Succinct history from Japan's bear & boar hunter to pit fighter to dog of royalty, his rescue by American soldiers to AKC, the American Akita Club and Japanese Akita type.
FROM HOKAIDO TO THE AKITA CLUB OF AMERICA
This overview of Akita History quickly traces the breed from Japan's hunter, pit fighter, and dog of royalty to near extinction and rescue by American soldiers, and finally, to AKC and the American Akita Club.
We begin with the Matagi dogs of the mountainous region of Hokaido and progress to the period when the Akita dog was used in various forms of Japanese sport we call pit fighting. As a judge, you need to know just a little more than is spelled out in the standard. It will help you evaluate the breed, and hopefully, prevent nervousness on your part.
The Ainu type was once known as the Matagi-Inu, a word meaning "hunter." The native red dog with light mask or muzzle, similar in coloration and type to primitive canines all over the world, was eventually diluted by exposure to the European imports and the inevitable cross breeding which resulted. Even so, the primitive color pattern remains today and has experienced a resurgence of popularity in Japan. The light face, underbelly, and breechings, in combination with solid red body color is typical of pariah breeds such as the Chow-Chow and Shiba.
But let’s look further back to understand the Akita that came to America in the 1940’s. Drawings and other artifacts dating more than 3,000 years ago document existence of a wolf-spitz dog throughout Asia. This early domesticated dog evolved into breeds we call the Chow Chow, Elkhound, Husky (generic term) and of course, the Akita who's remote ancestors became identifiable by about 500 B.C.
AKITA HISTORY IN JAPAN, AKITA PREFECTURE & ODATE CITY
The breed’s development is associated with Akita Prefecture in the Northern part of Japan, Honshu Island. Specifically, the breed is closely connected to a particular town remotely situated, surrounded by towering mountain ranges, and virtually shut off in winter by the severe weather. The large region that includes Akita Prefecture remained isolated until the fourteenth century. Thus, the local dog that was to become the Akita-Inu evolved for several hundred years with very little outside influence.
As his hunting and fighting prowess became known, The Akita-inu became a favorite of Japanese royalty, so much so that during Emperor Senka's reign, the office of Dog Keeper was officially established. There was a special language used when talking to or about an Akita, the words actually called "dog words". The care and training of the Akita was very ritualized and dogs achieved rank according to their degree of training and of course, the personal preference of the Emperor.
Dog fighting is probably as old as is the semi-domesticated canine and it evolved in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) under the reign of Shogun Hojo Takatoki. The Satake Clan of Odate City (aka Dog Fighting Capitol) crossed the Akita-Matagi-inu with the mastiff-like Tosa for precisely that purpose. During the Meiji Period (1866-1912), clubs hosted fighting tournaments where eager fans would gather for a full day of entertainment. In 1908 Japan passed ordinances that officially outlawed the fighting of dogs. It wasn't until the eighties that all U.S. States officially forbid dog fighting.
In about 1919, Japan established natural monument legislation, designed to preserve culturally significant objects and animals. By 1927 the Akiho (Akita-Inu Hozankai Society) was established in Odate City. Nippo (Nippo-Ken Hozankai) followed in 1928 and the Akikyo in 1948, each organization determined to restore the Akita as a natural monument. In 1931 the breed was designated as a natural monument and in 1934, the first Japanese dog standard listed the Akita Dog. World War II almost destroyed the still-developing breed. It was considered traitorous to waste food on a dog and the luxuriant pelt of the largest Japanese breed was felt to be more useful on a soldier than on an Akita. Ironically, the akita-tosa dog was saved by American military personnel who began to care for the few remaining dogs, most of them strays. Servicemen returned to the States with “dog souvenirs,” not necessarily selected due to any adherence to or concern for type, but because of their appeal as individual dogs. No doubt their courage and loyalty spoke to the same virtues in our brave fighting forces.
AKITA ADMITTED TO AKC MISCELLANEOUS CLASS
Still extremely rare, the Akita moved into the AKC Miscellaneous Class in 1955. By 1956 an Akita Club was forming and by 1959, the Akita Club of America came into formal existence. There followed many years of divisiveness, with various clubs struggling to become the dominant authority on Akitas. The in-fighting and proliferation of splinter clubs was resolved in 1972 when the AKC approved the Akita Standard as presented by the victorious Akita Club of America.
Imports continued to be registered as foundation stock until February 1974. Genetic problems today are blamed on a small gene pool. It is said to have consisted of little more that a hundred pedigrees. Others believe that is just an excuse for lazy breeding practices because the facts are indisputable. The original dogs brought back from Japan were not themselves of pure parentage. Dogs that survived the war were turned into the streets by owners who loved them to much to destroy them but could not risk being identified as owners of such large hungry dogs. Nature took its course and photographs of those early Akitas indicate much variation. Indeed, the Akita that stole the great Helen Keller's heart and with which she was frequently photographed would not today be regarded as pure bred in either America or Japan. Still, those early imports had the intelligence and the character which makes the breed so great today. In addition, the dogs brought to America were allowed to cross breed, the result being that by the time the Akita was recognized, it was comprised of anything BUT a small gene pool!
HYBRID HISTORY: AMERICAN AKITA / WORKING GUARD DOG
The Akita most selected for in America is one that not only displays strong guarding instincts but has the boldness to bite if his "pack" is threatened. Although a dog with a strong sense of self and one which will still fight other dogs is still considered important in Japan, they do not stress guarding instinct as we do and therefore the current trend to hybridize Japanese dogs with American dogs is of great concern to breeders in all of the western world who were attracted to the Akita as a working, guarding breed.
Importation of Akitas was cut off until April 1992 and during forty years of development in this country, it was strictly a guard dog and occasionally hunter of wild bear in the deep south. When without any advance notice whatsoever, the AKC recognized the Japanese Kennel Club, breeders hastened to import any and everything registerable as a Japanese Akita. It may be stringently denied by those in the U.S. who today favor the Japanese Akita, but facts are facts and photographic evidence can not be denied. This is important only to breeders and judges who today, would strive to preserve the Akita developed here in America. It is therefore of genetic significance that the reason AKC steadfastly refused to honor Japanese export pedigrees because of concern for the authenticity of the paperwork and the purity of breeds.
To set the record straight however, there were and continue to be “typy” dogs brought over from Japan, one of which was Winners Bitch at the 1992 National Specialty. Those who work to maintain the purity of Japanese type argue that "western" type Akitas were sent here only because they were not correct under the Japanese Akita Standard.
Physical and behavioral type is in fact quite different, the Japanese having sought to reestablish the hunting type native to their country. As should be the case if breeders in both countries have succeeded, there is a wide gap between the best of the lighter boned, smaller, lushly coated, exquisitely beautiful Japanese imports and the substantially larger, stronger, heavier proportions and shorter coated American Akitas.
The Akita fancy remains divided into three factions; those who would keep the two distinct types separate, those who feel that each type could benefit from blending certain virtues of the other, and those who wish the foreign dogs would all go home!
Fortunately, the first group has so far succeeded in maintaining both distinctive types: the American Akita and the Japanese Akita.
Presented with permission of Barbara "BJ" Andrews
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