The Akita Inu - History

Forever with you, Loyal till the end I Am the Akita

Akita Inu has a checkered history filled with drama and struggle. Only in the latter half of the 20th century the breed got the recognition it deserves.

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Historical background of the Akita Inu

In Japan, the Akita is a precious breed, deeply embedded in national consciousness and intertwined with national pride. Akita museums and Akita memorabilia abound throughout Japan, with pedigree certificates and dog registrations available to Akita owners. How did that happen? Let’s shed some light on Akita Inu’s glorious history.

The ancient forest hunter

The Akita Inu is the epitome of loyalty, courage and dignity. It’s a dog breed renowned for its role of family protectors, symbols of good health, happiness, and long life They trace their roots to the cold, snowy mountainous region of Akita in Japan, where they fought fang and claw to survive.

The ancestors of the Akita Inu, tamed by the native Japanese, have been used for hunting large game, protecting the families and royal people and in dog fighting. Crossbred with other dogs, they were brought back from the brink of extinction twice.

From an obscure mountain dog breed to the national symbol of Japan, Akita Inu has served loyally and faithfully as the representative of the wild nature put to the service of man. Toughness is hardcoded in Akita Inu’s DNA, and along with it the will to survive that’s been so integral to the Japanese survival throughout history.

Interaction with other dog breeds in Japan

Japan is home to several indigenous dog breeds, one of which is Akita Inu. All of these breeds stem from a long line of domesticated wolves, exhibiting strong territorial urges and sporting a sturdy build. Strong-headed, dominant and assertive, the Akita Inu is like a wolf in dog’s skin. In line with that, the Akita Inu is by no means a lapdog but a hunter fit for royalty.

The earliest known mentions of Akita Inu hail from the 1600s, when this breed did just that — accompanied the Japanese royalty during their hunts of fowl and large game, including bears. It would later become interbred with other dogs, both domestic and foreign, which created attractive hybrids. One notable example is its interbreeding with the Russian Karafuto, producing long-coat Akitas.

Early mentions

Painted scrolls hailing from the Heian and Kamakura periods between 9th and 14th century AD show hunting dogs that hold an uncanny resemblance to the Akita Inu. The ornamental markings and the hunting spirit of the Akita Inu seem to have made it the perfect breed for blood sports, extending to ritual hunts and dog fighting, especially when pure white.

By 14th century, the Akita Inu became a popular contestant when one Kamakura regent collected a tax in dogs, using them in elaborate dog fights. After feeding them with meat and dressing them in intricate clothing, up to 200 dogs were let loose in an arena, while the regent and dignitaries observed the bloodbath from the rooftops.

The forlorn breed

In 1687, Shogun Tsunayoshi declared that dogs are to be treated like people: anyone killing a dog will be executed for murder and dogs must be addressed by Oinusama (Mr. or Mrs. Dog). This had the unintended consequences of exploding the dog population, for which the Shogun ordered dog shelters, housing up to 50,000 dogs. Once the Shogun died, the funding trickled to a halt and the dogs were let loose to the streets.

During late 19th century, Akita Inu’s existence was again threatened when the Meiji-era government wanted to license dogs and ban dog fights. For the Akita Inu, this meant many owners no longer had any use for them, releasing them to the streets. Packs of roving dogs, sometimes with rabies but always desperate for food and affection, would bare their fangs and lunge at passersby. Even those who wanted to keep an Akita Inu might not have been able to afford the dog license, leading to many shed tears as the dogs were carted to and abandoned in rural areas.

Becoming a national monument

By 1912, the ban was relaxed and the Akita Inu was once again adopted by the Japanese. In 1920, Dr. Shosaburo Watase tried to restore the breed by snooping around the Akita prefecture for pristine specimens. He couldn’t find any but the dog breeders were inspired by his efforts, looking far and high to find an original Akita Inu.

In 1926, the Japanese government recognized the threat of importing foreign influences to the country and diluting the national homogeneity. The swell of national pride brought forth investment in national culture and monuments, which included Akita Inu.

This time around, the breed would be threatened by another problem: crossbreeding. The lack of dog fighting laws resulted in the revival of dog fighting, which led to rampant crossbreeding to produce the most resilient and aggressive dog breed imaginable. When domestic dog breeds could no longer cut it, Japanese dog breeders took advantage of booming maritime trade at the time.

However, at first no purebred Akita Inu could be found with dog breeders. They scoured the rural areas and three years later came up with 30 dogs that had the purest Akita Inu features. The national Akita Inu registry was created, with strict regulations on how to conserve Akita Inu, which resulted in the breed getting a national monument designation in 1931. Japan, a traditionally guarded and secluded nation, was slowly becoming more open to Western influences, which also meant more distinct dogs for Akita Inu to breed with. Prior to that, the Akita Inu had other native breeds, such as the Tosa Inu, to mix with, producing hybrids fit for use in dog fights. After opening itself to foreign influences, the Akita Inu got Bulldogs, Great Danes and Mastiffs as breeding partners.

Two notable Japanese Akita Inu strains were Matagi-Akita, a traditional hybrid, and Shin-Akita, which combined the courage and coiled tail of Akita Inu with Tosa’s stamina. There were also crosses with German Shepherd, such as Goma-Go, whelped around 1939. One of his progeny was Dewa-Go, considered one of the founders of the Akita breed. Whelped on February 1, 1941, Dewa-Go was a sesame-colored dog with distinct German Shephrd features and poise owned by Mr. Yozaburo, a notable dog breeder of the time.

On the other hand, Ichinoseki Goma-Go was whelped in Odate April 10, 1943, showing distinct Akita features, such as a tightly coiled tail and the appearance of whitish coat on legs, also known as urajiro. He was not considered a decent stud dog due to weak hips but eventually sired at least nine offspring.

Struggling through World War II

Between 1935 and 1942, there are scant records of Akita’s presence in dog shows in Japan. Akitas were on the verge of extinction during the war but afterwards the interest in restoring the breed was revived.

A massive famine and dire shortages of clothing led Akita Inu to the edge of extinction in Japan. Not just Akita Inus but other dogs and animals were killed for meat and fur or because the populace at large feared disease. Some Akita Inus were mixed with German Shepherds, surviving as military or guard dogs; the rest were let loose in mountains to wait for a better time.

American servicemen in particular took a liking to Akita Inus, preserving and exporting the particular Akita Inu cross with German Shepherds to the US. Today, most American Akitas show the same traits as these original dogs taken abroad. Much discussion was had over how to classify the two, with Japan  and the US both wanting the designation Akita to mean their lineage of dogs.

Helen Keller and Akita

Helen Keller was the first prominent Akita owner in the US. Having visited Japan in 1937, she was moved by Hachiko’s story and adopted a two-month-old Akita puppy, Kamikaze-Go. Sadly, it died at seven months old at Hellen’s Long Island estate.

Hellen asked for another Akita puppy but the growing tensions meant shouldn’t get one until 1939, when she got Kenzan-Go, Kamikaze-Go’s brother. This time around, the Akita puppy lived until eight years of age.

Helen wrote in her dictionary about the affection she felt for both Kamikaze-Go and Kenzan-Go, calling them splendid protectors and companions, devoted, gentle and precious.

Akita Inu — Splitting of the breed

Prior to WW2, Akitas were not known outside of Japan, except as exotic pets of dignitaries and celebrities. It’s only after American servicemen began adopting Akitas and bringing them home that they gained a foothold in the US. Japanese dog breeders saw an opportunity and started running puppy mills, with little regards for pedigree. Most of those Akitas brought to the US stem from two stud lines: Dewa-Go and Ichinoseki.

Dewa-Go and Ichinoseki

The Dewa-Go line was epitomized by Kongo-Go, bred in Odate City in 1947. He participated in dog shows, generating enough publicity to become a stud dog. The Kongo-Go line was beloved in the US but did not take hold in Japan, where dog breeders saw it as a crossbreed and wanted as pure of an Akita line as possible.

The Ichinoseki line was best represented in 1948 by Goromaru-Go, born that year in Akita Prefecture. This one was much better accepted by Japanese dog breeders, who crossbred it with the Dewa-Go line in search of those elusive purebred Akita traits. Some popular Akita traits that are still coveted today emerged at that time, such as dignified posture, a face with tightly composed features and a compact tail.

In comparison, the Kongo-Go stock in the US took a different turn, with features such as a black facial mask, loose facial skin and dark brown fur. Ichinoseki dogs were imported to the US and crossbred with the Kongo-Go stock there, eventually leading to a convergence of the lines. In any case, Akitas in the US had a prominent presence in amateur dog shows to the point the American Kennel Club (AKC) approved them in professional capacity on July 13, 1955.

Identity crisis for Akitas in the US

However, owing to rampant crossbreeding, the Kongo-Go Akita stock was nowhere near standardized, which created an identity crisis for Akitas in the US. There was the Akita Dog Association founded in 1952, later being supplanted by the Akita Kennel Club in 1956 that changed its name to “Akita Club of America” in 1959. By 1960, the Akita Club of America (ACA) finally resembled a professional Akita organization, with a breed standard, registration program, monthly newsletter and a code of ethics.

The Akita Club of America would later absorb any remaining Akita organizations, applying to the AKC for recognition of the breed. That happened in 1973, with the Kongo-Go line becoming fully entrenched in the US; from that point on, any Akitas hailing from Japan were automatically disqualified from AKC registration. This was the beginning of the now infamous “Akita breed split,” which still causes much chagrin in dog lovers and breeders.

