As much as piebalds and pintos are reviled in the various Nihon ken breed standards, this coat pattern has been around for quite some time as a visibly marked, figurated (not necessarily figurative) type of dog within Japanese society — that is, a dog of a fixed, expected form. Breed purity mattered naught at the time that the pictures below were sketched in the late 19th century, featuring life during Tokugawa Japan. Rather, the piebald dog appears to be an index of lower class society in Japanese popular imagination.
Click any of the pictures below to enlarge. Unfortunately, I suck at reading brush script, so I couldn’t make out the artists on most of these. If anyone has more information, feel free to drop a comment.
This first spread is a pretty good example of how the piebald dog gets categorized alongside other denizens of the streets — including the street walker (夜鷹, upper right-hand corner), the racketeer (ごろつき), blind masseuse (按摩, enjoying a bowl of noodles top and center), and various snack and meal vendors catering to those who live on the go and eat at odd hours. The piebald dog here accompanies a hunch-backed oden seller (おでんや), weary and frail as if crushed by a lifetime spent beneath his yoke. I’d like to think his dog not only accompanies him, but protects him from the dangers that apparently lurk everywhere for a man who earns his living amongst miscreants.
This second downcast dog with angular hips and a desperate countenance, on the other hand, appears bereft of human companionship. He lingers outside of a fox shrine during the Inari matsuri, looking forlorn and conspicuously isolated in the foreground against the bubble-headed children and festival hubbub.
That exact same dog, almost as if cut-and-pasted (or perhaps sketched by the same artist), shows up in several other street scenes of Tokugawa era life. I didn’t include every replication… Similarly scrawny dogs are often inserted into busy street tableaux and placed on the outskirts of temple scenes, as if to balance out the composition, providing another set of eyes to gaze and reflect upon the scene.
Even with eyes closed, the dog can provide another perspective and additional “color” to a scene. I’m not entirely sure how to regard this archery hall staffed by some rather suspicious women in loose-fitting clothing, milling about this riverside rest stop. However, the mere presence of the sleepy mutt, curled up at the corner of the building, invites interpretation and signals that this is not what you might think of as an elite kyudo dojo.
But indeed, not every piebald or spotted dog can or should be read the same way. Associated with people in the street, the piebald dog seems more frequently to indicate lower class, unstable, or itinerant figures, as in the case of this monk (or a female nun?) in this two-paneled spread on “The Vicissitudes of Middle-Aged Ladies in the Tokugawa Ooku,” the inner chambers of the Tokugawa shogunate where all the palace ladies and concubines resided. I don’t know if this panel is referring to some specific episode of intrigue. My interpretation of this scene is influenced by stories of corrupt Chinese monks who exploited their access to women’s quarters to curry favors with the ruling elite. Thus, religious monkhood should never be taken as merely a position of transcendent asceticism, but rather, a kind of political power with the potential for both sageliness and hypocrisy. Perhaps the dog also indicates that two-facedness in this context?
At any rate, I’m intrigued by the pairing of the monk’s mutt with the woman’s toy dog, on the right. Or is it a cat? Whether piebald Chin or feline (I’m thinking the latter), he clearly occupies a different symbolic status as he helps disrobe his mistress in this titillating boudoir scene.
What impresses me from this small sample is that the piebald street dog appears to have just as much claim to Japanese “tradition” as the elite pedigrees of Nihon ken “proper”. It’s a wrench to throw into the standard breed histories, anyway. No matter what the breed standards say or how THE six native Nihon ken would become enshrined as exclusive national treasures in the 20th century, there were always other types of Japanese dogs at the margins of society who manage to slip through the cracks by being difficult to classify.