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Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain
Synopses & Reviews
How one man's consuming passion for dogs saved a legendary breed from extinction and led him to a difficult, more soulful way of life in the wilds of Japan's remote snow country
As Dog Man opens, Martha Sherrill brings us to a world that Americans know very little about-the snow country of Japan during World War II. In a mountain village, we meet Morie Sawataishi, a fierce individualist who has chosen to break the law by keeping an Akita dog hidden in a shed on his property.
During the war, the magnificent and intensely loyal Japanese hunting dogs are donated to help the war effort, eaten, or used to make fur vests for the military. By the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945, there are only sixteen Akitas left in the country. The survival of the breed becomes Morie's passion and life, almost a spiritual calling.
Devoted to the dogs, Morie is forever changed. His life becomes radically unconventional-almost preposterous-in ultra-ambitious, conformist Japan. For the dogs, Morie passes up promotions, bigger houses, and prestigious engineering jobs in Tokyo. Instead, he raises a family with his young wife, Kitako-a sheltered urban sophisticate-in Japan's remote and forbidding snow country.
Their village is isolated, but interesting characters are always dropping by-dog buddies, in-laws from Tokyo, and a barefoot hunter who lives in the wild. Due in part to Morie's perseverance and passion, the Akita breed strengthens and becomes wildly popular, sometimes selling for millions of yen. Yet Morie won't sell his spectacular dogs. He only likes to give them away.
Morie and Kitako remain in the snow country today, living in the traditional Japanese cottage they designed together more than thirty years ago-with tatami mats, an overhanging roof, a deep bathtub, and no central heat. At ninety-four years old, Morie still raises and trains the Akita dogs that have come to symbolize his life.
In beautiful prose that is a joy to read, Martha Sherrill opens up the world of the Dog Man and his wife, providing a profound look at what it is to be an individualist in a culture that reveres conformity-and what it means to live life in one's own way, while expertly revealing Japan and Japanese culture as we've never seen it before.
"Morie Sawataishi had never owned a dog, but in 1944, when the Japanese man was 30 years old, the desire for one came over him like a 'sudden... craving.' During WWII, snow country dogs were being slaughtered for pelts to line officers' coats; working for Mitsubishi in the remote snow country, Morie decided to rescue Japan's noble, ancient Akita breed — whose numbers had already dwindled before the war — from certain extinction. Raised in an elegant Tokyo neighborhood, his long-suffering wife, Kitako, hated country life, and his children resented the affection he lavished on his dogs rather than on them. The book brims with colorful characters, both human and canine: sweet-tempered redhead Three Good Lucks, who may have been poisoned to death by a rival dog owner; high-spirited One Hundred Tigers, who lost his tail in an accident; and wild mountain man Uesugi. To Western readers Morie's single-mindedness may seem selfish and Kitako's passivity in the face of his stubbornness incomprehensible, but former Washington Post staffer Sherrill (The Buddha from Brooklyn) imbues their traditional Japanese lifestyle with dignity, and Morie's adventures (he is now 94) should be enjoyed by dog lovers, breeders and trainers. B&w photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Japan is so good at presenting itself in its official, public capacity that it is often seen as something of a faceless collective, more of a phenomenon or a curiosity than a country of 127 million often wildly idiosyncratic souls. Year after year foreigners alight on the island nation and, reading its formal (impassive) face, pronounce expertly on the conformity of public Japan, on the way it turns... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) everything we know inside out (offering 2-and-3 counts at the ballpark), on the strangeness of its yellow-haired punks. The result is that we have a library of books on Japan as the science-fictive home of alienation and very little on the Japanese as complex human beings. Only a handful of visitors have tried to approach the country through sympathetic imagination and not through surfaces or statistics, let alone analysis (the last about as useful as approaching a bowl of noodles with a knife and fork). Donald Richie, the finest English-language writer on Japan and mostly resident in Tokyo since 1947, has caught the human factor indelibly in works such as 'The Inland Sea.' A few others, like Leila Philip in 'The Road Through Miyama,' her quiet, attentive account of working with a Japanese potter in the countryside, have found an ordinariness behind the Lost in Translation oddities. Now, to that very small number, can be added Martha Sherrill, one of the most open and responsive writers around, whose special gift is for entering other lives so deeply that we feel their longings, their confinements as our own. In 'Dog Man,' Sherrill takes her gifts for empathy and concentration even deeper than she did in 'The Buddha from Brooklyn,' her account of a former psychic who was suddenly declared to be the incarnation of a 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist saint. In her new book, Sherrill tells the spellbindingly beautiful and affecting story of Morie and Kitako Sawataishi as they have gone through their days, raising Akita dogs, for more than 60 years in the dark and unforgiving 'snow country' of northern Japan. Japan's faraway Siberia rarely features in