Tag Archives: historical

Dog Man

by Martha Sherrill

This book was recommended to me by more than one person I met at the dog park. As an Akita owner, it seemed like a must-read. Dog Man chronicles the life of Morie Sawataishi, who more or less single-handedly saved the breed from extinction in WWII-era Japan. Under the duress of wartime, the dogs were eaten for meat, and their fur used to line soldiers’ coats. It was illegal to own them, and all most all of Japan’s Akitas had been rounded up. The Akita had already been mixed with a few foreign breeds, such as Mastiffs and German Shepherds, to introduce greater size and strength when dog-fighting became popular in the years earlier. Then, when WWII broke out, some Akita owners deliberately mixed their dogs with German Shepherds, which were spared from the war effort because they were valued as service dogs.

I learned quite a bit more about the Akita breed, including how the split between Japanese and American Akitas came to be: Two particular dogs were born in postwar Japan who embodied the characteristics of two different bloodlines. One was from the city of Akita and the other from the city of Odate. There was something of a rivalry between the two areas to produce the best dogs. Kongo, from Odate, was a large, barrel-chested dog who had some traits that were associated with foreign dogs with which the Akita had been earlier bred. Goromaru, from Akita, was longer-legged, and not as stocky as Kongo. His face was rounder, as opposed to the longer, slightly more Shepherd-like face of Kongo. And where Kongo had loose skin, Goromaru’s was tight. It happened that Goromaru’s owner was a glamorous former actress, and as a result this dog was widely seen and admired across Japan. He came to the attention of U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after WWII, and they too liked what they saw. As a result, the Dewa line of Akitas which he represented were acquired and taken back to the United States. It also happened that the two Akitas that Helen Keller acquired were both from Kongo lines, which made these dogs all the more desirable to the Americans in Japan. This was the origin of the difference between the modern American and Japanese Akitas.

In Japan, these two champion dogs, so different in appearance, became the rallying cry for the standardization of the breed. It was the Ichinoseki line exemplified by Goromaru which was chosen to exemplify the original and true characteristics of the Japanese Akita. Morie was involved at this fundamental level, as an owner and breeder who showed his dogs in many competitions, winning more often than not. Dog Man is structured by the succession of dogs that Morie owned, each defining a portion of his life, while at the same time re-establishing the breed that he loved more than anything. In tandem with a few other men who owned Akita dogs, with whom he crossed his own, Morie sought to return the breed to its old snow-country origins. He saw that in the wake of the sudden, incredible demand for Akita dogs driven by American servicemen, puppy mills were springing up all over the country, and many of the people involved were only interested in making money, not in producing sound, healthy dogs with true characteristics of the breed.

Morie had ample opportunity to do the same, but amazingly, never accepted money for one of his dogs:

“Kitako [Morie’s wife] encouraged him to sell a few puppies now and again, even to simply offset the costs of his dog habit, but Morie resisted. Every time he tried to put a price on one of his dogs, he felt uneasy. He had only one litter a year, sometimes two, and he liked to see the puppies go off to people he knew and respected. He might repay a favor or a vague social debt by giving away a puppy, and he didn’t mind making an instant friend, either, but when he thought about selling a dog to a total stranger–or taking cash for a puppy–something inside him was revolted.”

Breeding was not easy, either, because at this point there was so much other blood in the Akita line:

“Every dog had an atmosphere of its own, and a look, and a balance of qualities as well as vulnerabilities and mannerisms that Morie found fascinating. Sometimes when he admired a dog’s strengths, he tried to imagine what would happen if it were bred with one of his own. People who’ve never done it tend to imagine dog breeding is simple. But Morie spent untold hours contemplating the possibilities–always hopeful and excited. Life was full of mystery and magic, and risks. Genetics most of all. If you put two dogs from the same established breed together, they would reproduce themselves almost perfectly. But if you put two Akitas together, the force of the unknown took over. Beneath the obvious traits of each Akita, there were dozens of hidden ones waiting to come to the surface.”

What was he looking for?

“‘I always wanted to breed confident dogs,’ he says. He looked for energy and endurance, a ruggedness and competitive spirit… a dog with a strong will, a vigorous dog with kisho.”

