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The Akita Inu
The Voice of Japan

By Rick Beauchamp
Photgraph by Isabelle Francais

On Saturday May 28, 1994, millions of people in Japan listened eagerly to their radios to hear the recorded voice of a dog that had died 59 years earlier. This, obviously, was not the voice of an ordinary dog. This was the voice of an Akita Inu, a breed that enjoys national-monument status in Japan. Nor was this the voice an ordinary Akita. This was the voice of Hachi-ko, a legend in his own time, a symbol of Japanese virtue, a dog who had kept a 10-year vigil at Tokyo's Shibuya train station, waiting in vain for his master's return.

Photograph by Isabelle Francais

The recently discovered recording of Hachi-ko's voice on an old long-playing record that had been broken into three pieces was obtained by the Culture Broadcasting Network (CBN). After technicians at CBN had repaired the disc with laser surgery, and after a galvanizing buildup, a dramatic introduction and an onslaught of commercials worthy of a Super Bowl, the storied dog's voice was played for a national radio audience.

"Wan-wan," said Hachi-ko. (Wan-wan is Japanese for bow-wow).

Royal Origins

The Akita Inu (the latter is the Japanese word for "dog") was named after the rugged, mountainous Akita province on the northern end of Japan's Honsu island, where the first dogs of this type were developed in the 17th century. According to Keiichi Ogasawara, DVM, writing in The Akita University Research Bulletin, studies "seem to indicate" that the Akita's ancestors "came from Europe via the U.S.S.R. and Hokkaido."

Because Akitas were often kept as pets by Japanese emperors and other members of the ruling nobility, the breed was once known as "the royal dog." The Akita's size and courage made it a formidable hunter, whose quarry included the fierce boar, huge elk and savage Yezo bear of Akita province.

The Akita's bravery also made it a favorite recruit for Japan's famed Samurai warriors. In order to turbocharge the Akita's aggressiveness, it was crossbred with Tibetan mastiffs and Great Danes. These breeds not only enhanced the Akita's combativeness and courage but also brought added vigor and additional size to the breed.

Survival of the Fewest

When Hachi-ko died on March 8, 1935, at the age of 13, he was already a Japanese legend. The preceding year the city of Shibuya had installed a life-size bronze statue of Hachi-ko at the Shibuya train station, where the faithful dog kept a vigil for his dead master. That vigil had begun in May 1925 when Hachi-ko's owner, Eizaburo Ueno, failed to return from the Imperial Agricultural University (now Tokyo University), where he taught. Professor Ueno had died of a stroke that day.

Hachi-ko's story was related to Helen Keller when she inquired about his statue while visiting Japan on a lecture tour in July 1937. Keller expressed a desire to own such a dog, and the following month she was presented with a puppy named Kamikaze, who was the first Akita to reside in the United States.     "If ever there was an angel in fur," wrote Keller in the Akita Journal,, it was Kamikaze. I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet. The Akita dog has all the qualities that appeal to me he is gentle, companionable and trusty." Kamikaze died of distemper at a young age, and in 1939 Keller received one of his older brothers as a replacement.

Keller's tribute to the Akita, and Hachi-ko's fame, captured the imaginations of dog lovers around the world. But for their influence the Akita could have become extinct as a result of the devastation wrought upon Japan during World War II. Because of the profound food shortage during the war, anyone seen feeding a dog in Japan was liable to be branded a traitor. Therefore, many Akitas were destroyed at the time. Barely a dozen Akita dog survived the war, wrote Ogasawara, but a number of American servicemen were able to bring Akitas back to the United States nevertheless.

Americans admired the same qualities that had made the Akita a national treasure in Japan, and in 1956 the Akita Club of America was founded. Seventeen years later the breed was accepted for championship competition by the American Kennel Club.

Walking Contradiction

The most renowned Akita in the United States is Kato, whose name is a bloody footnote to the O.J. Simpson story. This dog, who might well have witnessed the killing of Simpson's wife, Nicole, is emblematic of the trendiness responsible in large part for the difference in the Akita's reputation here and in Japan.

The Akita was the beneficiary of a 290 percent increase in American Kennel Club registrations during in the 1980s. As often happens when dogs become status symbols, familiarity breeds contretemps. Not surprisingly in a study of dog bites reported to Denver, Colorado, animal control officials in 1991, Akitas were among the breeds most likely to bite children.

The following year when the Chicago Tribune asked six dog trainers to select the five most problematic kinds of dogs, the Akita was at the head of the class. "It's a super-attractive dog," said one panel member, "but unlike most canines, Akitas don't have a strong pack instinct." They can be aloof to the point of being catlike. This is not always a virtue in a dog so large, so Akitas must learn "the absolute rules between right and wrong," another panelist added. "And it takes some patience - an Akita frequently resents correction."

