The Story of Hachiko – World’s Most Famous Akita
Many who had followed my regular contributions to Dog World magazine back in the `70s, `80s, and `90s have asked that I write something about Japan’s most famous dog, Hachiko, who is still a symbol of faithfulness in that country. Even those familiar with the story wanted it retold, and thanks to the Japan Kennel Club’s official magazine, The Companion Dog, and a Japanese friend in Tennessee, I gathered some additional information to the tale that is known to Akita fanciers and others. Because I do a lot of foreign judging and lecturing, I had much opportunity to study the “Japan Native Breed” (of which there are a half-dozen varieties), to spend time with friends at the JKC, and to tour Tokyo a good bit.
“Ko” can be translated as “Mister,” so the dog possibly was called Hachi by his family though he is known to many thousands as Hachiko. He was a true Akita dog, born in December 1922 in Odate in Akita prefecture (state) on the northern end of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The area is mountainous and rugged, a fit birthplace for the pup who soon grew into a substantial adult of about 24 inches at the shoulders and 29 inches long. He had a broad, massive head, a heavy but firm and athletic body, and a friendly yet somewhat sad expression. When he died in March 1935, at a ripe old age for a city dog, it was an event of national significance reported in the newspapers and mourned by a great number of people. To this day there is an annual ceremony in Tokyo on the anniversary of the dog’s death, and Hachiko is considered a national monument.
When Hachiko was a year old, he was obtained by Dr. Eisaburo Ueno, a professor in the Agriculture Department of the Tokyo Imperial University. After a while, the dog began to accompany the professor to the Shibuya rail station where Dr. Ueno boarded the train to go to work. Hachiko learned to expect his master’s return at the same place at the day’s end, and soon became well known as he waited there in the evening. Every workday Hachiko arrived at the station to greet the professor and every day his fame grew.
Even after Dr. Ueno died on May 21, 1924, the cream-colored Akita continued to arrive in time to meet the right train, and stayed longer, giving many hundreds more a chance to see him. Hachiko paid no attention to other dogs or people as he sat there, touching the hearts of the commuters with his faithful but fruitless vigil. Actually, it was not so much a matter of loyalty as it was habit. Sorry to disappoint those readers who prefer to anthropomorphize dogs, but the canine has no real long-term “memory”, by which I mean the ability to consciously bring forth in its mind events of the past. Rather than recollecting at will, the canine associates present situations with past ones. Hachiko habitually made the trek to the rail station because he associated certain events such as time of day, sounds, etc., with the arrival of his master. Their time together was short, but the bond was great.
For ten years the daily ritual continued in all sorts of weather. Hachiko became famous among all Japanese and was marveled at by foreign visitors and journalists. He was called excellent because of his constancy and dignity. When Japanese schoolchildren misbehaved, they were admonished by their teachers who told them to behave like Hachiko. “Be good like Hachiko” was a well-worn phrase before long. He was used as an example of good manners and deportment. Before the war, textbooks told his story to remind students of on, the Japanese principle of reverence for parents and other role models. Like the McGuffey Readers used widely in the U.S. in earlier days, the story had a good moral, useful in teaching children certain values.
A lady identified only as Mrs. W.S. told the JKC writer in 1982, “I remember Hachiko—I patted him on the head. The dog was well known. I had a dog and I sometimes took the dog to see Hachiko, and Hachiko was so friendly, so calm—even when looking at other animals.” Amazing, because Akitas are typically dog-aggressive.
Hachiko finally took ill at about 12 years of age. The Shibuya station master, a dog lover as well as one who respected tradition and the values represented by the dog, made a bed there for Hachiko. He died on March 8, 1935, and a Mr. Honda was commissioned to stuff the remains for the National Science Museum in the Ueno district (not related directly to the professor) of Tokyo, where it stands today. The taxidermist was only following directions from those who wanted to make a good breed impression, but instead created quite a controversy when he made the ears erect. You all know that the Akita’s ears are supposed to be up, like a wolf’s and other spitz-group dogs. But Hachiko’s were not. Both were bent over, as were the ears of some free-roaming Akitas I saw in the country near Mt. Fuji during my hip dysplasia lecture tour in 1984. Hachiko’s left ear was hanging even further down than the right one due to a fight in his youth.
Sometime later those who wanted a more accurate representation than that in the glass case at the Museum made sure that the bronze statue of Hachiko looked the way he did in life. That statue is in the Shibuya station, and like the clock at the Waldorf-Astoria, is a favorite place for people to meet for appointments.
“And now,” as beloved radio commentator Paul Harvey liked to say, “the rest of the story.” Not long ago Mr. Yoshido Morita of Ishikawa prefecture on the western side of Honshu was listening to his radio when he heard of the upcoming March 8 anniversary of Hachiko’s death. The Japanese make much of the date of death of a loved one or prominent figure. Mr. Morita thought he had something about Hachiko, and dashed into a storage room. After a while he found a 50-year-old album, in which were collected family pictures. It’s hard to imagine a Japanese without a camera, but in the pre-war years, ordinary citizens just didn’t have cameras. Therefore, it was extremely unusual that there would be a photograph of Hachiko. Yet there it was!
When Mr. Morita was about five years old, he went to visit his uncle, Mr. Zenzo Hori, the proprietor of a public bath at the Shibuya station. When he left, Uncle Zenzo gave young Yoshido, as a souvenir, the photograph of the faithful and famous 10-year-old Hachiko. Half a century later, listening to that radio program, Mr. Morita got very excited. At first he wasn’t sure whether that was really Hachiko in the picture, but with Mr. Hori’s help, and the help of Mr. Hori’s oldest daughter Sadako, who had also seen the dog, they verified the photo’s authenticity. Cousin Sadako went around to various places, hunting up people who could identify the dog and give them no doubt. Among the people and places she visited was the Shibuya District Office, where the historical records and materials on Hachiko were kept. Those archives and a lot of people confirmed that this was indeed the right dog.
“Of course,” Sadako says, “my father didn’t have a camera, so the picture was not taken by my father.” She guessed that someone very close to her family greatly enjoyed taking photographs. Dr. Ueno’s family also lived nearby. Another proof of identity was the very unusual harness. In those days people did not have that kind of harness, although hundreds of years ago it would’ve probably looked fairly ordinary in comparison with the ones used to denote the Akita’s stature as a dog that only the imperial family and designated members of the aristocracy could own. Even the employed caretaker or dog handler once had an ornate and distinctive costume in honor of the Akita’s elevated rank.
Dr. Ueno undoubtedly was thinking of the breed’s ancient history when he had Hachiko outfitted with his special harness. Eventually the photo was brought to the main offices of the Japan Kennel Club, where an enlargement now hangs in the ground floor lobby. The picture came to the JKC very coincidentally on March 8th, the anniversary date. It was reproduced in The Companion Dog in May 1983 for the 59th anniversary of Dr. Ueno’s death. Now you know the rest of the story.
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