Remembering Hachiko, Japan’s Legendary Akita

We profile Hachiko, the iconic dog of Japan, and take Richard Gere down a peg or two in the process. It feels right.


First things first: We gotta get rid of Richard Gere. It’s nothing personal. I just have a hunch if we take Richard Gere out of the equation, then the story of Hachiko, the Japanese Akita who became world famous for his loyalty, will magically retain all its historical details, so many of which were flipped upside down and belly spanked in the 2009 movie, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, starring … Richard Gere.

Just look what happens by simply removing Richard Gere: New England becomes Tokyo again; a J. Crew-catalog version of “the present day” reverts back to the 1920s; Hachiko does not reunite with his owner at the end because, well, his owner is dead, and that would be infantile; and, most importantly, Hachiko’s owner is a college professor, not a male escort (though I may have confused my Richard Gere movies here).

Now, having watched all the Hollywood elements disappear into the air like a witless come-on, we can finally get down to talking about Hachiko — the real Hachiko — and why he matters. Oh, and yes! If she’d like, Joan Allen is invited to stay in our story.

Hachiko was born in Tokyo in 1923. The next year he was adopted by Hidesburō Ueno, a professor at the University of Tokyo. The two would end their day together by meeting at a train station in Shibuya, in the heart of the city. Hachiko would then follow the professor home. Though only a year into this routine, Ueno died suddenly, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. Hachiko kept their dates, however, showing up nightly at the station for what observers began to think of as a vigil. It was one of Ueno’s students who first wrote Hachiko’s story, publishing at least one account in a Tokyo newspaper.

From there, Hachiko’s legend was set. It’s arguably the most famous of the countless canine loyalty tales that seemed to sprout around this time, all with their own regional bent. The oldest of these is perhaps equally famous. It’s Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who lived out the last 14 years of his life guarding his owner’s grave in Scotland (though recent evidence disputes some of the essential facts of this story). The Pacific Northwest, where I’m writing from, has its own loyalty tale, Bobbie the Wonderdog, set around the same time as Hachiko’s life.

My favorite of this kind of (mostly) true story, however, is about Fido, the Italian street dog whose owner died in a bombing raid in 1943. Just like Hachiko, Fido returned to his master’s meeting place, a bus stop, every day at the same time for the remaining years of his life. This is one of the lesser known of these tales, its brief moment of fame coming with Fido’s own death in 1957. I suspect Fido’s story is obscured by the fact that when his master died, we were at war with his country.

There’s something about a son of Mussolini inspiring the same fidelity as a kindly agriculture professor in Tokyo that runs a little deeper. There’s a richer lesson here, something to do with the heart’s limitations, which in the end is probably also its greatest strength. How it can seize upon something or someone without prejudice. We call it faithfulness and have honored Hachiko and his brethren as symbols of loyalty.

But I’m not so sure this is right. Loyalty takes an inner strength, a mental commitment fortified by emotional resolve. It’s a choice we make. I don’t think this is what circulated through Hachiko, Bobbie, Bobby, or Fido when they were drawn to their masters the way they were. At any rate, this isn’t what we admire about them — loyalty is the wrong word. When we think of these dogs and their vigils, we recognize in them acts of total surrender. And we are touched by them, because we know we are either too sophisticated — or not sophisticated enough — to ultimately achieve such a thing ourselves.

Not even with Joan Allen to come home to.

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