© 2011 ARVON AKITAS
The "Akita" is a modern breed with its origins entirely within the 20th century.
Contemporary scholars and translators are now revealing more about our breed's true history than was known or understood in the 1950's, when many of the current histories were written.
Most writers and fanciers in this breed claim the Akita's "ancient" background. One hears and reads that, as a breed, the Akita dates back four or five hundred years. Some sources even date the breed to the Bronze Age! This is a breed developed entirely within the 20th century. The term "breed" is an important distinction.
There are many stories that Akitas are (were) hunting dogs ("used to track and hold large game") and that the breed's physical features, somehow, reflect that "original purpose." These two assertions are not factual. The real history of the modern Akita breed is much more fascinating. It is also more complex.
Part of the commonly told "history" of the "ancient Akita" arises from the confusion of Akitas with a "type" of dog, which existed between the 17th & 19th centuries. This "type," loosely called the matagi (hunting) inu (dog), wasn't a "breed" in any sense, but a group of dogs bred not for a particular conformation or "look" but to perform a competitive task--hunting. While the demands of "tracking and holding large game" required dogs that looked and acted certain ways (large, fast, courageous, strong, etc.), each feudal breeder selected dogs that suited his eye rather than those fitting any formal standard--written or oral. Such standards simply did not exist. Matagi dogs were a "type" not a "breed."
Some historians believe that "matagi dogs" persisted into the 20th century, but it is now consistently agreed to by Japanese breed scholars that such dogs were not purebred. They were only one group of many hybridised dogs and other pure breeds that, together, make up the Akita breed's family tree.
A popular "sport" in Japan during the early 1900's was competitive dog fighting. During this period, various mixtures of Mastiffs, Tibetan Mastiffs, Oriental Pariah Dogs and numerous other breeds and hybrid dogs (including a long-coated type of dog called Karafuto dogs) were bred and selected for one function over any standardized type: to be ferocious, strong, and, thereby, victorious in fighting pits.
A small population of regional, naturally selected dogs also figure prominently in the general "look" of modern Akitas. These were an early 20th century group of isolated dogs referred to as "Odate dogs" (named for the community in the Akita prefecture of the Northern island, Honshu, where they were found). Each represented variations on a general theme of "large Japanese dogs." Some had the erect, pitched ears and curled tails that are still part of all worldwide Akita standards today. They were not hunting dogs but village dogs. These dogs were not uniform in conformation and that they were not subjected to any standardization, written or otherwise, until 1934. Prior to 1934 Odate dogs were not "purebred." No records of Odate dogs exist prior to 1870. Interestingly, Odate was known as "dog town" in the late 1880's and was the epicentre for competitive dog fighting in Japan.
A Japanese publication, Akita, by the Japan Kennel Club, relates a "round table discussion" of Odate elders, reported in an article "Talking About the Dog Scene of the Dog Town Odate." It is this single "round-table" recount that is responsible for another frequent belief about Akitas: that they were "temple dogs." The elders discussed a specific Odate dog, Moku-Go, which was a long-coated pinto-marked dog of unknown lineage, which happened to have been raised in the Jououji Temple at Odate. Moku-Go was a fierce fighting dog of fabled strength. Akita ancestors, except for Moku-Go, were never "temple dogs." Their ownership was never restricted to Japanese royalty.
While Odate dogs are probably the most direct contributors to the modern Akita (likely to be far more closely related genetically than the "matagi dogs"), they were not Akitas. As natural Japanese dogs, they became rough blueprints for what would eventually come to be purebred Akitas. However, none of these early Japanese dogs, alone, evolved into the pure Akita breed.
The Akita as a standardized "breed" dates only to 1938
A "restoration" of the Japanese breeds was formalized in 1919, when the Japanese government passed legislation that would lead to several "reconstruction" breeds being declared "natural monuments" (this would not actually eventuate until 1931). A key phrase is "natural monument," not the common misnomer "national monument." This is an important distinction if one is to understand the goals of the restoration and the true "purpose" of the Akita breed.
One year after the passage of the "restoration" legislation, Dr. Watuse, who had drafted the legislation, travelled to Odate to search for dogs that could be used in the creation of the Akita breed. He found no dogs of sufficient excellence to be named "natural monuments." No dogs would be so designated for another decade.
Based upon a desire to preserve the physical characteristics of the Odate dog "type," Mr. Shigeie Izumi, Mayor of Odate, established the Akita inu Hozonkai or AKIHO (the Akita-Inu Preservation Society) in 1927. Included in this restoration plan were dogs of unknown but varied lineage from the dying and out-of-favour pit fighting activities; they were chosen for certain physical traits desired by restoration breeders. Again, these dogs were not "Akitas."
The name "Akita" was not officially given until 1931 (and then, to several variations of size). The first Japanese dog standard was not written until 1934. This was not an exclusively-Akita standard, though, and did not cover all sizes of Akitas.
The first Japanese Akita standard was not adopted until 1938. Prior to these dates, Akitas represented a concept and goal rather than an existent "breed."
The Akita was not "originally" bred to hunt bears, deer or anything else (except other dogs, perhaps). That history, again, belongs to the impure, feudal "matagi dogs." Akitas were not "temple" dogs. The modern Akita, again, descends exclusively from large crossbreeds that existed in Japan at the turn of the century. In 1931, a few of these (only 9 or so original dogs) were selected not for pedigree (genotype) but only for physical characteristics (phenotype) and were designated "Akitas." These were the world's first Akitas, if not the first purebred Akitas.
Since the early Japanese breeders were working with an enormously varied gene pool, several trends arose in Japan during which certain colours or marking patterns went in and out of fashion. During this developmental period, variations in body type and general body shape also occurred--each having dedicated followers. Two general pre-World War II types became somewhat fixed, although other "lines" also existed. These two predominant lines are generally referenced as the Dewa line and the Ichinoseki line. These were the lines that were popular in Japan during post-war occupation. It is Akitas predominantly of these lines that were brought home by U.S. servicemen. The Dewa Akitas were heavy-bodied dogs, often with loose skin (particularly under the neck). The Ichinoseki type had a more refined look, tighter skin, and, proportionately, more length of leg. Both lines contributed significantly to the American foundation gene pool.
"Adapted here with the kind permission of Michael Sanders - Miisan Akitas"