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Empire of Dogs, front cover

Skabelund, Aaron Herald. Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Professor Skabelund’s first book-length publication is driven by the inherent appeal of its subject: the domestic dog. As an academic history of Japanese canines and the canine in Japan, the presentation is fresh, unconventional, meticulously documented, vividly illustrated, and intellectually rewarding.

The stakes are laid out masterfully in the opening gambit on “Canine Imperialism,” reiterating questions Skabelund asked earlier in his 2005 article, “Can the Subaltern Bark?”1 Skabelund answers his own riff off Gayatri Spivak’s famous query by commiting to uncover a history of that which has never had and will never have the opportunity to write itself. Without affectation, he muses on the methodological difficulties in conducting a dog-centric history, which has forced him to dispense with certain tricks of the trade (no oral history, for starters!) and read against the grain of widely dispersed archives. Because the ancient and organic human-canine partnership involves so many areas of cultural and historical activity, there is no shortage of materials when one begins to look. Skabelund narrows his focus to the deployment of dogs as both a physical and metaphorical weapon of power in imperial imaginations, nationalistic discourse, military battlefields, and practices of [mostly economic] consumption.

The chapters build intuitively upon each other. Skabelund advances quickly from the theoretical opening to concrete examples, beginning with the parallel trajectories of Western dogs, who had accompanied Europeans on the Japanese archipelago in the 19th century, and their uneasy cohabitation with the native Japanese populace, both human and canine. Skabelund takes a geographic detour to revisit the history of purebred dogs and related institutions in Victorian England, drawing on work spearheaded by Harriet Ritvo, amongst others. What he finds is that Europeans in colonial lands readily transferred their purebred tyranny onto the native population, imposing gross generalizations drawn from observations of their refined hounds compared to local mongrels.

The colonial dog and its native foil became reference points for demonstrating the supposed civility of the Western colonizer and the savagery of the colonized. Observers contended that Western breeds were calm, peaceful, and brave animals, whereas native dogs were easily agitated, aggressive, but cowardly. They regarded the colonial dog as a loyal and trusted companion when compared to the native dog, which was said to be devious and to dislike ‘civilized’ foreigners. In this way, colonial dogs were portrayed as culturally, if not intellectually, enlightened, and native dogs as backward and old-fashioned. (40)

Reaching far beyond the boundaries of Japan, the evidence presents a damningly pervasive superiority complex from colonialists all over the world from Japan, Korea, China, to India. That these attitudes of old are not surprising to us now is part of the point; the tropes of “colonial dog” versus the “native dog” became stable epistemes through which acts of violence and oppression were historically legitimized.

This rhetoric of violence towards externalized Others could also be internalized as a mode of national self-disciplining. These supposedly negative traits of recalcitrance, opposition to foreigners (i.e., “the civilized”), and ferocity would be reinvented as positive traits of native dogs in the 20th century, as Japan rose amongst its modern imperialist peers. With the creation of the Nihon ken, the Japanese breeds, such accusations were recast as innate advantages: independence, a bold “primitivism,” courage, bravery, fidelity. The most prominent canine symbol of this new discourse of (national) loyalty is, of course, Chūken Hachikō, whose story has been retold numerous times, attaining a mythical grandeur that sustains this decrepit old Akita as one of the most compelling expressions of the loyal dog archetype to this day.2

Despite the sentimental twinge of Hachiko’s story, its moral velocity easily propels one onto the battlefields, where such vaunted character traits as bravery and perseverance are often on display. In the climactic chapter “Dogs of War,” Skabelund depicts a vivid and memorable account of how children and their pets were mobilized for militaristic ends. Revived from the archives is the story of Kongo, Nachi, and Meri, three German Shepherds who were “martyred” and praised as war heroes who fought for the Japanese in Manchuria. Their story slightly preceded Hachiko’s in chronology, and was fed through the same ideological apparatuses of mass media, children’s ethics primers, and even commemorative statuary, and thus were just as well known at the time. Yet, their legacy faded into obscurity, while Hachiko’s endured. Skabelund addresses the different cases in replete detail.

This chapter is especially resonant given my recent viewing of The Day the Dogs Disappeared, a drama which aired this past year on Nippon TV. I don’t believe Skabelund had access to this film at the time of his writing and research. But for all I know, the producers were already drawing inspiration from Skabelund’s research, since Empire of Dogs was initially published in Japanese before the English-language version.3 What this chapter makes clear is that the confluence of children and animals, which pet lovers commonly regard as a natural affinity, can just as easily be manipulated for less innocent purposes.

screenshot from "The Day the Dogs Disappeared" - German Shepherd dogs being drafted into the Japanese army

The final chapter is a chronological leap into the postwar era. Though closest to contemporary concerns, it seemed less thorough and too broadly written in comparison to the preceding chapters. In barely 20 pages before the coda, Skabelund covers middle-class commodification of pets, the link between new forms of visual mass media and dogs, including figurations of dogs in film, television, and advertising, the rise of Japanese puppy mills and how this phenomenon was enabled by global commerce.

