Shinto and the Life of a Dog Man

Each spring in the snow country of Japan there’s an ancient custom of hiking to the top of a mountain … Continued

Each spring in the snow country of Japan there’s an ancient custom of hiking to the top of a mountain as soon as the trails are passable. It’s called O-Yama-biraki or Open Mountain Day. What began as a ritual of the pre-Buddhist days of Japan, when the animistic folk religion of Shinto was practiced, endures. You hike to the summit to greet the spirit of the mountain as it wakes from the long winter. From the Shinto perspective, the natural world is sacred. Mountains are sacred. Trees are sacred. Kami or nature spirits dwell there.

Morie Sawataishi, the hero of my nonfiction book, “Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain,” isn’t compulsive about honoring all the old Shinto rituals. He’s Shinto, without question. But he turns 92 this summer and is a bit of a pragmatist. Still, there’s no question that Open Mountain Day is his favorite day of the year.

Morie’s beautiful dogs run ahead, disappearing into the dark forest and heading up the slushy paths to the peak of Mount Kurikoma. Morie loves the exuberance of his Akitas, their buoyancy and joy, their competitiveness, intelligence, ruggedness, and diehard spirit. Like Morie himself, the dogs are a little rough for polite society. They brim with instinct – and a spooky sixth sense. They seem to know it’s Open Mountain Day and a celebration of life and renewal, of wildness and fertility, and of the forest spirits that seem to make Japan so haunted and blessed.

For sixty years, since Morie rescued the Akita breed from extinction during World War II – when they were being eaten, and their luxurious pelts used by the Japanese military to line winter coats — his dogs have led him into the wild. Together, they have traveled to a deeper place, a world of instinct and survival. They have encountered growling beasts and dead carcasses, poisonous mushrooms, flying pheasants and lost hikers.

Morie has raised one hundred dogs – many of them national champions – since he came home with his first Akita in 1944. He refuses to sell them, or take money for his puppies. Instead, he prefers to give them away. He’s never been rich, like some Akita breeders in the north. But he says he’s been repaid for his efforts many times over.

Like most Japanese, Morie finds it hard to say exactly what is Shinto, what is Japanese, and what is simply “life.” The belief system is so old, and its basic values and patterns of behavior so ingrained in Japanese culture, Shinto doesn’t often appear to be a formalized set of beliefs as much as a way of living, a way of seeing, a way of thinking about the world and nature and our place in it.

Simplicity and restraint are Shinto. Natural beauty is Shinto – and the reverence not just for nature, but for things kept natural. Unpainted and unvarnished wood is Shinto. The passing of the seasons, the melting snow on the ground, the whisper of the wind in the trees. A dignified old tree can be declared a kami, or natural spirit, and blessed by a priest and then festooned, and protected, by an elegant twisted rice straw rope. A wild forest is Shinto. And the path of a dog, too.

Martha Sherrill is a former Washington Post staff writer who has covered film, politics and the arts. She is the author of two novels and two works of narrative nonfiction, including “The Buddha from Brooklyn,” an account of life inside a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Maryland. For the creation of “Dog Man,” she lived in a remote corner of Japan with Morie and Kitako Sawataishi and their Akita dogs.

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  • VICTORIA

    Sell that book Ms Sherill- that’s what this forum is about.

  • Paganplace

    Hey, at least it’s something positive to read about here. This is an *interfaith* forum, and we hear so little about Shinto. If you don’t know any in your town, well, consider they have a great deal in common with the Pagans that live among you, too. People write books and then promote them, …frankly, there’s more of news about that for me than stoking ‘controversy’ about the media’s spotlight shifted toward smear tactics.

  • VICTORIA

    that was kind of my underlying complaint- we rarely have any buddhists guest voices- we don’t even have a buddhist on the panel- the closest is starhawk- and she’s not a buddhist- we had a speech by the dalai lama- but other than that- pretty sparse pickings. its positive- i guess- but not informative and reads like a book promotion

  • BGone

    Japanese? “All things in moderation except respect. Respect by the train loads, can’t have too much of that but don’t squander respect on that which is not respectable.”Buddhism isn’t represented here because it’s not faith. Buddhism is only philosophy. “Mediate” on it.

