"If it’s not an Akita Ina, 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 hidden in them as well. And all joking aside, this saying is actually a rather common expression by those who fancying the 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 will better understand why this dog is the way it is today. But before making that imaginary journey, it might be useful to know that Akita Inu simply means Akita Dog. Many Japanese also tend to replace the latter with “ken”—which also means dog—though the country's formal name for the breed is Akita Inu.
As mentioned above, the Japanese Akita Inu originated from Akita prefecture, located in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu (the main island of Japan). This not only explains the name of this majestic breed, but—as winters in Akita prefecture are extremely snowy and harsh—also its lovely thick coat. The region is part of Japan's Yukiguni (snow country) and so the breed definitely needed something to protect itself against the weather conditions.
It is also there, in Akita prefecture's mountainous area near Odate, where the breed's forefather known as Matagi Inu originally functioned as an outstanding hunting dog. There it hunted for tsukinowaguma (Japanese black bear), kamoshika (Japanese serow) other large game, though eventually, through a time of small civil wars, peasant riots and an invasion of gold diggers near Odate, its function of food provider shifted to that of guard dog.
Around 1700 the breed's history took an unexpected turn when Japan's fifth shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi came to reign (1680-1709). Tsunayoshi was born in the year of the dog and had a special interest in dogs. People irreverently called him the Inu Kubo (dog shogun), as his love for dogs—but also other animals—went to such an extent that in 1687 Tsunayoshi issued laws known as Shorui Awaremi no Rei. These Laws of Compassion ordered anyone who harmed dogs to be imprisoned or even executed. Furthermore, dogs were said to be addressed in a highly respectful manner, spoken to with “o-inu-sama”, which translates something like Great Mr. Dog (note: the “sama” part is the even more respectful version of the honorific “san”, and the “o” in front adds further politeness). From a common peasant dog the Akita Inu had turned into a dog for samurai and other Japanese noblemen, and some even had their own home with servants.
The Akita Inu’s golden years did not last forever. Because of Japan's modernization during the Meiji-period (1868-1912), samurai became obsolete and so dogfights were held to provide 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. Furthermore, 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.
Around 1930 things luckily turned back into the right direction. In 1927 Akita Inu Hozonkai (AKIHO) was founded, which forbade further crossbreeding and has been focussing on the breed's preservation ever since. On top of that, in 1931 the Japanese government designated the Akita Inu as Tennen Kinenbutsu (Natural Monument). A time of selective breeding and purchase of dogs from remote Matagi villages followed, resulting in a slow but steady return of the original breed type. Much of that good work was thrown away though, when during World War II the Akita Inu was seen more interesting for its meat and warm fur. Only a few specimens of this once beloved breed remained.
But not all was in vain. Against official orders, a few individuals—including nobleman Ichinoseki Kuniro, who earlier stood at the birth of AKIHO and the Akita Inu’s revival—had kept a few dogs and immediately started breeding again after the war ended. It was also around this time that a certain Ito sold Akita Inu of mixed blood to American soldiers, who then took them back home and quickly gained popularity there. For a decent amount of time, many non-Japanese considered these dogs to be of the same breed as the ones being bred in Japan, though nowadays in most countries the two happily co-exist next to each other: Akita Inu and American Akita.
And that, in a very tiny nutshell, is the history of the Japanese Akita Inu.