Thursday, January 5, 2012

Aaron Herald Skabelund's "Empire of Dogs"

Aaron Herald Skabelund is Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World, and reported the following:
If we humans currently live on an “Animal Planet,” as one astute observer has suggested, with TV programming and even cable networks completely devoted to animal-related content, then dogs certainly dominate the realm. Canines, more than any other animal, pervade our lives. In the United States alone, over 40 percent of households keep a dog. People in industrialized societies purchase recognized breeds and spend billions on a huge and flourishing industry dedicated to these treasured canine “companions.” Many people treat dogs like, and sometimes in place of, human family members.

Our affection for dogs, though, is equaled by a striking lack of understanding of how these dogs we adore came to be and how we came to interact with them in this way. Sure this relationship has an ancient history that began with domestication (theirs, and perhaps ours!), but dogs and our relationship with them have changed drastically in the last century and a half with the advent of imperialism. Dogs joined with people to create the modern imperial world and, in turn, imperialism shaped dogs’ bodies and their relationship with humans through its impact on dog-breeding and dog-keeping practices that permeate much of the world today.

Using the history of dogs in Japan as a case study, Empire of Dogs describes how, in response to the threat of Western imperialism, Japan’s tremendous geopolitical and economic imperial rise was mirrored by a dramatic transformation of its canine population. As in other imperial contexts, indigenous canines on Japanese archipelago were disparaged by Westerners during the decades of semicolonization, and in many cases were physically eliminated. During those same years, purebred Western breeds achieved tremendous popularity in Japan. As Japan’s became a major imperial power in its own right during the early twentieth century, the country’s once ridiculed indigenous dogs were nationalized and recognized as codified breeds in the 1930s. From page 99:
The [Japanese] Ministry of Education named the Akita breed an endangered national asset in July 1931. Over the next six years, the Ministry granted similar status to the Kai, Kishū, Koshino, Shiba, Shikoku, and Hokkaido breeds… The Ministry of Education’s rationale for preserving “Japanese” dogs echoed [the] argument that the character of the nation was ingrained in the personality of the country’s canines. When the Ministry announced its designation of the Shiba breed in 1936, its spokesperson proclaimed that the dogs were worthy of the honor because they “reflect the character of the Japanese people, and compared to foreign dogs demonstrate a particular vigor and have all the characteristics of a Japanese dog.”
In this way, “Japanese” dogs, once derided as semi-wild and uncivilized canines came to be prized, purebred pet dogs, a source of national and imperial pride. The “Faithful Dog” Hachikō, whose statue stands outside a Tokyo train station, is probably the best example of this transformation. Thanks to Japan’s geopolitical and economic imperial rise, these newly nationalized dogs were recognized at home and abroad, and two breeds, the Akita and Shiba, have entered the pantheon of the many predominantly Western breeds that continue to dominate the empire, of and by dogs, in which we still live.
Learn more about Empire of Dogs at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue