Star dog blazes trail for Japan's long-haired Akitas

Long-haired Akita dogs have stepped into the spotlight thanks to the popularity of a dog named Wasao (see below).

Wasao, a large white long-haired Akita, is famous for appearing on TV shows and in other media. Although long-haired Akitas have gone unappreciated due to their long hair, they are being introduced at dog shows these days. A popularity contest for long-haired Akita dogs will be held for the first time in Aomori on Sunday.

In 1938, the Akitainu Introduction Foundation, based in Odate, Akita Prefecture, set specific standards regarding the ideal figure of an Akita, such as the shape of the ears, eyes and mouth, the curl of the tail and hair colour. Today, the foundation has about 2,680 members.

The breed's traditional figure has erect ears and a curled tail, with mid-length hair - not too long and not too short - like Chuken Hachiko, the loyal Akita dog who kept waiting for his master in front of Shibuya Station in Tokyo.

Long-haired Akita dogs, which are born at a rate of about 10 to 20 per cent of the breed's total, are considered nonstandard and do not qualify for entry to common Akita dog shows.

Those who highly value the archetypal Akita dog are worried about them breeding with the long-haired type. In the Meiji and Taisho periods (1868-1926), when dogfighting was popular, some Akita dogs were lop-eared due to crossbreeding with Tosa fighting dogs. At that time, some people made efforts to recover the original features of Akita dogs by breeding them with purebreds.

In 1931, the Akita became the first dog breed in the nation to be designated a natural treasure.

Yasutami Togashi, 71, chairman of the foundation, said: "Our foundation's aim is to conserve Akita dogs. In my personal view, it is necessary to improve the treatment of long-haired dogs, but it is [also] important to respect our members who follow the standards and work hard."

However, as a result of the popularity of Wasao, long-haired Akita dogs appeared at an Akita dog show in Sapporo in October for the first time.

The foundation's Aomori prefectural branch will also hold a contest just for long-haired Akita dogs on Sunday in Aomori, to which Wasao has been invited as a star guest. Unlike at standard dog shows, visitors will be able to take part in voting.

■ Wasao

An Akita dog estimated to be 8 years old. Setsuko Kikuya, 71, who runs a broiled squid shop, picked up the dog around November 2007, presumably in the first five months of its life, in the coastal town of Ajigasawa, Aomori Prefecture. Wasao gained popularity as a "busakawa-ken" (ugly but cute dog) on TV shows and other media. Photo books and a movie about Wasao have also been produced.