  • Jack

    Akita’s are beautiful dogs but since the Japanese breed a mastiff into their line they can be quite dangerous. They are not a dog that I would encourage my child to run up and hug. I think its responsible journalism to understand that this is a powerful, extremely protective animal that can easily kill an adult let alone a child. Jon and Sally start doing some research before you romantize a breed.

  • Enemy Of The State

    Nice post – makes me want to find the nearest mountain trail and take a hike.I nominate Shinto as the World’s Official Religion. It sounds refreshingly undogmatic; it respects the earth and its living creatures; and it promotes a naturalistic, uncomplicated way of life.I may swear off agnosticism for a time and try it out.

  • @ Jack

    Jack,Maybe you shouldn’t generalize when you post? Any big dog can easily kill a child and an adult.I have a 2 yr old Akita. He loves children and adults alike. It is funny to see him treat an elderly person more gentle than he does a young adult. Jack, maybe you should back up your post with research.

  • Ken Rogers

    As a person who lives with 4 Akitas (you don’t own an Akita) I look forward to reading this book. Lucy (mom), Schroder (dad), Violet, and Chuck (the kids)are a great part of my life, each having their own personality. Their spirit and joy is a thing of beauty and I look forward to seeing them each day when I get home from work. At times they can be stubborn and want to do things their way but there is always a “meeting of the minds” with the four usually getting thier way. They are great friends and protectors and I can not imagine my life without my furry friends.

  • Kenneth Gross

    What a wonderful story. Will look forward to reading this and her other books.

  • Keef

    Jack is absolutely right. What Akitas also have is aggression and dominant tendencies. Most people who think about bringing one into their lives–many because of romantic tales like this one–are unable or unwilling to control them and/or socialize them properly. Know the dog and know what you can handle! Learn first!

  • fudd

    It’s worth mentioning, particularly in light of what happened to Eight Belles at the Derby, that Akitas are an example of a badly overbred and inbred breed. (Although if they were in danger of extinction, that might help account for a shallow gene pool.) It has made the animals prone to epilepsy and disabling hip problems, among other problems.

  • pwelvr

    A simple yet elegant approach to life. How far have the Wrights, Falwells, and Robertsons strayed from this noble path?

  • ericroks

    As an Akita owner, I must say that this story is wonderful background to an excellent breed. My boy, Zeus, is a full grown male of 120 pounds who is clever, loving, ultra protective, and uplifting.My gratitude goes to Morie for working to preserve the breed and allowing my family to include our Zeus in it’s ranks. Without his selfless work, we would not have him among us and patrolling our house!!!Akitas are not for everybody, their aggressive nature and raw physical power make it difficult for the weaker sort to train. They constantly test you. But through assertiveness, attention, and good ol’ fashoned love this breed can be a loyal, gentile, and caring companion.Once again, thank you Morie for all of your work.-Eric

  • Keef

    @ Jack: Jack clearly has done some research, and also appears to have some real-world experience. A “bird dog” can indeed maim or kill, but rarely causes that kind of trouble–that behavior’s just not genetically there. I have seen, too many times on the streets of D.C., an Akita adopt a dominant stance and attack another dog or owner. Yes, other breeds will have the same “strong drive,” but that’s not the point. The point is that those who have such “guard” breeds must train THEMSELVES and not sit idly by, clueless, while their dog runs to the end of its “extend-o-leash” and maims another. Know what the breed requires of YOU and then train yourself accordingly. Socialize the animal and correct bad behavior. The dog will learn. Be responsible!

  • Paul from Laurel

    My family had an Akita for 13 happy years. She was a tremendously loyal, fearless and protective companion but also a loving pet who was very gentle with our two small children. Akitas are a wonderful and very unique breed. It is irresponible owners and poor breeding that have given Akitas – in this country – their bad reputation.

  • Kennedy

    “Hurrah-Curry”?!!Lol. I like Indian food as much as the next person. I don’t see how making an Indian meal is an extreme reaction to gay people.Unless you mean “Hara-Kiri”? Your post is otherwise so intelligent and informed, that I got confused.

  • Athena

    JJ, you are ill-informed and spewing bigotry, as usual. Not all neo-Pagans are homosexuals, although we welcome them wholeheartedly into our ranks. Some of the happiest, most fun-loving and giving people I have known are Queer Pagans. As for this story – I am glad to hear more about Shinto and Akitas. Even though my husband and I don’t have time to raise a dog properly (and they’d probably have our two cats for a light snack), we’ve thought about getting an Akita. Sigh… maybe when we’re both not working such long hours.

  • Paul

    “Hurrah-Curry” What???I’ll assume that this comment is meant as a shout out to the spice used in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.Otherwise, the depths of the ignorance on display is far too vast to bother exploring.In my many years on this planet, I have spent countless hours learning about the world’s religions and as a straight, happily married, atheist, “homosexual pagan witch” … I can honestly say that the only ONLY “religion” I would ever consider supporting is Shinto. It is the only religion on the planet that promotes man’s need to live in harmony with nature. And, that includes the gorgeous and well-trained Akita who greets us each morning.

  • mike

    Jack – Akitas are surely aggressive towards other animals, and because of their size and instinctive nature are difficult to control around them. Personally I have not heard stories of them being this way towards humans, however. I have quite a bit of experience with Akitas and have never heard of one attacking a person (but many have hurt, maimed and even killed small dogs)

  • Anonymous

    flash – only animals with souls get to heaven and means humans not dogs, pet turtles, or the like.

  • James

    Keef hit the nail on the head here. Great dogs…if you research them first and are capable of handling them! If not, and you won’t/can’t commit yourself to providing consistent discipline and exercise, you have NO business with this breed. Mysticism is great and all but… Our neighbor had two Akitas that he neglected by only allowing them to be “backyard” dogs. Naturally, their protective nature took over and they eventually attacked and mauled a young girl.Matching lifestyle and personality with breed is key…

  • buzzsaw

    No bad dogs….only bad owners.

  • buzzsaw

    No bad dogs….only bad owners.

  • jae

    i’ve been living with akitas for the past 10 years, and i really don’t understand why they have such a bad reputation. My dogs have never been aggressive toward any human, and while they have a normal canine prey instinct, mine have never gone out to pick a fight.they definitely aren’t easy–there’s a lot of negotiating that goes on–but aggression isn’t one of the problems, at least from my experience. Of course, they live inside the house as part of the family, receive daily walks, weekly runs, and playtime with other dogs, so they’ve been well-socialized.That said, I do believe you should be an experienced dog owner before you try to bring one home. They’ll take over the house fairly quickly.

  • _kt_

    I have nothing against Shinto, myself, but I find the hippie love-fest here ironic. Shinto is being praised by the same people I would usually expect to unfairly denounce it. Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto Shrine, after all. The “kami” in “kamikaze” is a Shinto reference. Maybe this is the beginning of a more thoughtful, fair, and tolerant approach to the world’s religions, even establishment religions like Shinto. By the way, the headline, “God’s Best Friend,” on the home page would be more accurately written, “Gods’ best friend,” this being Shinto.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps our linguistically-challenged friend wasn’t referring to Indian cuisine at all. He may have meant committing Harry Caray, the practice of which centers around commenting on baseball games. Or possibly Harry Carey, which seems to involve riding horses while wearing a broad-brimmed hat.

  • thishowiseeit

    Martha Sherrill’ post makes a good case that we can find spiritualy without the Bible.

  • Brendan McMahon

    I’m indebted to Morie Sawataishi. Akitas have sure added quality to my life experience. I’m very grateful.Brendan McMahon

  • gary Clarke

    I had at one hoped to meet this honorable man, whom has done so much good, witnessed and felt by me when I see my children play with their Akita.Gary

  • Julian

    Japanese breeds do not belong in a city. They were bred to bark at or bite anyone or anything other then the person who feeds them. I have lived in Japan for sixteen years, and one of the things I miss most about the U.S. is European breed dogs.

  • forsythia1

    I can’t wait to read this book. The description of Shinto is beautiful.

  • forsythia1

    I can’t wait to read this book. The description of Shinto is beautiful.

  • forsythia1

    I can’t wait to read this book. The description of Shinto is beautiful.

  • forsythia1

    I can’t wait to read this book. The description of Shinto is beautiful.

  • Soja John Thaikattil, Sydney, Australia

    Shinto as I understand it is a combination of pantheism (God is nature and nature is God) and ancestor worship. Living in harmony with nature, with humans considering themselves to be an integral part of it seems to be an essential characteristic of all early religions which is pantheism + ancestor worship, whether it is Shinto in Japan, the religion of the Australian Aboriginals and native Red Indians. Probably early pagans in Europe were no different.Buddhism evolved in a uniquely Japanese way in Japan integrating Shinto.

  • Soja John Thaikattil, Sydney, Australia

    Hinduism and Judaism developed an understanding that went beyond “Nature is God and God is nature” very early on. All other religions are younger in comparison. Even Buddhism is only five hundred years older than Christianity.

  • Steamboater

    This sounds like a beautiful story, however I just wish, in regard to Shintoism, the Japanese had admired and valued human life during WWII more than trees. Their belief then in Shintoism could have saved untold thousands of lives, including Americasn POWs.

  • Steamboater

    Akita’s look a bt like Samoyeds. I don’t know anything about Akitas but I had a Samoyed for 15 years. The gentlest yet most independent of dogs and very difficult to train, I loved her tremendously. I really do think there aren’t any bad dogs, just bad people who own and train these dogs to do terrible things. How could you not love dogs?

  • Steamboater

    There’s certainly contradictions in Japanese who believe in Shintoism as there are in all religions e.g., why would the Japanese then kill these dogs and use their fur to line their coats with?

  • Suzie

    I read your book and I LOVED IT.

  • Steve

    Very interesting article. As the owner of a wonderful Akita (Yoshi) I knew of the breed’s plight during WWII but never had heard of an actual individual who helped preserve these amazing dogs. I’ve also heard of Japan and its connection to Shintoism and, despite being atheist, have a strong admiration toward Shintoism and other religions or philosophies that embrace nature and the outdoors.

  • VICTORIA

    i tend to agree with the people who say no bad dogs only bad owners-

  • Athena

    Around the turn of the 20th century, Shinto was used to justify the hyper-nationalism of the Japanese – as a reaction to the flood of foreign ideas and goods that came with the “opening of Japan”. The leaders who were responsible for this pushed Buddhism into the background, and re-interpreted the old warrior codes to promote their own agendas, ike Hitler did to Norse Paganism and Christianity. (Because he used both to his own purposes). After the war, the Japanese disavowed the extreme nationalistic parts of Shinto and returned to the combination of Buddhism and Shinto that we know today.

  • Paganplace

    Well, Athena, God-kings and king-Gods, if you asked me, just aren’t the best idea, whatever you believe. With the kind of physical power people have wielded just lately in history, well, one can do worse than remember the world as seen through a dog’s eyes.

  • bryantp

    I live in Japan (U.S. born and raised) and I’m a Buddhist. Shinto is not normally practiced as a religion in the Western sense. It’s used for births, weddings, and the occasional blessing of cars, buildings, etc. It’s an animistic religion and holds little for the typical Japanese person.Buddhism is also largely ceremonial for today’s Japanese folks. Most of Japan is agnostic. Some would argue the same about the west. There’s lots of chest-thumping and condemnation but few even attempt to live by the Beatitudes.I found the site looking for info on Akitas. I have a Shiba ken…it’s little cousin… and think it’s the greatest dog ever. The book was outstanding and sparked my interest. The area in Japan where it takes place is phenomenally beautiful and remote to this day.

  • Len Yannielli

    Hello, Appreciate your research and writing Dog Man. I’m an Akita owner. I was fortunate to have an Akita that had “spirit.”Funahoski seemed to be admired by Morie. Is he still alive? Is there a way to find out more about him?Many Thanks!