magazines or on TV broadcasts because it's so still and remote. And yet, for that same reason, it has always appealed to some of the country's defining artists — from Matsuo Basho to Yasunari Kawabata — as, perhaps, the soul of a purer, truer way of life that is now almost lost. For Morie, who, when away, 'craved the whiteness, and the cold, and the way the sloped roofs of the snow country houses looked against a snowy hillside,' the austere landscape is the only home he trusts. For Kitako, from a fashionable part of Tokyo, what was most striking, when she arrived in this forgotten area with her new husband, was the absence of hot water, gas and electricity in their house — and snow on the ground for six months of every year. Not long after returning to his native mountains in 1944, having served as a decorated hero in the navy, Morie suddenly decided to take in his first Akita. So many of the famously loyal, sturdy creatures had been killed for their pelts or even eaten during the desperate days of the war that only a dozen or so remained. Very soon, the dogs became his life. They accompanied him on his walks around the mountains at dawn, and he started to take them to shows, where they won prizes. Yet with each dog he gave his life to, he also came to suffer. One of them died after apparently being poisoned, and the brusque and solitary Morie 'began to cry in a way Kitako had never seen before.' Another was stolen and sold for a six-figure sum to a stranger in Osaka. One tried to tackle a wild bear. Sherrill takes us into all these dramas with the warm attention and spirited sympathy of an Alice Munro or a Monica Ali. She rarely cuts away from the snowy landscape where Morie and Kitako live, and yet all of Japan's recent history comes out through their reminiscences. We travel to Manchuria with them in the early 1940s, return to Japan with Kitako after Pearl Harbor, and see her sell her two best kimonos for three days' worth of rice. 'All of Japan was so dark,' the old woman tells Sherrill now. 'Tokyo had turned to ashes. No one could escape a sense of loss.' The couple's fifth child died when a doctor in a horse-drawn cart could not arrive soon enough. A wild-bear hunter arrived at the door, with a fox pelt around his neck and shavings of dried gall bladder from a Moon Bear that he dropped into his tea. Readers familiar with the movies of Hayao Miyazaki ('My Neighbor Totoro' or 'Spirited Away') will recognize the dusky pastoral landscapes filled with spirits that are daily slipping from our view. The people I know in Japan are extraordinarily intense and devoted in their passions precisely because they tend to be so self-denying and restrained in public. And Morie and Kitako feel like figures I see every day in my neighborhood in Nara, as he trains all his stoical warmth on his dogs while she gallantly finds ways to keep things together during his many absences. As the two of them raise children — one becomes a vet, one flees snow country to work for Vidal Sassoon in New York — their lives gather a shape and continuity (you could even say a meaning) that are ever more sustaining as bullet-trains and large highways begin to appear all around them. By the end of 'Dog Man,' as Morie and Kitako pass through their 80s, we have come to know, and feel, their lives so fully that the smallest detail — Morie finally thanking Kitako in public — can bring tears. The dogs (ever cuter but lacking spirit, Morie feels) clearly mirror something in modern Japan, as well as something in the gruff, down-to-earth country boy and the high-heeled girl from Tokyo who came to see the beauty in a forbidding landscape. Indeed, Sherrill somehow extends the story so deeply that it seems to stand for choices in all our lives. As high-tech Japan grows ever more clamorous and revved-up, the Sawataishis' grandchildren start to visit the two elders more and more for the purity and stillness of their lives. What once had seemed like a chilly exile comes to seem like a simple, bounded sanity that is, in truth, the greatest luxury of all. Pico Iyer's new book is 'The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.' He has lived in western Japan for more than 20 years." Reviewed by Pico Iyer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Dog Man" tells the story of how one man's consuming passion for dogs saved a legendary breed from extinction and, in the process, led him to a difficult, but more soulful way of life in the wilds of Japan's remote snow country.
Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain is a stunning portrait of the Japanese rebel who single-handedly rescued the 4,000-year-old Akita dog breed.
At the end of World War II, there were only 16 Akita dogs left in Japan. Morie Sawataishi became obsessed with preventing the extinction of the 4,000-year-old Japanese dog breed. He defied convention, broke the law, gave up a prestigious job, and chose instead to take his urbanite wife to Japan's forbidding snow country to start a family, and devote himself entirely to saving the Akita.
Martha Sherrill blends archival research, on-site reportage, and her talent for narrative to reveal Sawataishi's world, providing a profound look at what it takes to be an individual in a culture where rebels are rare, while expertly portraying a side of Japan that is rarely seen by outsiders.
About the Author
Martha Sherrill is a former Washington Post staff writer known for her penetrating profiles of people, both famous and obscure. Her award-winning writing has appeared in Esquire and Vanity Fair, among other publications. She is the author of The Buddha from Brooklyn, a work of nonfiction, and two novels, My Last Movie Star and The Ruins of California. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son.
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