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I got to thinking about ears and pricked ears after reading one of Aaron Skabelund’s fascinating articles, “Fascism’s Furry Friends: Dogs, National Identity, and Purity of Blood in 1930s Japan” in The Culture of Japanese Fascism, edited by Alan Tansman (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009, 155-182).

Saito Hirokichi, founder of the Nihon Ken Hozonkai (Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog, aka Nippo), had a lot at stake in laying the foundations for the future of the Japanese breeds. While he wasn’t fabricating the standard entirely from scratch, there were a few characteristics that he was adamant about inscribing into modern foundations. In a 1937 radio address aired by Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK), Saito laid out both physical and temperamental characteristics that his preservation society sought to fix in Japanese breeds. “The various traits of the Japanese nation — difficulty in getting used to anyone outside its master’s family, being intelligent but not adept in expressing emotions compared to Western dogs, diffidence and stubbornness, and extreme courage — have been ingrained into the personality of Japanese dogs” (Saito in Skabelund, 164), he broadcast to his listeners, unabashedly generalizing essential notions of his country to a temperament he preferred to see manifest in its dogs. Also, “All ‘Japanese’ canines […] had to have ‘small, triangular ears that stand erect’ and a ‘large and powerful curled tail'” (171). How else, for example, could you differentiate a native Japanese breed from the similar-looking Jindo or Pungsan dogs on the Korean peninsula?

Hachiko on the inside page of a 1934 storybook (photo from Wikipedia)

Where then does this place poor Hachiko, or rather, “Loyal Dog Hachiko” (Chūken Hachikō 忠犬ハチ公) as he is popularly known in Japan? The entire lore of his unflagging fidelity to his dead master has become a permanent fixture to his name, like the bark of a tree that grows around a nail driven into its trunk. As eager as Saito and others were to enfold Hachiko’s touching story into the standard of Nihon ken, they also had to defend his breed “purity” given that his physical characteristics fell short of what the preservation society aimed to standardize. They insisted that his physical imperfections — his drooping left ear and his slumped tail — were a result of long-term disease, and not from questionable bloodlines adulterated by foreign dogs.

Hachiko, Silent Guardian
Photo by madd0g11. Hachiko statue at Shibuya station.

I’m not interested in whether or not Saito was correct in his assessment of Hachiko’s genetic purity. What I think is more interesting is the fact that these cosmetic details have been insistently covered up, aestheticized, and “corrected,” time and time again. While the final rendition of Hachiko in bronze statuary, sculpted by Andō Shō, retains the detail of the drooping left ear (much to the chagrin of Saito and crew, who had no time to commission a more idealized model before the statue was cast), the taxidermied body of Hachiko now on display at the National Science Museum of Japan was stuffed with both ears erect, and tail elegantly curled.

Hachiko, taxidermied and displayed at the National Science Museum of Japan (photo from Wikipedia)

And this is to say nothing of Hachiko’s appearance in recent filmic adaptations, where his coat color isn’t even white anymore, but rather, the signature red of a Japanese Akita!

What is lost in these anatomical interpretations?

To me, the drooping ear is an emblem of the years of hardship that Hachiko suffered on the streets. He did not turn his back on any happy home to keep the flame alive for his dead master. The fact is that there was no other home for him to go to. All parties involved were more interested in maintaining the myth of the downtrodden wanderer who had nothing else other than the memory of his master; his impoverishment only heightened the tragic poignancy of the story, and that’s why it had to be maintained. The pedagogical value of Hachiko’s story did not have to be steered towards imperialistically-tinged notions of unerring devotion towards a singular, grand master. It could have been a lesson in humane charity, in animal welfare, in collective social responsibilities towards homeless pets, or really, any needy living creature. But the fact that any alternative interpretations were drowned out by the dominant ideology of loyalty and national unity in a time of heightened militarism is represented by that single, falsely pricked ear.

At the end of this all, I’m not denying that Hachiko’s story is truly moving, and taps into some universal desire to express and anthropomorphise the human-canine bond. But every time I read or see another version of the story, I can’t help but be reminded about how it is fiction, and just how particularly the “facts” have been plotted, amplified, muted, reconfigured, and calibrated to achieve very pointed emotional effects. And these fictions are never mere fiction; they are powerful, compelling, and enduring. Yet, even the inauthentic details that comprise these fictions can be given historical specificity. The story has been told a certain way for some reason(s), and that is just as interesting to me as the story itself.

Skabelund’s article goes into much greater detail on how “The nationalization of an everyday animal, purported to possess an ancient and intimate relationship with native place and people, served to bolster and to emotionalize allegiance to the nation-state” (157), and how it is not entirely spurious to link Japanese dog breed enthusiasts’ efforts at establishing a “pure, indigenous cultural [canine] aesthetic” (158) with roughly contemporaneous German efforts to do the same. Lest you be immediately turned off by Skabelund’s labeling of both practices as Fascist in spirit, let me assure you that he is fully aware of the difficulties in slotting any prescribed definitions of Fascist practice onto another country with its own historical developments. The angle of his analysis comes out of the demands of the anthology, which are explained in greater detail for anyone who wants to read it for themselves. And I highly recommend doing so.

ETA: Hachiko was in the news just recently, as University of Tokyo researchers announced the reason for his cause of death. “They say Hachiko died of cancer and worms, not because he swallowed a chicken skewer that ruptured his stomach – as legend had had it.” The chicken skewer theory was actually loudly contested at the time of its emergence, particularly by Saito who could not accept such an ignoble death and insisted that disease was what eventually felled the great Hachiko. So he was right all along, and though he’d only seen Hachiko once, he was able to spot his decrepit condition, yet did nothing to help prevent or alleviate the diseases festering within. So it was still an ignoble death, after all. Would Hachiko have been infested with worms if he had been in a clean, safe home? Who knows…

Edit 10 February 2012: Columnist Robb Fritz retold the Hachiko story rather succinctly for McSweeney’s in a column entitled, “Wait for Me.”