Canine Imperialism

The “Loyal Dog” Hachikō in 1934

by Aaron Herald Skabelund

On the morning of 21 May 1925, a dog known as Hachikō walked with his master to a Tokyo railway station just as they had done each weekday morning for over a year since he had been adopted as a two-month-old puppy. That day his master, felled by a lethal stroke while at work, did not return. For the next decade, Hachikō frequented the environs of the station. In 1932, thanks to the efforts of an enterprising promoter of indigenous Japanese dogs, a national daily newspaper prominently featured a story about Hachikō, claiming that his presence at the station represented a vain wait for the return of his master. The article and subsequent media coverage led to a huge celebration of Hachikō’s purported loyalty. Two years later, while the dog was still very much alive, education officials included a story about him in an official primary school textbook, which became required reading for students throughout the Japanese empire. That same year, in 1934, a coalition of dog enthusiasts, government officials, and local businessmen unveiled a life-size statue of Hachikō just outside the station, near where one still stands today. The dog, who became known as the “Loyal Dog” (Chūken) Hachikō, is famous to this day within and beyond Japan.

Hachikō vainly waiting for his master’s return,“day in and day out,” outside of Tokyo’s Shibuya Station, 1934

Many dog fans and people knowledgeable about Japan are likely familiar with this story. In many ways, it is not a unique tale. History is replete with stories of dogs who have been celebrated for their apparent fidelity. Such tales can provide a window on the history and cultural milieu that gave birth to these dogs and their stories. The story of Hachikō is revealing because he contributed, albeit unwittingly, to Japanese nationalism and imperial fascism in the 1930s. His story is but one example of how dogs, both real and some completely imagined, teamed with humans to construct imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how, in turn, imperialism shaped the world of dog breeding and dog keeping as we know it today. More specifically, Hachikō, as an actual dog and as a canine symbol, illustrates an extraordinary transformation of indigenous dogs in Japan that paralleled the country’s dramatic shift from an object of Western imperialism during the second half of the nineteenth century to that of an imperial power by the 1930s. For several decades after Western imperial powers forced unequal treaties on Japan in the 1850s, the country endured a period of semicolonization and was in danger of its sovereignty being even further compromised, like its neighbor China, or being outright colonized, as was the case for much of the rest of Asia and Africa. Instead, Japanese leaders embarked on a revolutionary program of institutional change, industrial development, and military strengthening that enabled their country to avoid a national disaster. Fearful that its Asian neighbors, especially Korea and China, would completely fall under the control of the Western powers, and ambitious for parity with them, Japan consolidated its borders and launched several minor imperialistic forays, before engaging in two full-blown wars that netted two colonies by the early twentieth century. In just over a generation, Japan had emerged from strategic isolation to become a major regional geopolitical force.

As the story of Hachikō highlights, Japan’s tremendous geopolitical and economic rise from the mid-nineteenth century was mirrored by a dramatic transformation of its canine population. As in other imperial contexts, indigenous canines were disparaged as vicious and cowardly creatures by Western observers as well as by many Japanese during the decades of semicolonization, and in many cases they were physically eliminated. During those same years, purebred Western breeds achieved tremendous popularity and widespread acceptance in Japan, surpassing what other imperial areas experienced. Perhaps because Japan was able to avoid becoming a de jure colony like India or the extended semicolonial humiliation of China, its people were able to adapt certain Western cultural forms, such as dog keeping, on their own terms, and surely such adaptability helped Japan escape the fate of almost all of the non-Western world. And, in turn, such adaptations helped Japan meet the threat of Western imperialism. As Japan became a major imperial power in its own right during the early twentieth century, its once ridiculed indigenous dogs became recognized nationalized icons—like Hachikō—venerated for their supposed loyalty, purity of breed, bravery, and valued as legitimate codified breeds and prized household pets by the 1930s.

Hachikō is just one of many dogs who shaped and reflected the imperial world.  Because of their capacity to form strong social attachments with humans, tendency to cross boundaries between domestication and wildness, and frequent role as brokers in human interactions, canines are creatures of tremendous practical and malleable symbolic power.  Empire of Dogs is a transnational history spanning from the mid-nineteenth century when Western dog breeds and new modes of dogkeeping arrived on the Japanese archipelago and in other colonized and colonizable areas of the globe together with imperialism until those breeds and practices became widely adopted throughout much of the world by the second half of the twentieth century.  Through this study, I provide a glimpse of the past and present distinct from the usual purview of historians by exploring what this narrative reveals about the configuration of interactions among humans, animals, social structures, and the ideas people have used to describe these relationships.

