Tokyo, Japan

June 26, 2009

The world’s most faithful dog and the last samurai. Two stories. Two statues. Two symbols of loyalty. Two sides of one city. I saw the dog statue first thing in the morning, the samurai one before I ended my first day in Tokyo. One devoted his life to loyalty; the other sacrificed his for it.

Hachiko: Waiting for Godot

Hachiko and Me: Shibuya Station, Tokyo

Hachiko was an Akita, a Japanese breed known for their thick coats and tremendous loyalty. He was born in 1923 in northern Japan and was taken by his owner, Eisaburo Ueno, a university professor, to Tokyo the following year.

Canine and human quickly formed a tight bond. Hachiko would see the professor off at Shibuya Station, and meet him again when he returned from work. Fate attempted to cut short this daily routine in 1925 when the professor fell ill at work and died. Hachiko waited at the station for his master who never came. But fate was no match to the dog’s clockwork devotion; he never wavered, waiting for the next ten years in the same spot, the same time, every day.

Fate caught up in 1935 when Hachiko was reunited with his master, albeit not in the station where they last parted.

Shibuya Station, Tokyo

In that decade of waiting with dogged devotion, Hachiko became a familiar fixture at the station, recognized by commuters. After his story was published by one of the professor’s students, he became known all over Japan and was affectionately called chu-ken Hachiko (faithful dog Hachiko). In 1934, a statue was erected by the station’s entrance in his honor. Fittingly, the place had become a popular rendezvous place. I wondered if the statue inspired people to wait patiently for their tardy dates!

Was Hachiko merely a creature of habit? Or perhaps he was a proverbial Pavlovian dog who came back for the treats offered by commuters. Though he was given away to relatives, he would repeatedly run back to the professor’s old house as well. Most likely, no one fed him there. The man-and-best-friend duo was only together 17 months, yet the dog’s devotion outlasted their time together tenfold – it spanned the dog’s lifetime! That was the epitome of loyalty. It could have only been a loyalty born out of a loving relationship and a deep faith that his master would eventually show.

Hachiko Mosaic: Shibuya Station, Tokyo

Saigo Takamori: No Exit

Over at the other side of Tokyo stood another statue – that of a robust man walking his dog. Being illiterate in kanji, I thought the dog was Hachiko (overkill?) and the man, the professor! The Tokyoite I was with translated the inscription for me. It turned out the man was “the last samurai” Saigo Takamori.

The Last Samurai, Saigo Takamori: Ueno Park. Tokyo

Saigo was born into the samurai class (the highest class in Japanese feudal caste system) in the early 1800s. That century marked the cusp of a new sociopolitical system in Japan. Feudalism fell out of favor, and in its place was the restoration of power of the emperor (the advent of the Meiji Era). That meant a centralized government that did away with the old shogunate order with its skirmishing regional lordships and their samurai retainers, who were then shorn of employment and privileges.

Some retainers joined the new national army as conscripts; other disenfranchised ones banded together and chose Saigo as their leader. Long story short, the band of rebels was outnumbered and crushed by the army. Their last stand was in southern Japan. Left with only their samurai swords, they committed seppuku by beheading one another.

Should he have surrendered by abandoning his anachronistic cause and bowing to Japan’s modern future? After all, his loyalty had already flip-flopped when he briefly joined the Meiji Restoration years earlier. This was what bushido (way of the warrior) dictated: A samurai’s honor and loyalty were put above his own life. The highest privilege came with the greatest price. Samurai retainers would follow their lord upon his death. Loyal service continued on to the afterlife. This was called junshi (suicide through fidelity). An old Japanese woman I knew told me that bushido was Japan’s real religion.

Without a lord, Saigo died for his dying class. He committed not only seppuku but junshi for Japan’s feudal past so that the country can join the rest of the modern world onto the next century. His death may have been a sacrificial one, symbolically. The government pardoned him posthumously and honored him with a bronze statue at Ueno Park in 1898.

Ueno District, Tokyo

Hollywood Treatment

Both Hachiko and Saigo’s stories of extraordinary loyalty became subjects of films. Hachiko Monogatari was a blockbuster hit in Japan in 1987. The story had also been Americanized by Hollywood as Hachiko: A Dog’s Story starring Richard Gere. Saigo’s story got worse treatment. His story was only the inspiration to Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. Saigo’s character, given a different name, was played by Ken Watanabe. Tom Cruise’s character, however, was purely fictional. There was no such charismatic Caucasian brandishing samurai swords on rice paddies in Saigo’s story. Hollywood would rarely make a movie about any foreign country without an American superstar, yet another brand of loyalty.