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Helen Keller and the First Akitas in the United States

A story about a loyal Akita inspired Helen Keller to bring the first to America

Archives of New Zealand — Creative Commons License
Source: Archives of New Zealand — Creative Commons License

A journalist recently sent me a 1947 photograph of Helen Keller with a large dog resting at her feet. He wanted to know if this was her guide dog. It was not, but the handsome Akita was certainly a historically significant dog.

Sadly there are many people today who do not know very much about Helen Keller, however during her lifetime she was a highly significant figure. In the 1960s President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is one of the two highest civilian honors in the United States. It was given in recognition of her contributions as an advocate for people with disabilities.

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880, and seemed like a perfectly normal child. However before her second birthday she contracted some kind of mysterious illness which rendered her both deaf and blind. The story about how Anne Sullivan eventually taught her how to communicate so that ultimately she could speak, formed the basis of the inspiring Academy award-winning will film The Miracle Worker in 1962. Keller would go on to become a world famous speaker and author. She wrote a total of 12 published books and a number of articles. She is remembered as a political activist as well. In addition to her international efforts to promote the welfare of people with sensory handicaps she was a pacifist who campaigned for women's rights, including birth control. She also helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Helen Keller grew up with dogs and loved them dearly for their companionship. In one of her articles she wrote about one of the first things she would do if she suddenly recovered her vision. She said "I should like to look into the loyal trusting eyes of my dogs… whose warm tender and playful friendships are so comforting to me."

In 1937 Keller began an extended speaking tour which took her through much of Japan. The Japanese people were very much taken by her and her story of overcoming her personal handicaps. In addition to her formal speaking commitments, and simply because of her fondness for dogs, Keller also decided to visit the Akita district. This was because she had heard the story about Hachiko.

Hachiko was an Akita owned by Dr. Eisaburo Ueno, a professor at Tokyo University. The dog accompanied his master to the train station each day to see him off. He would return to the station each afternoon to greet his master. One afternoon Professor Ueno did not return — he had died in Tokyo. Hachiko waited at the station until midnight. The next day, and every day for nearly 10 years thereafter, Hachiko came to the station and waited for his master. Each evening, after the train came and the passengers dispersed, Hachiko would search the station carefully before walking slowly home alone. To honor such a display of loyalty a bronze statue of this Akita, who loved his master so deeply, was erected at Shibuya Station. This statue became a popular place where lovers come to pledge their devotion and commitment to each other.

At the time of her visit to Japan the Akita was virtually unknown in America. When Keller first met one of these dogs she was impressed by it, and mentioned the fact that she might like to have one of these "faithful dogs" for herself. The Japanese government took this request to heart. They contacted Ichiro Ogasawara, a young Akita City Police Department officer, who was an owner and breeder of these big dogs. Ogasawara was asked to supply Keller with an Akita and he gave her one of his own new puppies. He was named Kamikaze-Go.

Keller bonded with "Kami" during the 16 day boat trip home. She felt that the dog had a particular sensitivity to her emotional states. "If I cried from loneliness for my beloved teacher, he would put his big paw on my knee and press his cool nose against my cheek and lick away the tears."

When they reached the USA newspapers proclaimed that Keller had introduced a brand-new and impressive breed of dog to America. Unfortunately Kami's life was not very long and he died of distemper before he was eight months of age. Keller sadly wrote to Ogasawara saying "If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikazi. I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet…"

The Japanese government was saddened by the fact that their gift to Keller had come to such a tragic end. To the government's mind it was as if they had not fulfilled her request for a dog to be her companion. So once again Ogasawara was contacted and he was asked to provide Keller with another dog which would be sent to her as "an official gift of the Japanese government". This new dog was named Kenzan-Go, and had the same sire and dame as Kami. There was some concern about whether the dog would actually get to Keller because relations between the US and Japan had been deteriorating. Fortunately, however, the ship was allowed to get through and the dog that Keller would nickname "Go-Go" arrived in July 1939, thus becoming the second Akita to reside in America. It was this dog, Kenzan-Go, who was resting at Keller's feet in the photo that I was sent.

Go-Go would not be the sole member of his breed in America for very long. Photos of Keller with the big powerful dog, combined with her frequent mentions of how devoted and protective he was, fueled a demand for Akitas. World War II prevented the import of these dogs from Japan for several years. Still, following the end of the war, a number of people contacted soldiers stationed in Japan with a request that they bring back Akita puppies when they returned home. Gradually, as the popularity of the breed increased in the US, a more traditional set of contacts with Akita breeders in Japan was established. The Akita would not be recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1955 and in 1972 the AKC moved the Akita out of the Miscellaneous Class and into the Working-Class.

When I first learned about Helen Keller's Association with the Akita I was somewhat saddened by the fact that because of her sensory handicaps she never had the chance to see her dog wag his tail or hear him bark. But I have since learned that this is not the way that she viewed the situation. In an interview years later Keller said "Nobody, who is not blind, as much as they may love their pet, can know what a dog's love really means." I hope that she is wrong since I certainly feel as though I can sense the affection that my dogs and I share, but I am also glad that Helen Keller felt that even without sight and hearing she could feel a dog's love as well.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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