Japan is on everybody’s mind these days. I was lucky to be asked to contribute an essay to a fantastic collection, Reimagining Japan, just out. It is already #1 nonfiction book in Japan and sold out in English on Amazon, but more copies will be available soon. The other contributors are artists, writers, historians, economists, CEOs and even a soccer coach and a videogame creator. Gorgeously illustrated and beautifully packaged, it has been called the most comprehensive book about Japan ever. You might have to wait a few weeks to hold it in your hands but, if it’s any consolation, so do I.
Just arrived in the mail from Japan: copies of Dog Man, translated into Japanese and published by Odyssey, a small family-run press in the north of Japan. I am so happy to see this amazing life story — which the Sawataishis were courageous to share so honestly with me — making a way back to its home country. At such a difficult and dispirting time for the north of Japan, I hope this story of endurance, personal fortitude and resourcefulness won’t just amuse and entertain readers, but inspire them.
I know how much the Sawataishi family would appreciate all the calls and emails of concern I’ve gotten about them since the earthquake and tsunami hit the north of Japan last week.
So many readers of Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain came to feel close to this wonderful, resourceful family, whose lives were chronicled in the book. Their family home is in Kurikoma, not too far from Sendai, which is where so much of the damage has taken place.
Good news. All members of the extended Sawataishi clan are safe. Atsuko Fukushima, the oldest daughter of Morie and Kitako, evacuated her house in Fukushima (like her last name) — very near the epicenter of the quake — just in time, and was able to travel with her husband Noritsugu and their dog Bobby to a country house owned by their daughter Yukari near Nasu Kogen.
Atsuko’s house in Fukushima was severely damaged — and now, due to the meltdown of the nearby nuclear plant, it is unclear whether she will be able to return.
Some of you may remember that this is the second time Atsuko has been dislocated in recent years. In 2008, when a strong earthquake devastated the Sawaitashi family house in the mountains of Kurikoma, she and Noritsugu had to move in with her sister in Oyama City and, a few months later, set up a new life in Fukushima, where they were living when I last them in March 2009. (Pictured above.)
The condition of the Kurikoma house, which had just been restored from the 2008 quake, remains unknown at this point. I will keep you posted. In the meantime, I know you will all join me in wishing Atsuko and Noritsugu, and the country of Japan, much strength and energy and good fortune in the years ahead.
This is the time of year to remember Morie Sawataishi, the man who saved the Akita dog from extinction. The anniversary of his death, October 22, is less than three weeks away. Morie did more than just devote his life to rescuing and restoring the Akita dog in Japan after World War II. He devoted himself to Japan’s snow country — the isolated and forgotten north. He devoted himself to loyalty, inconvenience, hard work. He devoted himself to the forests and woods of Japan, and to a rugged mountain life where he could raise and train his champion dogs. Post your comments of appreciation, photos of your dogs — Akita or otherwise — and your good wishes to the Sawataishi family on the Facebook page, “Dog Man: One Man Saves Japan’s Akita Dogs.” There you will find hundreds of Akita lovers, nature lovers and dog lovers on a page created by Scribe, the Australian publisher of my book, Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain. The Sawataishi family will be looking in . . .
Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale is coming to movie theaters on December 18, 2009.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Hachiko was an Akita puppy who was owned by a Tokyo University professor in the early 1920s. A special bond formed between them, the sort of bond that Akita dogs are known for. Each morning, the dog walked with the professor to the train station in Shibuya, now a crowded neighborhood of Tokyo. Each afternoon, the dog would return to meet the 4 o’clock train, knowing his owner would be on it. When the professor had a stroke at work, and later died, the dog continued to return to the train station, every day at 4 o’clock, for the next nine years.
As the years passed, newspaper accounts were written about Hachiko, postcards of the aging dog and other souvenirs were sold at the train station, and a bronze sculpture was erected while the real dog was still alive to pose nearby. Tourists began gathering there (it is still a popular gathering spot in Tokyo), a Hachiko fanclub was established, and soon afterward the ministry of education had a song written, Chu-ken Hachi-ko, or “Loyal Hachiko,” which was taught to schoolchildren nationwide as a lesson in the importance of loyalty.
Morie Sawataishi, the hero of my book Dog Man, was just a schoolboy growing up in the far north of Japan, the snow country, when he was taught the song about Hachiko, and told the story of the famous dog. Years later, his memory of the story led him to illegally hide an Akita puppy through-out World War II, feeding it and keeping it alive, when food was hard to come by and even his own family members were hungry. For Morie, the Akita dog stood for something honorable and important, a part of old Japan that was vanishing. Morie thought about the value of that kind of loyalty and faithfulness, and the preciousness of it. Who would be loyal as an Akita if there weren’t any Akitas left?
The good news is that Dog Man is now available in paperback. The sad news is that Morie Sawataishi, the patriach of the Sawataishi family and the man who almost single-handedly saved the Akita breed from extinction in Japan during World War II, died on October 22, 2008. He became ill shortly after his 92nd birthday and, when hospitalized, refused life-saving treatments and intravenous medications of any kind.
His wife, Kitako, is now living with her daughter Ryoko Ando in Oyama City. After 68 years of rugged mountain life, she is enjoying her time in the city.