More than 2 million commuters pass through Tokyo’s Shibuya Station on a typical weekday, and many of the hurried passengers in the world’s most densely populated urban area choose to meet at a bronze statue erected at one of the station’s main entrances. The statue of Hachikō commemorates the loyalty of a dog to its owner, and stands in honor of one of Japan’s native dog breeds – the Akita.
The island nation of Japan is home to several breeds of the Spitz type of which the Akita is the largest. The breed’s name comes from the northernmost prefecture on the island of Hanshu where its ancestors were hunting dogs known as Matagi-Inu. Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world served to protect the country’s native dog breeds from outside influences. For more than 200 years, Japan functioned as a closed society where its dogs survived unaltered by crosses from either the East or the West.
The Meiji Restoration of 1868 restored imperial rule to Japan and opened the nation once again to outsiders. The influx of foreign investment came in the form of traders – who traveled with their dogs. By the turn of the 20th century, a variety of European breeds had been crossed with the Akita in an effort to improve its capacity as both a guard and fighting dog. Further crosses were made with German Shepherd Dogs during wartime to prevent the dogs from being killed for the war effort. The result was a broadening of type that introduced some diversity in the breed.
In 1931 Japan designated seven dog breeds, including the Akita, as living “natural monuments.” This appointment served to both honor and protect the nation’s indigenous canines.
According to the Akita Club of America, the first Akita to appear in the United States arrived in 1937 with Helen Keller and, following World War II, servicemen returning to the states brought home the breed in greater numbers.
The Akitas originally brought to the U.S. were generally of the type crossed with the German Shepherd. In Japan, however, this type enjoyed only fleeting support from fanciers as breeders soon concentrated their efforts on preserving what they considered the original Akita Matagi. In time, two types could be observed in the breed, one Japanese and one American.
The breed became eligible to compete in AKC’s Miscellaneous class in 1955, and a parent club was formed the following year. In 1973 the Akita became eligible to receive championship points as a member of the Working Group.
In 1979 the Japan Kennel Club became a member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, which honors the standards from each breed’s country of origin. FCI judges were required to judge the Akita by the Japanese standard, which had all but eliminated the American-style dogs from competition. When the AKC recognized the JKC in 1992, the fate of the Akita became a cause for concern to many breed fanciers in the U.S.
An AKC Gazette breed column titled, “The FCI and the Akita” allowed author Sylvia Thomas to address what had become a divisive issue among breed fanciers worldwide. “In June 1995 the FCI had voiced its strict adherence to ‘country of origin’ in letters to FCI judges and breed clubs. Akitas that did not conform to the FCI – that is, the Japanese Kennel Club – standard were immediately ineligible to receive an excellent rating from the Open Dog classes. The JKC disallows certain colors and markings, including the popular and common pinto markings and the black mask seen on most American-type Akitas.” Thomas goes on to say, “The FCI edict means American-type Akitas can’t finish FCI titles.”
The solution to the controversy was found when the FCI elected to recognize two distinct breeds in 1999: the Akita Inu of Japan and the American-style Akita that was given the name Great Japanese Dog, but later changed to American Akita. Both breeds compete in FCIs Group 5, Spitz and Primitive Types together with the majority of Northern breeds.
In 2006 the Kennel Club (England) recognized both types as separate breeds, eligible to compete in the Utility Group. The Australian National Kennel Council and the New Zealand Kennel Club individually recognize the Japanese Akita and the American Akita within the Utility Group.
In North America, the Akita remains a single breed within the Working Group, recognized as such by the Canadian Kennel Club and the AKC.
One breed or two, the Akita is treasured in every country where fanciers can appreciate its size, strength and characteristically loyal devotion. In 2012 the Akita ranked 45th of the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.
A ‘Triangular’ Headpiece
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the Akita, in part, as “large, powerful, alert, with much substance and heavy bone.” The breed’s power, strength and alertness are perhaps best expressed through its head that’s unique among Working breeds (and Utility or Spitz breeds, for that matter).
Described as “massive but in balance with the body,” the Akita’s head forms a “blunt triangle” when viewed from above. The broad skull is flat between the ears and free from wrinkle “when at ease.”
The Akita’s deep muzzle is also broad, as are its powerful jaws. The stop is “well-defined, but not too abrupt,” with a shallow furrow that extends “well up” the forehead.
The ratio of the distance from nose to stop and from stop to occiput is two to three.
Small eyes and erect ears enhance the massive impression made by the Akita’s head. The breed’s dark brown eyes are “deep-set and triangular in shape,” and its ears are “triangular” and slightly rounded at the tips. Wide at their base and set wide on the head but not too low, erect ears are a breed characteristic and are “carried slightly forward over [the] eyes in line with [the] back of [the] neck,” according to the standard.
On a flight from Orlando, Fla., to Philadelphia, I once experienced a lesson in the impressive anatomy of the Akita’s head.
Shortly after takeoff, I noticed that my nose was itching, which usually means I’m in the company of a cat or a double-coated breed of dog. I couldn’t figure out what was causing me to sneeze and rub my eyes so much until the guy sitting next to me tried to open a bag of chips. The sound of cellophane must have signaled mealtime for one of the passengers sitting one row ahead of us. No sooner had my neighbor reached for his snack when a massive Akita’s head popped up begging for a handout. The surprise sighting of that formidable noggin left quite an impression on my neighbor and me, I can assure you.
A Curled Tail
Like most Northern breeds, the Akita’s tail is characteristically large and set high. It is carried over the back or against the dog’s flank “in a three-quarter, full, or double curl,” as noted in the standard’s section on the tail.
The Akita’s variously curled tail is “large and strong” at the root. It always dips to or below the level of the back, and the tip of a three-quarter curled tail drops “well down” the flank. The tail may relax a bit when the dog is standing still, but it is always curled while the dog is moving.
Though curled in a manner characteristic of the Spitz breeds, the Akita’s tail is never plumed with excessively long hair. Instead it should be thickly covered in hair that’s “coarse, straight and full.”
Any Color Including White, Brindle or Pinto
The Akita possesses two coats, a thick undercoat that’s soft, dense and short, and a straight, harsh outer coat that stands “somewhat off [the] body.” Although the breed does not present a ruff at the neck or a plumed tail, the length of hair does vary somewhat. It is longest and “profuse” on the tail, measures approximately 2 inches in length on the withers and rump, and is shortest on the head, legs and ears.
Color is perhaps the most obvious characteristic that separates the two types/breeds of Akitas. The Japanese dogs are restricted to coats that are red fawn, sesame, brindle and white. All colors except white possess what is called “urajiro” or a “whitish” coloration on the muzzle, the cheeks, underneath the jaw, neck, chest, body and tail, and on the inside of the legs.
Owing to the infusion of non-Japanese breeds, the AKC breed standard allows “any color including white; brindle; or pinto.” White Akitas do not have the black mask that is quite common in other colors. The mask, as well as a white blaze, may or may not be present.
Akita colors are described by the standard as “rich, brilliant and clear,” and any markings are to be “well balanced, with or without mask or blaze.”
“Pinto” describes the breed’s characteristic two-toned color pattern with its white background and “large, evenly placed patches covering [the] head and more than one-third of [the] body.” The size, shape and placement of the colored patches stamp a look of individuality on each parti-colored Akita.
By any name, the Akita is one of the dog world’s most imposing canine figures. Distinctive of head and tail, with a past as colorful as its coat, the breed is a living celebration of the dog’s loyalty and devotion to mankind.