The Man Who Saved The Breed

In 1924, a noted professor at Tokyo University died after suffering a stroke. He was mourned and then, as we say in the 21st century, life moved on. That is, it moved on for everyone but his dog, Hachi-ko, who continued to meet his master's 4 o'clock commuter train at Shibuya station every day for the next nine years. The dog's intense loyalty became the subject of newspaper articles—he was eventually honored with a bronze statue and a postage stamp. Hachi-ko was an Akita, an ancient breed beloved by samurai warriors. Helen Keller brought the first Akita puppy ("an angel in fur," she called it) to the United States in 1937, a gift she received while on a speaking tour of Japan. But by then, the population of Akitas in Japan was dwindling—inbred or overtaken by more popular European breeds such as German shepherds—and World War II almost finished them off. Akitas were slaughtered for their lustrous fur, a popular lining for the jackets of Japanese soldiers, and even for their meat, which fed starving families. By 1944, there were only a dozen or so left in Japan.

You don't have to be a dog person to be pulled into the world of "Dog Man," Martha Sherrill's account of the man who essentially saved the Akita from extinction. This is one of those small but rich books on a seemingly arcane subject—a passionate dog lover in the remote mountains of Japan's snow country—that is ultimately about something much greater. The story of Morie Sawataishi and his magnificent dogs—with their superior intelligence, stamina, fearlessness and almost spiritual calm—is really about the search for enduring values and the determination to live life on one's own terms.

There are unforgettable supporting characters—especially Kitako, Morie's perceptive, self-sacrificing wife who left a cosmopolitan life in Tokyo to live in the middle of nowhere, and Uesugi, a rugged hunter and guide, as brave as any Akita. But this is, in the end, a portrait of Morie, a crusty yet tender man who had to hide his first Akita puppy in 1944, when keeping a dog in wartime was considered unpatriotic—and dangerous for the animal, with all that tempting fur. Morie went on to breed and show Akitas, but never took money for a puppy, even when their worth soared to thousands of yen in postwar Japan, especially among the American GIs stationed there during the occupation. Morie spent his career as an engineer for Mitsubishi running power plants—but he never fit the conformist role of the Japanese salaryman. Instead, he looked to his rugged, courageous dogs for qualities he feared were disappearing in his rapidly modernizing country. Of the 100 Akitas he has owned, the greatest was Samurai Tiger, a champion whose death, as Sherrill describes it, will break your heart. (The dog's elaborate funeral included the presence of a Shinto priest.) "They say you only get one dog in your lifetime like Samurai Tiger," says a now aged Morie. "He was so natural, raw and unspoiled. For me, he was everything I could ask for in a dog. And he had all the traits I hoped to someday see in myself."