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Japanese history, both verbal and written, describe the ancestors of the Akita, the Matagi dog (hunting dog, Bear hunting dog, Deer hunting dog), as one of the oldest of the native dogs. Today's Akita developed primarily from dogs in the northernmost region of the island of Honsū in the Akita prefecture, thus providing the breed's name. The Matagi's quarry included wild boar, Sika deer, and Asian black bear. This swift, agile, unswervingly tenacious precursor dog tracked large game, holding it at bay until hunters arrived to make the kill. The breed is also influenced by crosses with larger breeds from Asia and Europe, including English Mastiffs, Great Danes and the Tosa Inu, in the desire to develop a fighting dog for the burgeoning dog fighting industry in Odate, Akita Prefecture, Japan in the early 20th century. During World War II the Akita was also crossed with German Shepherd Dogs in an attempt to save them from the war time government order for all non-military dogs to be culled. The ancestors of the American style Akita were originally a variety of the Japanese style Akita, a form that was not desired in Japan due to the markings, and which is not eligible for show competition.
Three events focused positive attention on the breed in the early 1900s and brought the breed to the attention of the Western world.
First was the story of Hachikō, one of the most revered Akitas of all time. He was born in 1923 and owned by Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of Tokyo. Professor Ueno lived near the Shibuya Train Station in a suburb of the city and commuted to work every day on the train. Hachikō accompanied his master to and from the station each day. On May 25, 1925, when the dog was 18 months old, he waited for his master's arrival on the four o'clock train. But he waited in vain; Professor Ueno had suffered a fatal stroke at work. Hachikō continued to wait for his master's return. He traveled to and from the station each day for the next nine years. He allowed the professor's relatives to care for him, but he never gave up the vigil at the station for his master. His vigil became world renowned when, in 1934, shortly before his death, a bronze statue was erected at the Shibuya train station in his honor. This statue was melted down for munitions during the war and new one commissioned once the war ended. Each year on April 8 since 1936, Hachikō's devotion has been honored with a solemn ceremony of remembrance at Tokyo's Shibuya railroad station. Eventually, Hachikō's legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty, particularly to the person and institution of the Emperor.
The second major event was in 1931, when the Akita was officially declared a Japanese Natural Monument. The Mayor of Odate City in Akita Prefecture organized the Akita Inu Hozankai to preserve the original Akita as a Japanese natural treasure through careful breeding. In 1934 the first Japanese breed standard for the Akita Inu was listed, following the breeds declaration as a natural monument of Japan. In 1967, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Akita Dog Preservation Society, the Akita Dog Museum was built to house information, documents and photos.
The third positive event was the arrival of Helen Keller in Japan in 1937. She expressed a keen interest in the breed and was presented with the first two Akitas to enter the US. The first dog, presented to her by Mr. Ogasawara and named Kamikaze-go, died at five months of age from Distemper, one month after her return to the States. A second Akita was arranged to be sent to Miss Keller, he was Kamikaze's litter brother, Kenzan-go. Kenzan-go died in the mid-1940s. By 1939 a breed standard had been established and dog shows had been held, but such activities stopped after World War II began. Just as this mountain dog breed was stabilizing in its native land, World War II pushed the Akita to the brink of extinction. Early in the war the dogs suffered from lack of nutritious food. Then many were killed to be eaten by the starving populace, and their pelts were used as clothing. Finally, the government ordered all remaining dogs to be killed on sight to prevent the spread of disease. The only way concerned owners could save their beloved Akitas was to turn them loose in remote mountain areas, where they bred back with their ancestor dogs, the Matagi, or conceal them from authorities by means of crossing with German Shepherd dogs, and naming them in the style of German Shepherd dogs of the time. Morie Sawataishi and his efforts to breed the Akita is a major reason we know this breed today.
During the occupation years following the war, the breed began to thrive again through the efforts of Sawataishi and others. For the first time, Akitas were bred for a standardized appearance. Akita fanciers in Japan began gathering and exhibiting the remaining Akitas and producing litters in order to restore the breed to sustainable numbers and to accentuate the original characteristics of the breed muddied by crosses to other breeds.