Akita-inu history, similarly as other original Japanese dogs, goes back to ancient times, when hunters (matagis) in the mountains of northern area of Honshu, in particular Akita prefecture, used characteristics and great hunting skills of large local dogs, that we refer to as Odate-inu. As for conformation, these dogs were large, had pricked ears and curled tail that was carried on the dog‘s back.
These typical spitz-like dogs were formed by local environment and society for centuries until the end of the 19th century (Meiji era, around the year 1890) without any significant intervention or crossbreeding with other dog breeds. Along with their hunting utilization, they were also used as guard dogs and at this point of time also started to be more and more popular in dog fights due to their heavy conformation and strength.
It was at this time when the Japanese, especially in the area of Odate, rapidly developed a big passion for dog fighting, which somehow turned into organized public events with a broad audience. In 1899, official organization for dog fighting was established in Odate. Huge demand for new, strong fighting dogs caused enormous growth in the number of dogs in the area, often accompanied by crossbreeding with other breeds. Due to crossbreeding, dogs began to lose original pricked ears (ears were standing half-way or were flat) or lacked typical curly tail. Among breeds that were used in crossbreeding, there was also extra large dog (mastiff) used, that came to Japan as a companion of a German mining engineer that worked in Ani copper mining company. Another extra large dog, allegedly being a mix breed of St. Bernard that was imported in 1904, perhaps as a response to previous visit of Tosa fighting dog club in Odate
Sempou Go Fuen No Oka, owner/photo: Martina Černayová
(note: Tosa fighting dog is not a Tosa-inu, it was the ancestor of today’s Shikoku crossbred with foreign breeds such as Buldog, Great dane, St. Bernard, Bull terrier, etc. to reach impressive fighting skills. Tosa fighting dog was thus not an original Japanese breed).
Above mentioned Tosa fighting breed society was running a tour around western Japanese regions Kantou and Kansai and also visited Odate in 1904 where they placed their dogs into the ring with local Odate-inus. Odate-inus were allegedly usually more successful due to their bigger and more powerful conformation.
The society really found itself in betting a lot of money into dog fighting and there came a point when local Akita authorities came to the conclusion it would be for the best sake to ban all dog fighting. Thus, in 1909 an absolute ban of dog fighting was issued in Akita prefecture which caused many dog owners losing their purpose of having a dog. Furthermore, a dog tax was introduced and this evolved into significant amount of dogs losing their homes and becoming stray dogs. Wandering and messing around Odate streets, diseases started to spread out quickly and it did not take long until rabies broke out in the area. Authorities made a strong decision to find and eliminate all stray dogs. Result was really impressive, almost no dogs were left in Odate.
In the beginning of the Taisho era (1912) the restrictions eased, but the situation did not get much better. However, in Tokyo, Dr. Shozaburo Watase who was honorable professor at the University of Tokyo, came up with an idea to introduce legislation for preserving the national monuments. Also animals would be appointed as national monuments, once they met defined criteria:
1. well-known animals specific for Japan and their natural environment (habitat)
2. animal notable for Japan (although not necessarily unique to Japan) deserving protection and preservation.
3. unique animal or animal population and their natural habitat
4. domesticated animal specific to Japan
5. Well-known non-domesticated animal and its natural habitat that was imported to Japan and now lives there in natural environment
6. highly valuable animal species.
Dr. Watase conducted quite a broad research throughout Japanese regions and district in order to map information about original Japanese dog breeds. He also published articles and held an impressive and highly appreciated speech on this research during the annual meeting of the Zoological Society of Tokyo in 1922.
This research, which was partly carried out also in Odate, was one of the most impacting events that made Odate people realise the necessity of making efforts to preserve existence of original purebred Japanese dogs.
Although dog fights were officially banned in Akita prefecture until 1912, it was not so serious in other parts of Japan and fanciers kept dog fights underground during the prohibition times. Shortly after cancelling dog fight ban, dog fighting was revived also in Odate and it did not take long to resume organizing popular fights between Odate-inu and Tosa fighting dogs in 1915 and 1916.
Thus there were two parallel but contradicting trends. One was to follow higher purpose of nurturing and preserving original japanese breeds, while the other trend was to search for better, stronger fighting dogs which was coming out of enormous passion for dog fighting. This trend led to excessive breeding of Odate-inus with Tosa fighting dogs in vigorous hunt for „better Akita“ which eventually developed into such a state that there were barely any purebred Odate-inu dogs to be found in Odate .
