A singular breed

Elizabeth Mehren is a professor of journalism at Boston University and a lifelong dog person.

AKA was a noble beast, a proud creature with the quiet command of the Sphinx. When I stroked this sturdy companion of dear friends in Los Angeles, his chestnut-colored eyes never wavered from mine. His was a thousand-year gaze, I often thought.

But I was wrong. The ancestor dogs of this mighty Akita came to Japan’s main island with early hunter tribes at least 2,000 years ago, Martha Sherrill reports in “Dog Man.” They worked alongside bands of Ainu hunters, she explains, helping to track bear and deer. Later, as their migratory masters formed settlements, the dogs became fighters. Townspeople wagered on their prowess in community rings. Feudal lords treasured their Akitas as trophies. Samurai warriors in the 16th to 19th centuries regarded the Akita as both teacher and inspiration.

“Their essence or spirit was the quality most sought after -- and valued,” Sherrill writes. “A good dog was quiet and fearless.”

But the Akita, with its strong snout and ever-alert ears, is a secondary character in this quirky story of heroism, defiance and dedication. Indeed, Sherrill discloses that the legendary breed might have disappeared entirely without the single-minded determination of a hydroelectric plant manager named Morie Sawataishi in the high, rugged snow country of rural Japan best known to most Americans through haunting paintings on museum walls.

It was to this remote setting that Morie (as Sherrill short-hands her protagonist) brought his bride soon after finishing his service in Japan’s Imperial Navy. There in Hachimantai, Morie drove a horse cart into the village, whereas his wife, Kitako, often walked to town with a baby on her back. War between Japan and the United States was raging and provisions were scarce. He had a family and a promising job. Yet he longed for a dog.


His timing could not have been worse. Country people were killing their beautiful dogs, eating the meat and selling the pelts. When he heard of an Akita pup in a village a day’s ride away, Morie took his horse cart over hard dirt roads and returned with a puppy he named “Dog.” His wife was furious. They could barely feed their family, and keeping a dog in those desperate times was illegal.

For Morie, Dog -- and many more Akitas that would follow -- became life’s central focus. Only a dozen or so remained in the country at the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945. Preserving the breed became Morie’s passion. He loved his wife and children and won recognition in his job. But he repeatedly passed up promotions that would have meant bigger houses and better living conditions. He became a man possessed. With their grace and hardy vigor, the dogs symbolized kisho: what Morie called “a kind of strength and life force.”

Sherrill, a former Washington Post reporter, weaves a biography of a bold eccentric in a highly conformist culture with a portrait of a Japan few outsiders see. Life in the snow country defies the image of a bustling, technocratic nation, just as Morie stands apart from the stereotype of a power-plant executive. The book also depicts an unusual marriage, as Kitako grows more sure of herself -- not less so -- while her husband devotes himself to his dogs.

Sherrill provides rich details about the dogs and their “faraway mountain.” We learn that in addition to being a canine-crazy manager at Mitsubishi, Morie is something of an inventor. For instance, he once built a self-heating bathtub, although it required some refinement after a nephew nearly electrocuted himself. She also recounts how Morie whipped up a side-saddle basket so his dog could ride with him on a motorbike. He dodged speeding citations by pointing to his passenger and telling police officers, “This is a national treasure!”

But too often “Dog Man” reads like something from the Post’s Style section on steroids. Addressing Morie’s perseverance in the Akita world -- at 94, he still raises and trains the dogs -- Sherrill made me want to shout, “Down, girl!,” when she wrote: “It’s a matter of pride, really. He’s an ancient relic, he knows, but even so, Morie has a reputation he likes to protect. He’s still Morie Sawataishi no matter how old he manages to get.” Or, leaping inside Kitako’s head, she channels the dog man’s wife wondering how long this hard mountain life can continue.

Still, “Dog Man” offers a fascinating slice of cultural history, a chronicle of how one man stood against convention to pursue his own peculiar path. After all the financial challenges, the marital strains and the outright ridicule he sometimes endured, satisfaction was Morie’s when the emperor sent a letter honoring him. “At least he has known what his life is about,” his wife remarked. For anyone, that stands as a worthy goal.