Over the past few years shiba-inus have become a trend on the internet. Some examples are Maru (@marutaro), a Japanese Instagram celebrity with, as of this writing, an astonishing 2.6 million followers; Kabosu, the original dog behind the ubiquitous “Doge” meme that started in 2013; and New York based Bodhi, better known by his stage name, Menswear Dog. According to the American Kennel Club, shiba-inus were the 44th most popular dog breed in the United States in 2016. The only other Japanese dog breed to make in into the top fifty was the akita, which has enjoyed a following in the United States since the middle of the 20th century.
Despite the recent uptick in the popularity of cute shiba-inus, the most famous Japanese dog is almost undoubtedly Hachikō, a white akita who was born in 1923. Hachikō grew up walking his master to Shibuya Station and picking him up there after work. This continued until his master suddenly died while at work. Even though his master was gone, Hachikō continued commuting to the station for over nine years after that day. Eventually, this caught the attention of the media and in turn made him a national symbol and famous internationally. Hachikō died in 1935; however, his memory has lived on both directly and indirectly in popular culture.
Due to the popularity of his story, Hachikō was immortalized in a statue outside Shibuya Station while he was still alive. In fact, he was often seen standing next to it. Today, there are many statues of Hachikō around Japan, including one at the University of Tokyo, a replica of which was installed at the Abbey Glen Pet Memorial Park in New Jersey in 2016. Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi attended the dedication ceremony of that statue.
Hachikō is not the only Japanese dog to be honored in statue. Two Sakhalin huskies known as Taro and Jiro made headlines in 1959 by surviving in Antarctica for a year after the expedition they were a part of had to make an emergency evacuation. They and their thirteen less fortunate sled mates were cast in bronze and can be seen outside the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo. These statues were designed by Takeshi Ando, the sculptor of the statute of Hachikō currently in front of Shibuya Station.
Hachikō is also not Japan’s only famous white dog. Since 2007, Softbank, a multinational telecommunications company that owns Sprint in the U.S., has been using a white hokkaido-inu in its ads and as a mascot to great success. “Otosan,” who in the company’s ads is the head of the “Shirato Family” has become something of a national sensation and is recognized by fans all over Japan, whether or not they are Softbank customers.
During the Edo period (1603 – 1868) it was common to visit the Ise Grand Shrine, the most revered Shinto shrine in Japan, once in one’s lifetime, which was called "Okage-mairi." This was one of the few unrestricted trips that people of all classes could take and as such was very popular; however, some people were unable to make this trip and instead sent a person or animal in their stead. For many, white dogs were the animal of choice, as they were deemed to possess a certain spiritual quality that made them perfect candidates for visiting the shrine.
The dogs sent to Ise Grand Shrine were called “Okage-inuおかげ犬,”and were often identified by the shimenawa注連縄 straw ropes hung around their necks and bags for carrying money to be given to the Shrine priest and for care of the dogs along their journey. The trip from Edo, as Tokyo was then known, to Ise and back could take over one month, and the dogs relied on the kindness of strangers along their journey. There are stories of dogs traveling from all over Japan to the Ise Grand Shrine, receiving food and lodging, traveling with ad-hoc companions along the way, and ultimately arriving back home with a charm from the shrine.