Excerpts of The Breed History are reproduced with the very kind permission of JAPANESE KENNEL CLUB.
It is said that there was movement of people between Europe and Japan when the two areas were not separated by The Sea of Japan. It is believed that dogs were then introduced to Japan.
Dog paw prints found in Jomon period (8000 to 300 B.C) pit houses suggest that dogs were raised as pets inside homes as early 3,000 years ago. The paw prints measured 4.3cm to 5.7cm long and suggest that the dogs were of medium size. Dog bones were commonly found in graves of this era.
The Japanese Akita Inu originated in the Tohoku area of Japan. This is the most northerly region of mainland Japan, adjoining the Chubu and Kanto regions. It sits below the Hokkaido (island) region and comprises of six prefectures; they are: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Yamagata and of course Akita.
The ancestral home of the Akita is Odate city and its surrounding countryside in Akita prefecture. Records of this can be found well back in history. Odate has long been known as a 'Dog Town' in the Tohoku District.
Several names have been used in describing the Akita breed. They were known as 'Odate-Inu' and 'Kazuno-Inu' in their respective areas of northern Akita Province. They were also known as 'Nambu-Inu' from the name of the district as itr was known in the Han period (202BC-16AD). Collectively they were known as the 'Regional Dog'. Of these regional dogs, those living in towns and used for fighting were known as 'Kuwae-Inu' or 'Kuriya-Inu' in the local dialect, while others that were used for hunting in the countryside and mountains were known as 'Matagi-Inu. The dogs themselves were more or less alike. They were all Japanese dogs, which had been bred in these areas since ancient times. These were the ancestors of today's Akita.
Of these, the far-northern strains, which arrived with humans, have a thick coat, much substance and a thick tail curled over the back. The representative of this far-northern strain is the Akita. Mr Hirokichi Saito, a noted Japanese dog researcher, writes in his book "Japanese Dogs and Wolves": "The Akita descended from a middle-sized Japanese dog crossed with a dog of the northern strain as well as a large sized dog from China. The same strain includes: the extinct nambu-Inu of Rikuchu (present day Iwate prefecture), the Kouyasu-Inu of Uzen (present day Yamagata prefecture), Iiyama-Inu of Shinshu (present day Nagano prefecture) and the Gou (a large sized dog from China) in the Dazaifu area in Kyushu." General opinion seems to confirm this and a shared opinion that dogs such as the Gou were brought from Bokkai (a country once occupying Northern Korea and the eastern tip of China) and crossed with native Japanese dogs thus producing the ancestors of the Akita.
Rice cultivation began during the Yayoi Era (300 BC to 400AD), but productivity was low due to the climate and environment of the region. This re-affirmed a dependence on hunting and fishing as a means of obtaining food. Furthermore, even after the agricultural lifestyle became more dominant around Odate, hunting still remained an integral part of naitive life well into the modern Meiji era (1868-1912) Some individuals made their living from hunting and there were villages of hunters called Matagi villages. Matagi villages in the prefectures of Akita, Iwate and Yamagata were all said to have had the same hunting methods, manners and customs. Matagi-Inus were raised in these areas until very recent days. According to Fudoki (description of the area's natural conditions such as climate, topography and geology) and other sources, the Tohoku district was divided by the Ou mountains, into the Sea of Japan side and the Pacific side. The Odate area was separated from the rest of the district by the mountains to the east and by the climate to the south. Access to the south during the coldest part of the winter was not possible either by land or by sea, thus limiting development of the region. (it seems that this may account for the distinct differences in the modern Akita).
Dog fighting was considered to be quite popular in the Tokugawa era (1612-1868). It was during this era, around 1630, that a medium sized dog used for hunting, an Akita Matagi (bear hunting dog) and sometimes referred to as Matagi-Inu, became known in the Tohoku Area. Akita Matagi is believed to be the origin of todays Akita-Inu. These dogs were owned only by the Shogun, the Imperial leaders, and used to track large game and hold it at bay until the hunters arrived to make the kill. The types of game tracked included Elk, Antelope, Wild Boar and the Eight Hundred Pound Yezo bear, giving rise to their legendary tenacious character.
