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  • Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World by Aaron Herald Skabelund
  • Elmer Veldkamp
Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World. By Aaron Herald Skabelund. Cornell University Press, 2011. 296pages. Hardcover $39.95.

In Empire of Dogs, an investigation of the history of dogs in imperial Japan, Aaron Skabelund sets out to “highlight the concrete uses of dogs, to talk about actual dogs, and to show how their actions were related to their metaphorical deployment in discussions about nation, race, class, and gender in the imperial and postcolonial world” (p. 17). He demonstrates that Japan’s development from a semicolonized state during the 1850s to a colonizing empire in the early twentieth century is reflected in the [End Page 316] treatment and status of dogs. Skabelund draws attention to the fact that “dogs and imperialism were inextricably intertwined and mutually sustaining” in a relationship that he calls “canine imperialism” (p. 3). He goes on to state that “dog keeping and certain social, and especially imperial, relationships are analogous” (p. 7). This assertion is backed up by the author’s discussion, for example, of similarities between Japanese imperial vocabulary and “dog talk” (i.e., discourses on what are preferable traits for a Japanese dog), both of which attach central importance to terms such as race, civilization, and loyalty. This is shown, for example, in the analogy of citizens’ loyalty to the emperor versus a dog’s loyalty to its owner.

Despite the anthropocentricity of some of these discussions, the author is deeply concerned with the extent to which we can ascribe agency and voice to the barks of our nonhuman companions and, in so doing, write an “animal history” that is authentic (p. 14). In order to limit what might be criticized as disembodied fantasies about dogs, therefore, Skabelund focuses on traces of corporality, on animals from the past that survive into the present through modern technologies such as photography and taxidermy. He uses this imagery to demonstrate how individual dogs and specific dog breeds acquired enduring figurative power based on their actual interactions with humans. The result is an interesting and generally successful thought experiment organized into an introduction followed by five main chapters—the first four tracing the history of dogs and empire in Japan from around 1850 to 1945 and the last taking a relatively brief look at the remnants of imperialism in approaches to dogs in the post-1945 era.

In chapter 1, the author illustrates how the opening of Japan to foreigners—and their canine companions—around the 1850s caused Western and indigenous dogs to be viewed as opposites in many ways. Where the first were perceived by Westerners as civilized and noble, the second earned a reputation for being barbaric, dimwitted, and unruly. There is in these characterizations a striking resemblance to the human hierarchy expressed by foreigners visiting Japan in those days. Terminology inspired by scientific racism positioned Western dogs as “purebred,” while local dogs were characterized as “mongrels” (p. 47). Skabelund argues that the Japanese dog in the late nineteenth century was still a creature that few deemed worthy of attention, something that would soon start to change.

The next chapter traces the further development of this divide between civilized Western dogs and unruly native dogs. Campaigns and regulations set up to control rabies in the second half of the nineteenth century in fact resulted in the mass slaughter of native dogs. Moreover, unruly native dogs came to be associated with disadvantaged social groups, and Skabelund analyzes how these campaigns were also very much an effort to regulate the human social order.

Increasingly, national pride caused by anxiety over international relations came to be projected onto canines and prompted a reconsideration of the value of Japanese breeds, which were recast as “nationalist” dogs. The transition is apparent from a dispute that arose over designs for the bronze statue of Saigō Takamori that stands [End Page 317] in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. In the original design, the “floppiness” of the ears of the little dog portrayed alongside Takamori was considered to be a foreign element, and the final version of the...


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