After winning many, many prizes in the show ring with various dogs, Morie decided to train one of his dogs, Samurai Tiger, to hunt. They began with duck hunting, and then rabbits and pheasants. Eventually, together with his mountain man friend Uesugi, Morie took Tiger bear hunting.

“Uesugi always said that when you stood face-to-face with a bear, it brought out the true nature of a dog and the true nature of a man.”

“Even though some of the old legends about Akitas describe them hunting in pairs, Morie never hunted with more than one dog. He found that his dogs tended to compete for game and fights started. There were other displays of dominance, too, which were distracting and simply a waste of time.”

On that first hunt, they got a bear. “After they’d hauled the bear out of the hole, Uesugi gave Samurai Tiger some of its blood to lap up. ‘That did something powerful to him,’ Morie says of the dog. ‘ After that, it was as if he’d follow that scent to the ends of the earth to taste it again.’”

Eventually, Morie and Samurai Tiger would kill 11 bears together. By 1975, Morie had been breeding Akitas for 45 years, but would still get anxious when a new litter was ready to be born. “There was always the chance that another Samurai Tiger might appear. ‘They say you get only one dog like him in your lifetime,’ Morie says, ‘but I thought if I lived long enough, I might get two, and prove that saying wrong.’”

And by this time, the Akita breed characteristics had become firmly established:

“Since the 1980s, the dog world of the north had begun to favor an Akita with a slightly different look–longer and thinner legs, a more foxlike snout and triangular eyes–but by the early 1990s, this style of dog prevailed as the new standard in Japan. It had been a long, slow struggle since the end of World War II, when the dog men of the snow country had simply hoped to produce litters of puppies with erect ears and curling tails. Now the days of the hodgepodge dogs were over. The stout bodies, bear-shaped heads, and shepherd faces were gone, too. The traces of cross-breeding with Western dogs in the early part of the century had been erased. And when two of these Japanese Akitas were bred, there weren’t surprises–but perfectly uniform litters of dogs so similar it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.

The result was a smaller, more finely featured Akita than those in America and elsewhere. That didn’t bother the snow country breeders. Since the Akita was their native dog, they felt they were allowed to set trends, rather than follow them. But it was this, along with a desire to resist being influenced by the international market, that led the Japan Kennel Club in 1996 to begin refusing to recognize Akitas from other countries, creating a split that has still not been reconciled. To many breeders and Akita clubs worldwide there are two distinct breeds, and ‘American’ Akita and a Japanese one, something the American Kennel Club has not yet recognized.”

But, despite the fact that Morie had contributed greatly to the preservation of the Akita dog, he felt that something in them had changed:

“Slowly over the years as Japan became tamer and richer, he says, the Akitas changed too. Their faces are delicate and sweet. Their eyes are sensuous. Their mouths seem to curl up in a perpetual smile. They are cute dogs, happy dogs, pets… He’d helped to preserve the Akita breed–the flesh and bones of the traditional snow country dog. But what about its heart and soul, its nature? The essence of the Akita–its unique spirit and ruggedness–now seemed unsuitable for the modern world…‘I worry that the dogs are losing their core aggressiveness and sharpness, their shrewdness,’ Morie says. ‘Having kisho means a fighting spirit. And I think it’s a fighting spirit that has allowed the Akita to survive for centuries. But people want dogs to be useful to them, and so their traits are always desirable in relation to man, and what man wants from a dog.’ … When you rescued an animal from extinction, what was the most important thing to save, the body or the spirit?”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

I’ve not read any Proust at all…this book makes me want to. Proust certainly seems to agree with many of my sensibilities, chief among them the dictum ‘eat, drink, and be merry’:

“The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Art, not unexpectedly, plays a leading role:

“Why does Proust privilege the connection between ourselves and works of art, as much in his novel as in his museum habits?

One answer is because it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life, and that there are a stream of extraordinary benefits attached to what might be termed the Marquis de Lau phenomenon (MLP), attached to the possibility of recognizing Kate in a portrait of Albertine, Philip in a description of Saniette, and more generally, ourselves in badly printed volumes purchased in train stations.”


“Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.”

And de Botton’s take on what Proust felt was the reason we read:

“…he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what [the author] felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master must have felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.”

