Japan's Gift to the World

One day in January, 1924, Eizaburo Ueno, a professor at the University of Tokyo, received a gift from a former student – an Akita puppy. Professor Ueno fell quickly in love and named his new companion Hachi. This is the Japanese word for "eight," a number representing good fortune, comfort, and confidence, all of which foreshadow the story of this Akita's life.

For several years, Professor Ueno had been commuting from Shibuya station to the university. Now Hachi was beside him each morning. Because dogs were not allowed on trains, the professor had to leave Hachi behind, with a gentle pat on the head and a promise to return. Through the day, Hachi sat on the platform, waiting until the professor's evening train pulled in and the two reunited for their walk home. Before long, hundreds of commuters were talking about this regal dog who sat attentively, waiting for his master.

For 16 months, Hachi's daily wait continued as usual. Then one day in May 1925, Professor Ueno suffered a fatal stroke while at the university. News of the professor's death reached people at Shibuya. But Hachi continued to wait, as all the trains pulled in and left without his master. Still waiting when the last train pulled away, Hachi had to be escorted off the platform. It is unclear where he went that night, the first of many mysteries, but next morning Hachi surprised everyone when he showed up at the station at exactly the same time he had arrived all previous days with the professor. He waited throughout the day. After the last train left, Hachi was again escorted from the platform, slipping into the night. Every morning, he returned to the station at the same time and waited again.

Train stations are busy places, and an Akita is noticeable, especially when he sits looking at trains with a hopeful expression. The story of Hachi spread up and down the train line, as people got off at various stations and described what was happening at Shibuya. Every commuter knew Hachi's patience was futile, but they were struck by his unwavering loyalty and hope, and the respect he appeared to be paying to his master.

Akita fanciers love to recount this story. For them, Hachi represents the best of their breed. Patricia Mills, who owns six Akitas and is active in the Akita Club of America, says she recognizes the character that made Hachi a celebrity rather than a nuisance at the train station. "Throngs of school children were pulling on him, petting him, hugging him," she explains. Even though Hachi wanted to focus on the trains, he showed no aggression. "When he was tired of it, he would just walk away and find a quiet corner to wait in, rather than growl or lash out," Mills says. "Tolerance and patience epitomize the breed. Hachi represents everything we expect from Akitas today."

Sherry Wallis, a researcher and historian of Akitas, says there are currents below the surface of this story. "In the mid-twenties," she says, "a national movement to recognize and preserve native Japanese dogs was gaining momentum. This was building all the time the professor and Hachi were walking to the station." Akitas, native to Japan, had a special role to play in this effort, and Hachi arrived on the scene at just the right moment.

For the first six years, Hachi's story spread by word of mouth. But in 1931, it reached Hirokichi Saito, a writer with a mission to make more people aware of the importance of native Japanese dogs. Since the early 1920s, Saito had been searching for prime Akita examples, ones with pointed ears, curled tails, muscular necks, and an attractive demeanor. Tatsuo Kimura, who bred and showed Akitas for many years and now translates Japanese writings about the breed, says Saito traveled to the far north of Japan, to Odate, where Akitas originated. "He met with the mayor of Odate, but they only had three dogs with the standing ears and curled tails." The same was true throughout Japan, frustrating Saito's search. "People were not yet interested in developing the pure Akita," Kimura says. "But then Saito came back to Tokyo, and he heard about this one Akita waiting at the train station every day for his master."

Hopeful, Saito went to Shibuya to see Hachi for himself. He was not disappointed. Hachi was not only an Akita, but a perfect representative. Recognizing the potential of this story, Saito wrote several articles, the first titled, "Faithful Dog Awaits Return of Master Dead for Seven Years," which appeared in Japan's largest daily newspapers. He connected Hachi's loyalty, with all its emotional depth, to the larger goal of revitalizing Japanese interest in native dogs. His articles fueled wild interest in Hachi's story. That same year, the Japanese government declared Akitas to be a "Natural Monument" and encouraged people to embrace and preserve them. Suddenly, it was not only commuters who saw Hachi each day. Travelers from all directions now made special trips to be near the famous Akita. People believed that touching his fur would imbue them with respect, and Hachi, always patient, never grew weary of the attention. Wallis says, "He became a touchstone for a society. He represented the best of Japanese character, and it all just crystallized in his story."

Early 1930's Japan was marked by the Great Depression, and nationalist sentiment was accelerating. Taking note of the positive reaction people had to Hachi's story, the government created Hachi-related lessons for school textbooks. Yasuko Fukumi grew up in Japan and was a young girl when Hachi's story spread. Her family did not have a dog, and she is not a fancier, yet she clearly remembers those 2nd-grade poems and essays. "We had ethics classes: be honest, be sincere, be pure, be faithful. Hachi came in for the 'be faithful' part. It was very important to us, and we all tried to be faithful." She smiles, adding, "Maybe not quite like Hachi, but we tried to be faithful to our teachers, our parents, our friends."

