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Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 151-154 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Each Friday evening during the first decade of this century, Japanese children of all ages eagerly looked forward to the TV comedy Omoshiroi petto shō (Fun pet show), featuring a frisky but clumsy yellow Labrador retriever, Masao-kun, and his antic handler, Matsumoto Hideki, who foraged the streets of suburban and rural Japan for female canine companionship but ended up finding more culinary treats than romance. In June 2012 Shōchiku Studios released a movie, Masao-kun ga iku! (Go Masao!), starring the singer Katori Shingo from the band SMAP as Matsumoto, based on a favorite segment of the original television series. The TV show was also known as Petto daishūgō! Pochitama (Big pet gathering! Pochitama), and as readers of Aaron Herald Skabelund’s Empire of Dogs will discover, a dog called Pochi (Pooch) was celebrated in a song popularized by the Ministry of Education as long ago as 1911 (p. 146). Although not mentioned in the book, this hilarious television series and its film iteration illustrate one of Skabelund’s key points: “the symbolic deployment of nonhuman animals is closely connected to their actual interactions with humans. . . . dogs have some degree of culture that intertwines with, and to some extent, reflects human societies with whom they associate” (p. 196).

Relying heavily on woodblock prints, photographs, taxidermic objects, and other visual evidence, Skabelund boldly distinguishes at the outset between “colonial dogs” accompanying Western residents of Japan in the Meiji era and local street dogs, “semiferal animals who formed small groups and claimed particular urban neighborhoods and villages as their territory” (p. 19). Both native and newcomer agreed that colonial dogs were faithful, peaceful, and brave, qualities associated with imperial power. In contrast, the most domesticated Japanese canine at the time was the chin (Spaniel), a toy dog that, like Japan itself, suggested femininity and decadence to Westerners. Street dogs were often regarded as “easily agitated, aggressive, but cowardly” (p. 40). The author delves deeply into Westerners’ imperialist outlooks on Japan and Asia in the nineteenth century as revealed in their attitudes toward dogs, and he points out that many high-born Japanese adopted the views of the imperialists on dogs and, to a degree, on Japan itself. The Meiji state gradually extended its surveillance over subjects and their dogs, partly to control rabies. Dogs were to be licensed and tagged; dogcatchers were permitted to exterminate any unregistered dog. Dog taxes were imposed in the mid-1890s to encourage people who could not pay the fee to hand over their dogs to the pound, making dog ownership mainly a perquisite of the rich.

Chapter 3, “Fascism’s Furry Friends,” retells the familiar story of Hachikō (1923–35), the “loyal” dog who is said to have waited almost daily for ten years outside Tokyo’s Shibuya Station for his deceased master to return home from work. (Skabelund notes that the novelistLoka Shōhei wondered if Hachikō may instead have hung around the station waiting for food.) In a statue erected after Hachikō’s death, preserved in taxidermy at the National Museum of Science, and in story, film, song, and textbook, “dog enthusiasts and government bureaucrats cast the dog as an exemplar of what they defined as the country’s and empire’s canine ideal: Japanese in character, pure in blood, loyal to a single master, and a fearless fighter” (pp. 88–89). Continuing such anthropomorphizing, “Japanese” dog breeds now became colonial subjects, no longer objects, so that the large hunting Akita came to symbolize loyalty and “completely eclipsed the lapdog chin as the representative canine of Japan” (p. 91). Partly through the efforts of Saitō Hirokichi (1900–1964) and the Nihonken Hozonkai (Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog, est. 1928), the Ministry of Education recognized seven wolflike hunting breeds as living national treasures, conferring state sanction as “Japanese” dogs (p. 99) that displayed courage, calm, fidelity, and boldness. Purity of blood became a prime concern; the “Japanese” dogs outranked even Western purebreds. Both Hachikō and the favored “Japanese” breeds became targets of commercial exploitation as well as patriotic encomia starting in the 1930s. Although some animal rights activists and dog lovers “criticized the projection of human motivations onto Hachik...



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