During the Tokugawa period, in 1783 (Tenmei era), there was a famine; so bad, that it claimed 7000 lives in Akita-han alone. It was known as the 'Rabbit Year Starvation' this brought about a revolt; with which came unstable social conditions and caused much anxiety among the residents of the area and forced them to prepare for self-defence. The first step was to acquire a guard dog. This meant using the Matagi-inu for a different purpose than previously.
Since that time it has been traditional for people in this area to keep dogs. Matagis kept hunting dogs while wealthy farmers and influential families kept guard dogs. In the areas surrounding Odate, some families started using their dogs for fighting. Exactly when this began is unknown. According to oral traditions, most families owned one or two fierce dogs. Renowned old families in particular, raised dogs all of the same colour from generation to generation as if they were family crests. These dogs were known by their colour and the owner's name. Such as 'White of Adachi' , 'Brindle of Benzousama' and ' Black of Izumi'. After public events attended by large numbers of people were adjourned, owners of these family
In Akita-Han, a kind of prefecture in the feudalage and a former governmental unit of Akita prefecture, construction of castles and the possession of weapons were strictly prohibited by the Tokugawa government. Dog-fights were recommended as a way of preserving the fighting spirit of the Samurai warrior. At the beginning of the Meiji era (1868 -1912), around 1870, under the Satake Clan breeding of the breed to promote dog-fights was encouraged and continued to be popular throughout the Meiji era. At this time Akitas were called 'Odate' Dogs or Odate-Inu because of their hometown name.
Odate-shi suffered several fires during the Meiji era and no records are known to have survived from those days. The only remaining documentation of Odate-Inus is from around 1870 in a book by Mr Susumu Ono, a teacher at the Odate Junior High School. The book 'Talking about the Dog Scene of the Dog Town Odate' includes a round-table discussion by the elders.
What the elders, who were born in the Anshei and Bunkyuu (1854-1863) eras, remembered most was a dog called 'Naka-no Tera-no Moku', raised in the Jououji Temple. The story may be a little exaggerated, but according to them, Moku-go's height at the withers was about 35.4" (85cm). He was pinto in colour and his coat was quite long. He was so strong that two children or one adult could ride on his back, and even two or three dogs could not over power 'Moku-go'. His birthplace was Hayaguchi-mura in Kita Akita County. He was born as an only puppy, at the end of the Ansei period (late 1850's), and lived through out the Man'en, Bunkyuu, Genji and Keiou eras (1860's). He was killed in 1871 by the spear of an unknown Samurai. Well-known dogs after 'Moku-go' were all fierce fighting dogs. Those mentioned include 'Saku' of Niisaawa-mura, 'Jiku' of Matou-mura, 'Aka' of Misonai-mura and 'Goma' of Benzousama. The specifics of their conformation are not known.
Sometime around 1897, Tosa fighting dogs were introduced into Akita prefecture, at that time, Tosa, now known as Kochi prefecture, was one of the two most popular dog fighting areas. At first, the Odate breed was stronger than the Tosa. However, gradually the situation reversed, with the cross-breeding of the Tosa with European breeds. Many different breeds were used for cross breeding, of which some where, the medium sized Japanese breed Shikoku Mastiff, German Pointers, St,Bernards and Great Danes; plus others. It would also appear that during this period the Odate breed was crossed with an extra large dog with hanging ears thought to be a Mastiff, owned by a German mining engineer invited to the Ani copper mine in Kosaka, Akita Prefecture. Another was a very large dog, thought to be a St.Bernard of mixed breeding. He was purchased over-seas around 1904 by Mr Kenkichi Mogami of Kakumagawa-machi in southern Akita, most likely in response to Odate being visited by a troupe from the Tosa Fighting Dog Society. The heretofore known identity of pointed ears and ringtails, which were originally characteristics of Odate-Inus was lost. This cross-breeding was the first of two setbacks for the Japanese Akita during the late 1800's.
In 1899 an organisation for dogfights was established in Odate. Its name was 'En' yukai' which literally means 'Garden Party'. An arena was constructed in Shintomi-cho and admission fees of 5 sens and 3 sens were charged for adults and children respectively. At the height of popularity, some 100 dogs participated in each event and programs for the matches were distributed.
What made dog fighting, in Odate, even more intense was competition with the Tosa Fighting Dog Society. In 1901, a troupe of the Tosa Fighting Dog Society toured through western Japan's Kansai and Kantou districts. Toward the end of the year it visited Odate and held matches against Odate-Inus. Odate-Inus, being larger and heavier, were said to be superior.