Fortunately, some purebred dogs were still kept and were found with hunters (matagi) in northern mountain area or guarding properties in villages near Odate.
And so, there were two different types of Odate-inus. One with original appearance having pricked ears and curled tail kept on the back, and the second type „new Akita“ (Shin-Akita) with half flat ears and somewhat wrinkled skin on face.
In 1927, Akita-inu Hozonkai (AKIHO) was established as a first official institution for preservation of Akitas. It was founded by the mayor of Odate, Mr. Shigeie Izumi. One year later, Nihonken Hozonkai (NIPPO) was established in Tokyo, followed by Akita.inu Kyokai (AKIKYO) and Akita-inu Hozon Kyokai being founded after WW2.
On one hand, society acknowledged and fancied idea of preservation of original japanese breeds, however in practice, the situation did not quite reflect it. Japanese also admired, fancied and imported more and more foreign breeds and began crossbreed them with Odate-inus (with excuse to promote and improve original breed). Introducing Odate-inus as National monuments (ever since then referred to as Akita-inus) appeared to be really successful and effective way how to limit crossbreeding in Japan overall. Among fanciers that proved huge efforts in restoration of Akita-inus we shall name at least Mr. Shigeie Izumi and Mr. Kunio Ichinoseki who managed to purchase purebred dogs from matagis from the mountains.
In October 1932, there was a true story article published in newspapers about loyal dog named Hachiko. With article „Moving story of old dog: 7 years of waiting for his deceased master“ it almost instantly touched broad masses and Akita became widely acknowledged all around the country. According to the records, Hachi was born in 1923 in Odate and was purchased at the age of 2 months as puppy by Dr. Hidesaburo Ueno, who used to be a professor at agricultural university. Professor commuted to work, using a train from Shibuya station while Hachi walked with him every morning and waited for him in the evenings when he was returning home. In may 1925, professor suffered stroke and passed away at work. Hachiko was one and a half year old and professor‘s family continued to take care of him. However, Hachi still continued to go to the train station everyday and wait for his master, who never showed up anymore. In 1934, they raised a statue in honor of Hachiko at Shibuya station and one year later, at the age of 12 years and 5 months, Hachi crossed the rainbow bridge to finally get together with his beloved master again.This story impressed general society, but unluckily, it occurred during the manchurian incident, which was followed by 15 years of war. That was most probably a reason why only Hachiko story is the only record about Akitas there is from that time.
BISEI Go Sakura Kensha, owner/photo: Emília Hrnčírová
Thanks to NIPPO rapid development, it was possible to hold annual exhibitions from November 1932 until mid of WW2 in 1942. Written records state that until war, 10 AKIHO shows took place in Odate. The war, however, stopped all kinds of such activities and brought a huge decline in the number of dogs in the entire country. Situation and deficits of food and resources made a lot of people get rid of their large dogs as they could not provide food for them anymore. Thus a lot of dogs became stray and wandered around the streets of Odate. Furthermore, the war reached also northern parts of China, where the weather conditions required army to provide warm coats to the soldiers. The situation was resolved by ordering to search for all dogs (other than German Shepherds that were used as army dogs) and cats, confiscate them and use their fur for making warm army clothes.
Breed lovers and fanciers that did not want to accept such a fate of their beloved dogs, ran with them to the mountains and kept them living with matagis or used them as guard dogs in Aomori prefecture in the apple orchards. Some people crossbred their dogs with German Shepherds just to save them.
After WW2 ended on 15th August 1945, overall situation in the Japanese society was very unfavourable and many people suffered from lack of food and resources. Keeping such large dogs as Akitas in these moved times was beyond imagination. In spite of that, Odate as place of origin of Akitas, was restored very quickly and in November 1947, eleventh AKIHO show was held (the first after the end of WW2). After the war, a lot of soldiers from occupancy forces were still in the country and visited this show. They were stunned by Akitas and some of them took these dogs with them overseas as their companions.
In 1948, 12th AKIHO show took place with 60 dogs, and in 1949 it was already 82 dogs. Since then population of Akitas in Japan started to get back on the right track and currently Akita is much-favoured dog breed all over the world.
Photo: Diana Čermáková, owner: Michaela Beláková