Refinement of Akita in Japan

Meanwhile in Japan, the Ichinoseki line was continuously improved in what is best described as restoration efforts. Unlike their US counterparts, the Japanese dog breeders joined under the umbrella of Japanese Kennel Club (JKC) wanted to refine and improve on what they saw as the best qualities of Akita by interbreeding them. By 1992, the AKC dropped its automatic disqualification clause and Japanese-bred Akitas were finally eligible for US-based dog shows.

The international dog organization (FCI) actually sided with Japanese breeders during the 1973 breed split. Comprising 79 nations, the FCI dealt with this kind of breed split issue before in a simple and logical way — the country of breed origin is the default standard for the breed, period. Still, it took FCI until 1999 before it produced an international standard for Akita:

  • Three colors allowed (red fawn and sesame; brindle; white)
  • All colors except white must have “urajiro” (white coat on certain parts of the body)
  • No large-boned, black-masked Akitas (features of the Kongo-Go line)

Some US-based dog breeders still clung to the notion of their “American Akita” being acknowledged as a separate breed but others realized the danger of slipping into irrelevancy and started importing Japanese Akitas to breed and crossbreed. The Japanese breeders were adamant; Akita is theirs and theirs alone! In 1997 and 1998, FCI tried forcing the two sides to bury their hatchets but to no avail.

Solomonic solution

Finally, FCI was the one to cave in and accept the existence of two distinct Akita breeds: the Japanese Akita and the American Akita aka. Great Japanese Dog. This Solomonic solution meant both countries could showcase their dogs in competitions, with US breeders still remaining relevant despite having no access to the original stock and the Japanese breeders proudly claiming their breed is “the real deal”.

In the US, ACA and AKC kept refusing to acknowledge the Japanese side of the story and considered their stock the one true Akita. This led to internal fragmentation between the dog breeders, each of which had a different opinion on the matter. The turmoil brewed to the point AKC proposed ACA vote on the issue, with any changes in the breed standard requiring a two-thirds vote. The ACA decided to disregard it entirely, with straw polls showing roughly 60% of ACA members agreed with that attitude.

Akita Inu in Japan today

The Akita Dog Preservation Society holds an annual exhibition in Odate, where up to 50 Akita Inus are showcased for their plush coats and sturdy physiques. In 2020 in Daisen City the exhibition was in eight categories, such as facial features and the beauty of the tail curl. The winners were a female, Misugi, and a male, Unkaimaru.

In Yuzawa City, in the southeast of the Akita region, the coming of winter and the snow blanketing the ground prompts the residents to make snow statues, including those of Akita. The Inu-kko Festival tradition is dedicated to dogs and has been going on for 400 years, with candlelit snow shrines and snow statues. Shinto priests pray for pet dogs and perform ceremonies to ward off evil spirits that might want to harm them.


Akita Inu has a rich and checkered history of trouble and turmoil. The earliest beginnings of it are shrouded in mystery, with some fossil records indicating its ancestors came with Mongol invaders through Korea. Once they found their way into mountainous regions of Japan, they lurked from the shadows. That is, until humans tamed their wild spirit.

With being tamed, anecdotes of Akita Inu’s loyalty and fearlessness started circling the globe. In one instance, an Akita Inu pup, Liffey, was brought to a London Zoo as a playmate for a lonely tiger cub, Hari. No other breed could have the right combination of tameness and primal urges that would help the cub socialize; none except Akita Inu. We would be remiss not the mention Hachiko, the famous Akita Inu that waited for his owner long after death.

From hunting expeditions to dog fights, Akita Inu was always near and dear to the Japanese. Today, each human creates a special history with his or her own Akita Inu. This includes daily walks and scuffles. Together, the two grow and understand one another.

Further Reading

The Akita Inu — Breed Characteristics

The iconic Akita dog is first recognized by its curled-up tail, pointed ears and fluffy fur. It has an imposing size but also a noble, calm demeanor that can still quickly turn sour if it’s agitated. It’s one of the most impressive dog breeds, carrying in itself the spirit of ancient Japan.

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Eye Health Of The Akita Inu

Akita eye problems always happen because of a nutritional deficiency and a congenital defect. Diet fortified with nutrients and early eye exams are the simplest way to detect and manage eye problems in Akita

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Communicable Diseases In Akita

Akitas might not like to mingle but they can still catch communicable diseases just like any dog breed that does. These diseases quickly spread through a litter, especially an unvaccinated one, even without physical contact; all it takes is an infected bowl, toy, or blanket to spread the disease.

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Akita Joints And Spine Problems

A limping Akita is a sad sight to behold. It seems to need help but suddenly the limp disappears and the Akita acts fine. This is a warning sign that trouble is afoot and the Akita is about to develop an issue with its joints, spine or both. Here is an overview of joint and spine problems in Akita, with probable causes and suggested remedies.

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Akita Forest Walk

All the best adventures start with a simple walk and end up in exhilaration. Join me on Akita’s forest walk to see how a natural hunter stays fit in the wild.

Read More »

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