What's more, in 1996 and '97 the Akita was the breed that inflicted the highest percentage of bites severe enough to require medical attention in Palm Beach County, Florida. These are but some of the press reports, which often contain horrific details, about damage wrought by Akitas. Their devotion notwithstanding, these are large dogs with enough torque in their jaws to break a person's arm with one bite.

Barbara J. Andrews, internationally known Akita breeder and author of The World of the Akita worries that the story of Hachi-ko and Helen Keller's reminiscences might lead readers to believe the Akita is a plodding and lovable giant. For all its devotion, the Akita is no one's servant. Indeed, Andrews writes, the prospective Akita owner should be aware that the breed can act with lightning speed and is not one to back down from a challenge.

The Akita is both aristocratic in bearing and aloof with strangers. He is protective and determined -- at times to the point of exasperation. These characteristics are not accidents. They were developed for a purpose. Unfortunately that purpose, which generally involved the pursuit of game or an adversary in war, can be counterproductive to the breed's integration into polite society. Thus, to ensure the Akita a permanent place among the purebred dogs of Japan, breed advocates began working to eliminate the superaggressive tendencies required in the times of war. The trouble is, inbred tendencies are often difficult to breed out. Terriers still love to dig, sheepherding dogs still love to herd, and guard dogs are still liable to attack innocent people.

Many dog fanciers claim that owning just one of their chosen breed is nowhere near as much fun as owning two or three, but if you fancy owning two Akitas, get one of each sex. Spay and neuter, of course, and expect the female to rule the roost, yet at least you'll be able to rest easily knowing that your dogs won't attempt to have each other for lunch. Having two Akitas of the same sex in a household is courting disaster. Fights will erupt, and Akitas are not inclined to leave any job undone.

Big and Beautiful

By any standard the Akita is a lot of dog. The average male measures 26 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weighs roughly 100 pounds. Females are a bit smaller, but still of a size to impress any challenger.

The Akita's plush coat comes in an infinite array of colors from snow white to jet black or chocolate, in brindled designs or with patches of brilliant color on a snowy background. This glorious coat is shed twice a year, and at those times your house will look like a blizzard site. Judicious and frequent grooming can help to minimize the extent to which you are inundated with hair and the length of time you will have to dig your way out.

Good Fortune Hunting

The Akita is considered a harbinger of good luck in Japan. When babies are born, their parents receive carved statues of Akitas. Persons in hospital receive similar totems. Each April tens of thousands of people visit Hachi-ko's statue in Shibuya train station. There a festival is held in memory of this devoted dog, and visitors leave offerings at the foot of his statue in the hope that the spirit of Hachi-ko will visit the hearts and souls of all humans. If you are considering an Akita, be sure to make your own pilgrimage to reputable breeders whose dogs reflect the traditional Akita virtues.

Health Concerns

Akitas can lead happy, healthy lives for as long as 12 to 15 years, but like all pedigreed dogs, the breed is subject to its share of genetic diseases and other problems. In no particular order of frequency they are:

Hip dysplasia, a malformation of the hip joint resulting in a poor fit between the head of the femur bone and the hip socket, in which the femoral head normally lies. This condition can be alleviated by surgery, at some cost to dog and owner. Because dysplastic dogs often produce dysplastic puppies, buyers should ask if both the sire and the dam of the puppy in which they are interested have been rated clear of hip dysplasia by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or by Penn HIP. Do not take yes for an answer without seeing the certificate, and ask for a copy to take to your veterinarian. Hip x-rays are most useful if they are taken after a dog is two years old.

Bloat (gastric torsion), though not a hereditary condition, frequently affects the Akita. When a dog bloats, the stomach can turn and block, causing a buildup of gas. Unless treated quickly, bloat can be fatal. Signs of bloat include futile attempts to vomit and to salivate. Bloat, which may lead to cardiovascular collapse, usually occurs when exercise too closely follows eating. The incidence of bloat may be lessened by feeding adult dogs twice a day and, of course, by allowing a dog time to digest before taking him for a run in the park.

Thyroid imbalance in Akitas can occasion a number of disorders, not the least of which is hypothyroidism, an endocrine disease that results in the abnormally low production of thyroid hormones. The symptoms of hypothyroidism include lethargy, mental depression, weight gain and a tendency to seek out warm places. Hypothyroidism can also affect the coat and skin, causing hair loss and excessive dandruff.

Eye problems, including progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), are not without incidence in the Akita. PRA is the wasting away of the vessels in the retina. Initially manifested as night blindness in young dogs, as PRA progresses, its victims become totally blind. Conscientious Akita owners test the eyes of their breeding dogs every year and should, therefore, be able to produce current CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) test results for the parents of any puppy offered for sale.

Von Wildebrand's Disease, an abnormal condition of the blood-clotting system that resembles hemophilia in humans, has also been observed in the Akita.


Rick Beauchamp is a freelance writer who resides in Cambria, California. He is the author of numerous books on canine breeds and is a judge licensed with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club.


Copyright 2000 Pet Publishing Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.