"If it’s not an Akita, then it’s just a dog!" - Taking a look at the origins of the Akita Inu.


Of course, the sentence above is somewhat of a joke, but you know what they say about jokes... most of them contain a certain amount of truth in them as well. But all joking aside, this saying is actually a rather common one for those who love this breed. The Akita Inu, named after its birthplace in Japan (Akita prefecture), is indeed something special. Fitting examples of this go back in history from when Akita Inu were held by the shogun and other noblemen and sometimes even had their own servants. Or Hachiko, Japan’s most famous dog, who remained waiting at the train station to come and greet his owner, professor Ueno, even up to nine years after his passing. These are just two illustrations, though far from where the Akita Inu’s fascinating aspects end.

To understand where all this special came from, it is worth taking a look at the origins of this breed. It actually left quite some foot steps in Japanese history and it is here where you’ll understand why this dog is the way it is today. But before making this imaginary trip, it might be useful to know that “inu” simply means dog in Japanese. Sometimes “ken” is used as well, which also means dog.

A snowy winter in Odate, the birthplace of the Japanese akita inu

A snowy winter in Odate, the birthplace of the Japanese akita inu

As mentioned above, the Japanese Akita Inu originated from Akita prefecture, which is located in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu (the main island of Japan). This not only explains the name of this majestic breed, but also its lovely thick coat. Winters in Akita prefecture are extremely snowy and harsh. It's even part of Yukiguni, Japan's snow country, so logically the Akita Inu needed something to protect itself against these weather conditions. In the mountainous area near Odate he functioned as an outstanding hunting dog, where he hunted for bears, boars and other wild, and then was still a fully pure breed known as the Matagi Inu. Later on, through a time of small civil wars, peasant riots and an invasion of gold diggers near Odate, his function of food provider changed and turned him into a feared guarding dog.

The latter period didn’t last long. During the reign of Tokugawa shogun Tsunayoshi (1680-1709)—who was born in the year of the dog and had a special interest in dogs—an even more special law was issued. Those who harmed dogs would be executed and dogs were to be addressed in a highly respectful manner: they were to be spoken to with “o-inu-sama”, which translates something like Mr. Dog (the “sama” part is the even more respectful version of the honorific “san”, and the “o” in front adds further politeness). From a peasant dog the Akita inu turned into a dog for samurai and other Japanese noblemen and some even had their own home with servants.

Hachiko, the perfect example of an akita's loyalty, and his statue at Shibuya train station, exit Hachikomae

Hachiko, the perfect example of an akita's loyalty, and his statue at Shibuya train station, exit Hachikomae

The Akita Inu’s golden age didn’t last forever though. Because of Japan's modernization during the Meiji-period (1868-1912), samurai became obsolete and so dogfights were held to stimulate their urge for fighting. For these fights, Tosa dogs were used and crossbred with other dog breeds and it did not take long before the Akita Inu became a part of them as well. It resulted in a degeneration of the Akita Inu and the breed became far removed from the purity it had during the Tsunayoshi period 200 years earlier. The breed became bigger, more athletic and courageous and some even lacked upward ears. Sadly, in 1910 things got even worse when Japan introduced a dog tax, which lead to thousands of Akita Inu being slaughtered and countless more dying during a rabies epidemic.

Luckily, around 1930 things turned into the right direction again. In 1927 Akita Inu Hozonkai (AKIHO) was founded, which forbid further crossbreeding and has been focussing on preservation ever since. On top of that, in 1931 the Japanese government even designated the Akita Inu as a “national heritage”. A time of selective breeding followed and the original type swiftly returned. During World War II pretty much all of that good work was quickly thrown away though, when the Akita Inu was seen more interesting for its meat and warm fur. Only a few Akitas of this once beloved breed remained. Luckily, a guardian angel arose. Against official orders, a nobleman named Ichinoseki—who earlier stood at the birth of AKIHO and the Akita Inu’s revival—had kept a few beautiful dogs and after World War II ended immediately started breeding again. At the same time, a certain Ito mixed the Akita Inu with other dogs and sold them to American soldiers. The American Akita was born and spread itself quickly. For some time the Japanese Akita Inu and American Akita were considered as one breed by some, but nowadays these breeds happily co-exist next to each other.