who they thought they were, and that desire often overcomes taboos.

There is an integrity to it all that is made up of Lady Murasaki’s overriding interest in what love is and what it feels like, in the progress of seasons and years, in the relationship between the inner life and external circumstances.

Somehow, The Tale of Genji defies the passage of a millennium and invites us to ponder that the more things change, the more they stay the same, while the more they stay the same, the more they change.

Jane Smiley’s complete review at the Globe and Mail.

A photographic appreciation of the Tale of Genji.

Black Rain

Kuroi Ame (Black Rain), by Masuji Ibuse, was hailed in Japan as the first true work of art to be inspired by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The title refers to the radioactive rain and fallout from the explosion.

Ibuse began serializing Black Rain in the magazine Shincho in January 1965. On the publication of the work, Ibuse received the Order of Cultural Merit, Japan’s highest honor to a writer.


On that morning – the morning of August 6 – the Service Corps of the Second Middle School in Hiroshima had been listening to an exhortatory address on Temma Bridge, or some other bridge in the west of the city, when the atomic bomb fell.

In that instant the boys were burned from head to foot, but the teacher in charge had got the whole party to sing, pianissimo, a patriotic song: “Lay Me Beneath the Waves.”

When they had finished, he gave the command “Dismiss!” and himself led the way in jumping into the river, which happened to be running high with the tide at the time. The whole party followed suit.

Image: Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea #24, 1962

Black Rain is based on contemporaneous diary and journal entries of the bombing. We follow the principal narrator Shigematsu, in the days after the destruction of his home, when the black rain begins to fall. Shigematsu begins re-writing his poignant journal of the events in the hope of finding a husband for his niece, Yasuko, who has been scarred by radiation sickness. Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko, and Yasuko reassure prospective husbands that Yasuko was not affected by the radiation, although she was under the black rain that followed the destruction. Shigematsu reads his wartime diary to understand his own life, and Yasuko gives up all hopes of marrying and falls ill with radiation sickness.

Sadako SasakiThe talks on my niece Yasuko’s marriage, which were rapidly approaching an agreement, have quite suddenly been broken off by the Aonos – the young man’s family. Yasuko has begun to show symptoms of radiation sickness. Everything has fallen through. By now, it is neither possible nor necessary to go on pretending. Yasuko, it seems, has sent the young man a despairing letter saying she has started having symptoms. I wonder whether it was love for him that made her decide on this honest course? Or did she do it in despair, on the impulse of a moment?

Her sight has deteriorated rapidly, and she complains of a constant ringing in her ears. When she first told me about it, in the living room, there was a moment when the living room vanished and I saw a great, mushroom-shaped cloud rising into a blue sky. I saw it quite distinctly.

Black Rain is never melodramatic.Sometimes his characters criticize the wartime government but otherwise Ibuse expresses his views at an everyday level. Subtly, Ibuse tempers horror with gentle humour. Alongside the horrifying wastes of the ruined city, he sets the gentle Japanese countryside with its unchanging people and traditions. Against the threat of universal destruction, he sets the small, unimportant – and hence infinitely touching – human things which triumph in the end. The narration alters between Kobatake, a rural hamlet some distance from Hiroshima, at a time several years after the end of the war, and Hiroshima itself in the days immediately after the bombing.

Perils of Time

Shigematsu fastened this account away as an appendix to his “Journal of the Bombing.” Then, at Shigeko’s request, he set off for Kotaro’s place with rice dumplings for The Mass for Dead Insects. The lacquer box containing the dumplings was inside the metal wash-bowl in which Kotaro had brought the loach, and the whole was encased in a wrapping-cloth.

The Mass for Dead Insects was a rite performed on the day after the festival, when farmers would make rice dumplings as an offering to the souls of the deceased insects they had inadvertently trodden on as they worked in the fields. On the same day, custom also demanded that they should return any articles that they had on loan from their neighbours.

Image: Pamela Bannos, Perils of Time 1899/1999, 1999

The book’s microscopic view initially seems to avoid the larger political and moral questions that surely such an atrocity demands, but a more nuanced understanding soon dawns: these larger questions cannot be asked of any situation if one cannot comprehend simple human misery and pride.

Black Rain’s awful beauty is brilliant.