Feed a dog for three days and it is grateful for three years. Feed a cat for three years and it forgets after three days. — Japanese proverb
The relationship between dogs and loyalty is like the relationship between honey and sweetness or Mitt Romney and mealy-mouthed equivocation. Such a given, such an accepted cliché, it hardly bares repeating. The name Fido—a canine name so comically archetypal it’s occasionally used as a stand-in for the word “dog”—actually has the very non-comical meaning of “I am faithful” in Latin. Growing up with collies as I did, I was well aware how much more reliable dogs were as a source of love and devotion than their fickle human counterparts.
The primacy of the relationship between people and dogs is such that even the Odyssey, the sequel to the first extant work of Western literature, takes time to paint a vivid picture of this relationship. Odysseus, finally returned home after twenty years, discovers Argus, the dog he’d trained as a puppy, ancient and flea-ridden and lying on a heap of manure (yes, okay, Homer was laying it on a little thick here, but the detail sure does stick). The broken dog is too weak to stand up, but his ears perk up at the sound of his long-absent master, and he wags his tail and drops his ears. Odysseus, in disguise, pretends not to recognize Argus, but sheds hidden tears at this display of affection from his old dog. Argus, apparently having fulfilled his sustaining desire to see his beloved master one last time, is then seized by “the dark finality of death.”
Homer must have had a dog.
In the modern history of loyal dog stories, the Japanese story of the faithful Akita Hachiko stands out, and has the rare advantage of being well-documented and completely true. It even eventually involved Helen Keller, no slouch in the inspiring story department herself. Oddly, as I first started to read about Hachiko, I happened to be screening a friend’s movie that had been filmed in Tokyo, when one of the characters suddenly related a brief synopsis of the very story about the loyal Akita that I was starting to research. I took this as a positive, if random, sign.
In 1924, Professor Hidesaburo Ueno, a member of the agricultural department at the Imperial Tokyo University got an eight month old Akita puppy from Odate, a town in the mountainous Akita region after which the breed is named. Akitas are solid dogs with a thick double coat, two fuzzy pointed ears that are wide at the base and jut jauntily out from the crest of the neck, and a friendly, full, bearlike face. They are referred to in Japan as “ikken isshu” or “one-person dogs.” Hachi would realize this trait to its legendary fullest.
As an aside, it bears pointing out that Professor Ueno (whose first name is sometimes Westernized as Eisaburo) was a brilliant scientist and would be better known as the father of modern irrigation and land reclamation practices were he not now more famous for being the owner of a dog.
The professor named his new puppy Hachi, Japanese for eight and meant to represent strength and confidence. Hachi soon began a daily practice of walking with his loving master to the train station in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward. After the professor got on the train to go to work, Hachi would return home. Later that day he would make his way back to the station to await the professor’s return at three o’clock.
May 21, 1925 most likely began like any other day, but most books and movies about Hachi “based on a true story” take their greatest poetic license at this point. Human sentiment and narrative tension being what they are, it is apparently necessary to depict Hachi experiencing a preternatural knowledge of the tragic event to come and displaying an unusually heightened degree of affection and playfulness during what would be his and the professor’s final farewell at the station. Whatever the case may be, after leaving Hachi that day and going to the university, the professor suffered a fatal stroke during a faculty meeting, and when Hachi showed up at Shibuya station at his usual time, the professor never returned.
The professor’s grieving widow sold her home, and Hachi was sent to relatives eight miles away. He escaped soon after and managed to figure out his way back to the professor’s house. The new owners chased him off the property, and he went to Shibuya station. After more failed attempts to find him a new home, he was finally taken in by the professor’s old gardener who allowed Hachi to roam freely. Where he roamed was back to the station. He became known by the station director and the station’s vendors and shopkeepers as “Chuken Hachiko,” or faithful dog Hachiko, and they would provide him with water and food, including occasionally chicken yakatori, barbecued chicken on skewers, his favorite food.
His vigil continued for nine years. One of the children’s versions of the story that I read to my daughter showed the passage of time with leaves falling from the trees, growing back, then falling again. In the Lasse Hallström film Hachi: A Dog Tale, an Americanized version of an earlier popular Japanese film, Hallstrom renders this “passage of time” theme literally, showing Hachi in close-up waiting devotedly, while behind him a tree blossoms, turns green, then golden, finally shedding its leaves in an autumn wind, then repeating this cycle again and again all in a matter of seconds.
Hallström, choosing to forego the absurdity of a Japanese story set in Tokyo being spoken in English, cast Richard Gere and Joan Allen as the leads and placed the story in what appears to be a quaint small town in the Hudson Valley north of New York City. By the end of the film you will either be deeply sad or you will have long since, with rolling eyes, thumbed the “stop” button in terror at the prospect of being infected by Capra-esque levels of irony-free sentiment.
As Hachi waited, his local legend grew, eventually coming to the attention of writer Hirokichi Saito, a founding member of a society dedicated to the preservation of native Japanese breeds. The first of several articles he wrote about Hachi, “Faithful Dog Awaits Return of Master Dead for Seven Years,” appeared in 1932, and caused an immediate national sensation. For a population largely too poor to support pets of their own, Hachi became Japan’s national pet, and the quintessential embodiment of the nationally revered traits of loyalty and devotion.
As is the case with any genuinely true and moving sentiment, Hachi’s devotion was quickly appropriated by the government, in this case as a living symbol of the loyalty one should demonstrate to the Emperor. The government created stories about Hachi in textbooks for children. If the Emperor had given the imperial equivalent of a State of the Union address, Hachi no doubt would have been brought in as a special guest. One can picture him sitting in the balcony, seated next to the Empress, tongue lolling before breaking into a comfortable wide yawn, charmingly oblivious during the part of the speech in which his story was told to the feeling of united purpose and patriotism his furry presence was causing to swell in the hearts of the Japanese people.
People began to travel to Shibuya station just to touch his fur, thinking this would give them good luck and honor. Children would hug and nuzzle with him. A bronze statue of Hachi was commissioned and on April 21, 1934 the statue—inscribed with a poem entitled “Lines to a Loyal Dog”—was placed at Shibuya station in a widely attended public event. Hachi—old and battle-scarred and gradually slowing, his left ear now permanently bent downward—was there, blissfully unaware of his status as the ceremony’s guest of honor. Less than a year later, on March 8th, 1935, he died. The government declared a day of mourning and he was given full Buddhist rites lasting forty-nine days, an honor no other dog had ever received.
The boundless devotion of a dog has come back into the public attention recently with a spate of YouTube videos capturing dogs reacting to their soldier masters’ returns from tours of duty in the Middle East. One shows a dog at the airport greeting his master, a female soldier home from Afghanistan, with such unfettered abandon the dog is writhing around her literally whimpering with the unbearable agony of the reunion. One has an enormous black dog tearing through his house, actually smelling his returning master all the way from outside, then bursting out the door and leaping on his master in fatigues, who, despite being a seasoned U.S. vet, is nearly pushed over by the sheer velocity and impact of his dog’s crazy love. We can only dream of such unfettered displays of emotion from our human friends and relatives.
There are other well-known devoted dog stories. Shep, a dog “of collie strain,” showed up at the Great Northern Railway station in Benton, Montana in 1936 when a casket, presumably his master’s, was being loaded into the train, then showed up for every train after that. Shep kept up his vigil at the station for the next 6 years. He was killed in 1942 when he slipped off the tracks into the path of an oncoming train.
Probably the other most famous Western story of a devoted dog is Greyfriar’s Bobby. Bobby was a Skye Terrier who was widely known in 19th-century Edinburgh for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner John Gray. When Bobby himself died in 1872, he, like Shep and Hachi, received a statue in his honor. In 2011 however, Jan Bondeson of Cardiff University compiled fairly damning proof that Bobby was in fact little more than a very successful publicity stunt aimed at boosting local tourist revenue, and was in fact two dogs, one, a scrappy stray, that lived until 1865, and another more groomed Skye Terrier that lived until 1872, both fed by the cemetery curator to keep them close to John Gray’s grave. But myths die hard, and sentimental myths die harder. People simply want to believe. Bondeson realized this, and acknowledged in his book that the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby would never be debunked where it mattered, in people’s hearts.
In 1937, two years after Hachi’s death, Helen Keller, impressed by the stories that she had heard of Chuken Hachiko’s devotion, determined to get an Akita. The Japanese were touched—many Japanese considered her a living saint—and when she visited Japan she was brought an Akita puppy called Kamikaze-Go. Her teacher and friend Ann Sullivan had died the year before, and when Keller would still occasionally cry about it, Keller said that Kami would touch her knee or lick away her tears. Kami would be the first Akita in America, but would die at eight months from distemper. Keller said of him, “If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikaze. I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet.” When the breeder heard of Kami’s death, he sent Kami’s brother Kenzan-Go to Keller as a gift from the Japanese government, and Go-Go, as he came to be called, lived with Keller in Connecticut for years.
During World War II, Hachi’s statues—the one in Shibuya station and the one erected in Odate, his birthplace—were melted down for ammunition. Even worse, because of Japanese rationing, pets could no longer be fed, and dogs were being starved to death or being killed outright for food and in order to use their pelts for clothing. Akita breeders, determined to give the once royal breed a chance at survival, released them into the mountain forests in the hope that some might hunt and survive. A handful did, and as a result the breed now thrives today on both sides of the Pacific.
After the War, the Japanese—desperately in need of a morale boost—began a drive to rebuild the statue in Shibuya station. Money poured in from around the world, including from America, and Ando Tekeshi, the son of the original sculptor, made a bronze replica of the original statue, which was dedicated in August 1948.
Hachiko was again in the headlines just last year. In March 2011 a coroner determined that his cause of death had been terminal cancer and a worm infection, not, as had been long believed, a yakatori stick that had ruptured his stomach. That a dog’s death could inspire a full autopsy 76 years post-mortem is a clear measure of his status in Japanese society, and one wonders if it was initiated by the descendants of the yakitori vendors at Shibuya station, mortified at the thought that their forebears were to blame for the death of Japan’s favorite dog. The ghosts of those vendors can now rest in peace.
Today, Shibuya station, once a quiet, practically rural station, is now the center of a crazy hub of urban Tokyo traffic in a fashionable, youthful district. But people still rub Hachi’s paws for good luck, and everyone knows where to go when someone says “Meet me at Hachiko.” Every year on April 8th a celebration is held at the station in Hachi’s honor. And there is an ongoing tradition of couples pledging their undying love in front of the statue of the dog who was the living incarnation of till death do I part.