Love and four-legged loyalty

How a Japanese family in the cold mountains save the Akita from extinction

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Some years ago I traveled to a rural corner of Minnesota on a reporting trip. There, in the smallest, loneliest town I’d ever seen (population 216), I met a cheerful, grandmotherly lady willing to answer my questions as she bustled about her parish kitchen laying out a spread for a church social.

"Oh, I wasn’t born here,” she told me. “I’m from Florida.” During World War II, it turned out, she’d married a handsome young soldier she barely knew. He told her at the time that he was from Minnesota but that was nothing but a name to her. It was only after the war when they returned “home” to settle in his parents’ town that she fully grasped what it would mean to live in so cold and isolated a spot. “I cried for at least the first 14 years or so,” she told me laughing. “Now [40 years later] I'm used to it.”

Her cheerful heroism has stayed in my mind ever since. And she was certainly in my mind again as I read Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, a new work of nonfiction by former Washington Post staff writer Martha Sherrill. This is primarily a story about a man and his dogs (and that is an interesting tale in itself) but for my money, anyway, it’s the wife who is the true marvel. Without her and a similar kind of courageous adaptivity, this would be a very different story.

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The book begins, however, with Morie. Morie Sawataishi is a Japanese man born and bred in that nation’s snow country. He grew up there in the years before World War II when that district was even more isolated and ruggedly rural than it is today. As an adult he became an engineer with a promising future and could have worked anywhere in Japan that he chose. But all he wanted, after fighting in the war, was to get back to his mountains.

Morie didn’t stop to wonder whether the lonely north country would appeal to his young bride, Kitako. Kitako, Sherrill tells us, was “raised in Azabu, an elegant neighborhood of Tokyo where the millionaires live. She wasn’t a country girl. She was an Azabu Gyaru, or Azabu Girl – quite modern and sophisticated.” As for life in the snow country, in those first years, Kitako “detested the mountains.”

Certainly she thought of leaving – many times. But Kitako was born in the year of the dog. “Maybe that’s why she stayed, she says,” Sherrill writes. “A dog never tells you it’s staying, it just does.”

Which brings us to the dog part of the story. Morie never had a dog till the age of 30. Then, suddenly, one day in 1944 he discovered he had a longing for one.

It was a highly inopportune moment to think of acquiring a dog. The war was still on and the Japanese government was encouraging all Japanese to kill the national dog – the Akita – eat it, and then donate its thick double coat to a soldier who could use it in a jacket. In all of Japan, by 1945, there were only a dozen or so Akita left. The breed faced extinction. But one of those few remaining dogs belonged to Morie.

The cause of the Akita would become the passion of Morie’s life. He raised them, bred them, loved them, and refused to allow them to disappear. He didn’t want pets – he wanted strong, brave hunting dogs with plenty of kisho (ki means spirit, sho is personality or disposition.) For Morie it wasn’t just a devotion to dogs – it was about preserving the rugged mountain way of life that he feared might disappear in the new, softer Japan of the postwar years.

Sherrill tracks Morie, Kitako, their children, and, of course, their dogs (No Name, Three Good Lucks, Samurai Tiger, One Hundred Tigers, Victory, Happiness, to name just a few) over the course of decades. The story she tells is of a man’s stubborn devotion to an ideal. But it is also the story of a changing Japan and the evolution of a human being. While Morie makes refusing to change a point of pride, Kitako sees that change will be her only path to happiness. So she learns to embrace not only the dogs but the outdoor life that so absorbs her husband. By the book’s end, the couple (now in their 90s) still live in a remote rural area. But by now, Kitako is serene and even her children (who fled their severe father and the cold north as soon as they were old enough) have mostly returned and, along with their mother, extol the joys of rural life.

Dog lovers accustomed to seeing their animals as pets may cringe at some aspects of Morie’s story. And yet there is no mistaking the love here as well. The wife and children with whom Morie was unfailingly severe sometimes envied his dogs – because they saw a tenderness and joy in him he rarely expressed with human beings.

Morie is a man easier to admire than to like. And aspects of his story are hard to accept. But like Kitako, readers inclined to look for the good will find some surprising pleasures here.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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