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Dog Man
The Penguin Press, 238 pp., March 2008; $25.95

This is a story of a life measured out in dogs. Today, Morie Sawataishi is 94, and when he looks back at the road he’s traveled, the signposts all look like Akitas.

Akitas are dogs of Japan’s snow country: long, heavy legs; tightly curled tails; great stamina; and a thick double coat heavy enough to protect them in all kinds of weather. These were the dogs who are thought to have come onto the main island of Japan with the first tribes of migratory hunters some 2,000 years ago, and who, for 300 years, were inspirations for Japan’s samurai class. The story of Hachi-ko—the Akita who, daily for nine years, met the four o’clock train at the Shibuya station, watching for his deceased master—is known by every schoolchild.

Yet, during World War II, the breed came close to being wiped out. The military paid dearly for heavy Akita pelts, which were used to line officers’ coats, and in those grim times, there was no shortage of sellers.

In Dog Man, Martha Sherrill describes how Sawataishi—a single-minded man with a fierce will—helped save the ancient Akita from almost certain extinction. To Sawataishi, the Akita wasn’t exotic; for him “it was simply the local dog, the regional dog, the breed he’d seen everywhere as a child growing up in snow country.” No one was more surprised than him when, in his 30s and newly returned from a stint in the Japanese navy, he was overcome with a desire for an Akita. By that time, there weren’t many around, and because food was scarce too, feeding a dog was a hard thing to do. But Sawataishi persevered, and one day, came home with an Akita puppy—to the immense dismay of his wife.

This wasn’t the first unconventional thing Sawataishi had done; within days of marrying a well-educated girl from Tokyo, he took her to the island’s far north to live near his family. She returned to Tokyo while he served his time in the navy, but when he completed his duty, back they went to snow country, where everything was not only colder, it was more difficult. Thirty years ago, when he decided to build a traditional cottage on slopes of Mount Kurikoma, everyone else in the family objected, and some thought he’d lost his mind. But build it he did. He didn’t want the things most of his countrymen craved: a golf membership, a fine home in Tokyo, an easy life. No, he wanted space, and quiet, and room for his dogs. And there, on the side of the mountain, he found them.

This is not only a story about a man and his dogs, it is also the story of a time in Japan that Americans heard little about. During World War II, it was hard for those in the U.S. to imagine that there were people in the island nation who didn’t want to kill them, people who were appalled by the military’s raging ambition. In Dog Man, we learn about some of these “other” Japanese and the hardships they endured as every resource their country could muster went to support the military. Who lived in fear of bombers overhead. Who, starving, were urged on to even greater sacrifices by their emperor. Under those circumstances, Sawataishi’s desire for a dog is both a snapshot of normalcy and emblematic of his independent and determined nature.

“In the old days of Japan, honoring the specific look or ‘breed’ was never part of the dog tradition. Spirit was the thing one hoped to keep alive.” Dog Man is a celebration of a man with spirit to spare, and of the dogs that marked and enriched his life.

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 46: Jan/Feb 2008
Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.
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