And so, de Botton explains after a description of the many who make a pilgrimage to Proust’s hometown, “it should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not to look at his world through our eyes.”

Category: biography | Tags: , ,


by Neil Stephenson

I bought the Baroque Cycle trilogy as they were published, but did not begin it until now… Somewhat daunting in length, this nevertheless was a pretty fast, enjoyable read. While I do like science fiction – and Snow Crash was my entry point to Stephenson’s work – I am not a particular fan of history, or of historical fiction. Still, he makes it easy. The characters are well drawn, and the physical environs vivid and palpable. Bringing historical figures such as Newton and Leibniz into the narrative only makes it that much more fun.

Science was in its nascence, and while we might think we’ve come a long way since then, it is well to remember that not all lines of inquiry are going to lead where we hope. Still, the goals seem familiar:

“…the trick of refining, from the base, dark, cold, essentially focal matter of which the World was made, the Philosophick Mercury–the pure living essence of God’s power and presence in the world–the key to the transmutation of metals, the attainment of immortal life and perfect wisdom.”

So too, some of the arguments:

“Here Daniel was a bit lost. ‘Fluxion seems to mean a flowing over time–so it makes perfect sense when you apply it the word to the position of a punt on a river, who is as a matter of fact, flowing over time. But now you seem to be applying it to the shape of a weed, which is not flowing–it’s just standing there sort of bent.’

‘But Daniel, the virtue of this approach is that it doesn’t matter what the actual physical situation is, a curve is ever a curve, and whatever you can do to the curve of a river you can do just as rightly to the curve of a weed–we are free from all that old nonsense now.’ Meaning the Aristotelean approach, in which such easy mixing of things with obviously different natures would be abhorrent. All that mattered henceforth, apparently, was what form they adopted when translated into the language of analysis. ‘Translating a thing into the analytical language is akin to what the alchemist does when he extracts, from some crude ore, a pure spirit, or virtue, or pneuma. The foeces–the gross external forms of things– which only mislead and confuse us–are cast off to reveal the underlying spirit. And when this is done we may learn that some things that are superficially different are, in their real nature, the same.’”

Which philosophical approach are we getting at here? Stephenson’s quoting of Galileo leaves little doubt:

“Philosophy is written in this immense book that stands ever open before our eyes (I speak of the Universe), but it cannot be read if one does not first learn the language and recognize the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without the means of which it is humanly impossible to understand a word; without these philosophy is confused wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

And later:

“Every assertion that Euclid, et al., made concerning geometry was backed up by a chain of logical proofs that could be followed all the way back to a few axioms that were obviously true, e.g., ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.’ The truths of geometry were necessary truths; the human mind could imagine a universe in which Daniel’s name was David, or in which Ipswich had been built on the other side of the Orwell, but geometry and math had to be true, there was no conceivable universe in which 2 + 3 was equal to 2 + 2.”

In one scene, the distinction between science and superstition is paired with a little joke about Asians not being good at math:

“This Mandarin seems to have no desire to refine his philosophikal position–to disentangle the worthy science of number theory from the base superstition of numerology–most unfortunate for him and the rest of his race.”

Stephenson wants to set the stage for the Enlightenment, and the role of science and reason in bringing that forth, as well as everything that has followed. Today it is information, or data, that has become the focus of the knowledge trades. At Trinity College in London, in 1672:

“And whereas the ’Change-men made common cause to buy shares in sailing-ships or joint stock companies, and traded Jamaica sugar for Spanish silver, these men were transacting diverse small conspiracies or trading snatches of courtly data.”

The story contains men of books, as well as men of action. They are to be contrasted, but their techniques are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

“And being an excellent commander, about to go into a real battle, he had the wit to bring along a few people who could actually get things done for him. It may seem hard for you to believe, but mark my word–whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

And unique men:

“No, even without lenses and parabolic mirrors, Newton and Hooke see things that you and I don’t. Leibniz is proposing a strange inversion of what we normally mean when we describe a man as distinguished, or unique. Normally when we say these things, we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity–to distinguish one thing from another more effectively than ordinary souls.”

I look forward to reading further about unique men in The Confusion.

Category: novel | Tags: , , ,