As they have some connection with Odate/Akita -Inu here is a brief explanation of the origins of the Tosa Fighting Dog. Records show that Tosa Fighting Dogs are not native to Japan, but were the result of cross-breeding Tosas (known today as Shikoku; as seen in this picture) and foreign breeds, to produce a strong fighting dog. This occurred in the Meiji era (1868-1912).
In 1909, Masataka Mori, the then governor of Akita Prefecture, enacted an ordinance to prohibit Dog fighting was prohibited and public opinion gradually favoured preserving this breed; among professors and learned people. In 1919, the law for the preservation of natural monuments was established.
In 1931, Nine or so original dogs were designated as natural monuments and the breed became widely popular. On its designation, the Akita was so named for the first time as a Japanese dog.
In the Asahai newspaper of 1932, the faithfulness of Hachi-Ko was reported, and the reputation of Akitas (as they were known) became well known all over Japan. Hachi-ko was born in 1923 in Odate and owned by Professor Eizaburo Ueno, who was a lecturer at Toyko University. At the age of two months Hachi-ko moved to Toyko. Each morning Hachi-ko accompanied the professor on his walk to Shibuya train station and waited each afternoon to accompany him on the walk home. One afternoon, in May 1925, the professor did not return. He had had a fatal stroke while at work. Hachi-ko waited that night for his master to return, and was eventually taken into shelter by friends of the professor. After persistently running away from relatives who tried to care for him and returning each day to the station, Hachi-ko was eventually fed and cared for by the professor Ueno's gardener. For ten years he continued to wait and mourn for his master and during this time he became a living legend and a national hero. A statue of Hachi-ko was erected at Shibuya station in April 1934. Hachiko passed away one year later on March 8th 1935 at the age of 12 years and 5 months. The news of his death brought many visitors to the Shibuya station who covered Hachi-ko's statue with flowers, and a national day of mourning was declared. The smoke of burning incense was said to have turned the sunny day cloudy.
Because Japan was almost constantly involved in wars, including world war one & two, during the first half of the twentieth century there were very few Akitas and three types of dogs were generally included under the name 'AKITA'. These were the Matagi-Akita which was the original hunting dog; the fighting Akita which was a mixture of Matagi and several other breeds including Mastiff and Great Dane; and the so called German Shepperd Akita which was the result of breeders trying to save their dogs from confiscation by the government as a source of fur for military garments, as German Shepherds were the only breed exempt from the cull as they were used as military dogs. Following the onset of World War II many owner/fanciers bred their Akitas to German Shepperds in order to escape the cull. Some tried to escape the order by sending their dogs to the Matagis and farmers in the mountains, or to the apple orchards in Aomori Prefecture to be used as guard dogs. Some tried to confuse the dogcatchers by naming their dogs with names typically associated with German Shepperds. Also a great amount of continued cross breeding was thought to have taken place. It is thought that this explains why so many sires and dams of post war akitas were called "Peace", "Long", "Carl" and "Mary". Regardless of this, it was an extremely unfortunate period for dogs and their owners and fanciers.
Prior to World War II:
The famous author, lecturer and humanitarian, Helen Keller has been attributed by many to have taken one of the first Akitas to America. Miss Keller, who was blind and deaf, was touring Japan in 1937 studying the physically handicapped. After hearing the story of Hachi-ko, she asked to be introduced to the breed. She was shown a two month-old puppy belonging to Mr Ogasawara, a member of the Akita area police department, and immediately feel in love with him. His name was Kamikaze-go and Mr Ogasawara agreed to give him to Miss Keller as a present.
When Miss Keller returned to the United States two months later she took Kamikaze-go with her. Unfortunately, within one month, he died from distemper. It was then arranged for Kamikaze's litter brother, Kenzan-go to be shipped to the USA where he quickly became a close friend and protector of Miss Keller. She described him as her 'Angel In Fur' and he remained with her until his death in the mid-forties.
Much debate has been centred on the origins and restoration of the breed and it is not the Club's intention to take you down one line of thought or another. Suffice to say that it is evident from the folklore and writings of the ancient Japanese "The Japanese Akita-Inu is a direct descendent of the Matagi-Inu who's roots are firmly established in the prefectures of Akita, Iwate and Yamagata.