Empire of Dogs is divided into five chapters.  The first examines “The Colonial and Native Dog.”  These terms serve conveniently to designate both a constellation of specific dog breeds and a dynamic of actual and symbolic violence that helped enable Euro-American (and later Japanese) imperial dominion.  The rhetorical pairing of “colonial” dogs of Western breed with dogs living in peripheral regions from the mid-nineteenth century, often derogatorily called “native” or “pariah” dogs, is central to its analysis.  Westerners and local elites frequently compared the two groups of canines using the rhetoric of civilization and scientific racism.

A woodblock print of a Western silk merchant, backed up by his dog, giving orders to a Japanese worker in the treaty port of Yokohama, 1862

Another chapter, entitled “Civilizing Canines; or Domesticating and Destroying Dogs”, shows how in Japan and many other places in the late nineteenth century, government authorities initiated campaigns to eliminate or regulate canines, whether street, feral, and wild dogs, or wolves, often on the pretext of combating rabies, protecting domestic farm and game animals, and bringing “civilized” systems of hygiene to the streets and countryside.  Government efforts at canine control had the intent, and often the result, of disciplining the human social order.  Certain dogs, particularly native ones, were seen as unruly and uncontrollable, just like certain classes and groups of people, who often lived in the same areas as the canines that the authorities pronounced threatening. 

A cartoon by a French expatriate satirist of a Japanese policemen trying to catch a street dog in Tokyo, 1888

Later, in the 1930s, came the intersection of  the “Loyal Dog” Hachikō, the Creation of the “Japanese” Dog”, and Facism: The Ministry of Education and the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog combined forces to preserve and promote so-called “Japanese” dogs.  Public and private spokespersons used the language of fascism to transform native dogs, who had long been despised as disorderly, savage, and wolflike, into icons of purity, loyalty, and vigor.  The chapter examines the ways in which the valorization of native dogs, much as in Germany, took advantage of rising nationalistic sentiments, an urban bourgeois longing for the countryside, and anxieties about the infusion of foreign blood.  The sentimental tale of Hachikō, frames the chapter’s analysis.

Just as young people were encouraged to emulate Hachikō’s unfailing devotion to his master, canines such as army, police, and guard dogs—both actual and fictional—were deployed to persuade subjects to serve their supreme master, the emperor, during Japan’s fifteen-year Asia-Pacific War. Stories celebrating military dogs often appeared in textbooks and children’s literature, while one of the most popular cartoons of the 1930s told of Norakuro, who with his fellow dogs battled other animals representing Japan’s enemies.  As in Germany, the United States, and other countries, the metaphorical militarization of dogs may have surpassed their tactical value. 

Norakuro launching an attack of the Regiment of Fierce Dogs on the January 1938 cover of a special New Year’s supplement to the monthly boys’ magazine Shōnen Kurabu

The final chapter, “A Dog’s World: The Commodification of Contemporary Dogkeeping,” examines the development of widespread dog ownership during the second half of the twentieth century in Japan and elsewhere.  Like the possession of other consumer goods, the keeping of a dog became a symbol of the cultured middle-class life.  Discourses about dogs and dogkeeping illuminate the social and cultural landscape, revealing some of the subtleties of class formation, cultural capital, and consumption that characterize today’s world. 

As a whole, Empire of Dogs demonstrates how animals generally and canines specifically have contributed to the making of the modern imperial world, and how certain dogs, such as Hachikō, have subtly influenced how that history is told.  Dogs acted as agents of empire, whether through their actual behavior or through their symbolic deployment. Many canines who accompanied human imperializing agents around the world were highly trained as military, police, and guard dogs to perform in ways that would bolster imperial rule. Because dogs are highly intelligent and physically and emotionally much more connected to their keepers, they often reinforced (and sometimes undermined) imperial dominion. At the same time, the malleable metaphoric power of dogs, which was linked always in some way to their concrete actions, was mobilized especially by those with power and wealth, to define, regulate, and enforce political and social boundaries between themselves and other members of their own species. Because canines have lived everywhere, among all groups of people, they have provided a powerful (if generally unnoticed) way to regulate human society, particularly in the imperial world, where notions of social, racial, and Darwinian species hierarchy became central to the ideological mechanisms of imperial control, both at home and abroad.

About the Author:

Aaron Skabelund is Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University.