In those economically difficult years, owning a dog in Japan was limited to wealthier people with enough income for care and feeding. Hachi became an entire nation's pet, giving anyone a chance to experience the human-dog bond. Mills says, "Every type of person, at all economic levels, could go to Shibuya station and touch this Akita. And throngs of people did it."

But what made people choose to make the trek to Shibuya? Wallis believes it is because Hachi exemplified loyalty without overwrought emotion, a valuable combination in Japanese culture. "Akitas project self-confidence," she says. "They are poised and composed. They just demand attention this way. I can see an Akita sitting in the middle of the station, just waiting. Definite loyalty, but no separation anxiety."

Fukumi says it is difficult to pin down exactly what gave Hachi such universal appeal. "The whole thing was just so precious," she explains. "It gave you something you could hold onto in your heart and mind. Hachi had such a clever mind, and he was sensitive. We heard lots of animal stories as children, but Hachi was top dog. Hachi was very cute, while being very masculine as well."

Many people wanted to claim a connection to Hachi, and his mysterious disappearance each evening left room for imagination. The professor's neighbor claimed that Hachi mated with her Airedale Terrier, producing puppies. Others made claims to Hachi's progeny, but this was long before parentage tests. Various people reported that Hachi lived with them at times, including the Uenos' gardener. Most of these claims have never been verified. However, Mr. Kimura confirms that in 1932 Hachi did return to the Ueno household. The professor's widow took Hachi to a dog show, where the famous Akita was carefully measured. Mr. Saito published those measurements, as part of his effort to document perfect breed characteristics. But this was a short-lived scene. Hachi soon reclaimed his mystique, disappearing again into the night.

The mysteries are what attracted author Lesléa Newman to Hachi. Newman was surprised that no other American writer had given Hachi's story full treatment in a children's book, so she decided to explore it. The result was Hachiko Waits, which won the 2005 "Best Fiction Book of the Year" award from the Dog Writers Association of America. The book relies on historically accurate scenes describing what it was like to see Professor Ueno and Hachi arrive together at Shibuya, how it felt to see Hachi waiting alone, loyally, every day.

Just as he weaved his way into the minds of 1930s Japan, Hachi captured Newman's imagination. "I knew a dog could change my life, but I never thought a dog from 20 years before I was born could also change my life," she says. "The whole time I worked on this book, I was obsessed and didn't do anything else." Newman tested her book on readers who know about Akitas and Japan. She was pleased when one reader responded with a tear in her eye. That was Yasuko Fukumi. "I wanted to honor this dog," Newman says, "but I also wanted to honor Japanese culture. It meant so much when Miss Fukumi said my book reminds her of her childhood."

Newman says certain mysteries about Hachi never cleared up. "I knew he was at the train station the same time every day, but beyond that there were rumors and hearsay, a lot of silence and empty spaces." Newman realized it was better to leave them alone. "Those points I left to the reader's imagination. I was able to create a quiet book, with a Zen-like quality. I could show the white empty spaces in his life when his master was gone."

In 1934, a statue of Hachi was erected at Shibuya Station. Less than a year later, in April 1935, 10 years after he began his ritual, Hachi died waiting for Professor Ueno. By evening, news spread along the rail line. A full Buddhist ceremony commenced, lasting 49 days. "As far as we know, no other dog ever had that honor in Japan," Mills says. Hachi's name was officially changed to "Hachiko." As Kimura explains, "The -ko ending is an honor in Japanese culture, like calling someone 'sir' in England. It's usually reserved for people."

In 1937, inspired by Hachiko, Helen Keller came to Japan and took home an Akita pup. Keller brought Hachiko's story to America, but even more, she introduced Americans to Akitas by describing the breed's positive attributes in her writings and her lectures.

Japan was soon engulfed in World War II. Hachiko's statue was melted down for ammunition. After the war, Japanese people sought meaningful symbols, and Hachiko's story was revived. In 1948, a joint effort between children in Japan and California raised money for a new Hachiko statue, erected at Shibuya Station. Today, couples often "go to Hachiko" to express their loyalty. Based on the power of Hachiko's story, and Keller's mission, American interest in Akitas burgeoned, leading to the formation of the Akita Club of America in 1956 and AKC approval in 1972. In more recent years, as American Akita fanciers take a fresh look at the form and character of their breed, Hachiko's story has gained renewed prominence. Kimura says, "People are paying attention again. Hachiko is a good model, physically and mentally, if you want to breed to the Akita standard."

Beyond the straight facts, Akita breeders emphasize that Hachiko's story has subtle, emotional resonance. Fukumi says this story should also be re-examined by non-fanciers. She complains that Hachiko's image has become commercialized, losing its real meaning. "There are Hachiko cookies, Hachiko toys, Hachiko beer. That may be why some people go to Shibuya station today, but to me what's important it that he was a beautiful dog, a clever dog, a loyal dog."