I gleaned a bit of fascinating trivia from this chapter. For example, in 1959, the Meiji Seika confectionary company ran a special lottery promoting their chocolate deluxe candy bar. If one was lucky enough to find a special dog sticker inside their wrapper, and then sent that sticker to the company, they would be entered into a lottery which would 500 winners with puppies (178-9). Willy Wonka, eat your heart out — talk about a brilliant marketing scheme that wouldn’t work today! One wonders if any sort of follow-up was conducted to track how that promotion played out once the excitement wore off… And in a haunting return of the colonial past, an international uproar over the plight of purebred dogs exported from British breeders to Japanese puppy mills became the focus of much diplomatic scrutiny in the 1960s. In light of contemporary journalistic frames vilifying Japan’s neighboring Asian countries for animal abuses, this historical example illuminates one way in which international pressure has motivated more ethical treatment of animals.

The fact that I have only retained scattered trivia from this chapter is reflective of its patchwork quality. From his selection and presentation of evidence, Skabelund may lean too much on prevailing conservative rhetoric that looks condescendingly at the current “canine frenzy” (189), fueled in large part by psychologically needy demographics of childless couples and single women who would rather pamper a tote-bag Chihuahua than invest in a human child — and, by extension, the future of society and the nation. Such scrutiny extracts a highly conspicuous iteration of the dog-human relationship, renders it quizzical, “excessive,” and counter-normative, at the risk of oversimplifying the true diversity of pet ownership within his examined population. For example, there is no attention given to modern-day hunters, the current activity of Japanese breed preservation members, or the efforts of animal welfare groups that often stand in moral opposition to the mass commercialization of animals and their objectification by government policy (recent efforts mobilized in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami come to mind). A scan of recent film productions also suggests that Japanese perceptions of dogs are expanding to accept them as service dogs, therapy dogs, and working dogs. However, the final chapter whittles down this range of possibilities to merely one focus — passive enslavement to kawaii (cute) culture — without fully interrogating just whom or what has accounted for this narrowed view.

Indeed, the small dogs that have come to be regarded [Ed.: notice the passive construction] as emblematic of postmodern, postindustrial Japan at the beginning of the twenty-first century are thoroughly unlike the wily native dogs that roamed the streets and fields in the nineteenth century. Nor do most of them resemble physically or figuratively ‘Japanese’ or military dogs, which represented the country and its people in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead, ironically, today’s tiny indoor dogs stand shoulder to shoulder with the chin, the pampered but fragile toy dog that was seen as the symbol of Japan a century and a half ago, where this book began. (191)

The book is forced to come full-circle, which leaves little room for Skabelund to draw many conclusions. In his coda, he gestures to meaningful connections with the rise of Korean national dogs, the Jindo, Poongsan, and Sapsaree, as well as the Israeli Canaan Dog. He mentions the looming specter of animal welfare issues that attend selective breeding for conformation over health to demonstrate that he is tapped into ongoing debates, though he does not explore in depth. As these fields of inquiry continue to unfold, perhaps they’re beyond the purview of a traditional historian.

For breed enthusiasts, I should mention that though all the Japanese breeds are mentioned at least once, with more sustained attention paid to the Japanese chin, Akita, the Ainu/Hokkaido Inu, and the Shiba Inu. Western breeds described in context include the German Shepherd and the mastiff type. These are not bounded breed histories. Instead, breeds intermingle and are mapped across dense contact zones, allowing more fruitful insights from the spatial commonality of their experiences.

Finally, it surprises me that Skabelund professes right at the outset to harbor “some ambiguity to [his] fondness for canines” (xi). I cannot help but to wonder if this is strategic distancing on the author’s part, as cynologists are infamously given short shrift within the academy for their focus on such (literally) “fluffy” subjects.4 There is a marked coldness to certain passages that I would ascribe to either the author’s purposeful detachment from the subject, if not professional code that does not permit such subjective intrusions. In this case, I kind of wish that Skabelund had personalized his conclusions and put more of himself into his writing, for the canine frequently rules the realm of emotion, as any “dog lover” would readily confess. For the most part, the connection between dogs and the affective history of humans is not explored, even when consulting fictional resources as dramatic and profound as Oe and Ozu. So this is by no means an exhaustive account. But it is a serious and highly enjoyable model that should provide great inspiration for future canine historians, military documentarians, as well as the general reader with an interest in questioning and exploring the nature of inter-species relationships.

1 Skabelund, “Can the Subaltern Bark? Imperialism, Civilization, and Canine Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Japan, JAPANimals: History and Culture in Japan’s Animal life, ed. Gregory Pflugfelder & Brett Walker (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, 2005) pp. 194-243.
2 Previously explored by Skabelund in “Fascism’s Furry Friends: Dogs, National Identity, and Purity of Blood in 1930s Japan” in The Culture of Japanese Fascism, ed. Alan Tansman (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009) pp. 155-182. I documented my reading with some thoughts here.
3 As アーロン·スキャブランド, Inu no teikoku : bakumatsu Nippon kara gendai made [犬の帝国 : 幕末ニッポンから現代まで], trans. Motohashi Tetsuya 本橋哲也 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten 岩波書店, 2009).
4 Social psychologist Karen Allen advised, “If you ever want to study this field, don’t do it if you don’t have tenure. Dooon’t even try it.” From her presentation, “Are Pets a Healthy Pleasure?” (at the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics 9th Annual Symposium: Dog + Human Co-Evolution, Made for Each Other?, 25 February 2011).