Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain

Overview

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 ...

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Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain

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Overview

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, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Karl Taro Greenfeld
It is a tribute to Sherrill…that she depicts her protagonist, Morie Sawataishi, a legendary breeder of prize-winning Akita dogs, as much more than an anime rendering of a mountain man, even if that means leaving the reader to grapple with a mysterious and sometimes dark central character…Dog Man is best when it describes Japan's snow country—those northern prefectures, usually abutting the Sea of Japan, where the drifts can rise to 20 or 30 feet and where prodigious amounts of fine, particulate snow blow through the tiny gaps left by closed windows and doors…Sherrill's portrait of the fauna and flora of this lost world make Dog Man a rich compendium of fine nature writing.
—The New York Times
Pico Iyer
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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 Poststaffer 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. (Mar. 3)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The dog man of the title is Morie Sawataishi, famed breeder and champion of akitas. While working as an engineer for Mitsubishi in far northern Japan during World War II, he became fascinated by this hardy dog breed, one of the oldest in the world. Because of wartime shortages (many of the dogs were eaten or used to make fur vests for the military), the breed had dwindled to just a few animals. Sawataishi illegally kept one hidden, and, as soon as the war ended, he began working to strengthen and expand the breed. His fame and that of his dogs soon spread, and his champions were winning dog shows around Japan. After retirement, Sawataishi continued working and living with his dogs, hiking in remote mountains, and even hunting bears. Vanity Fairand Esquirecontributor and novelist Sherrill (The Ruins of California) offers great insight not only into one man and his dogs, but into an older, rural way of life unfamiliar to Westerners for whom Japan symbolizes fast-paced urban life and the latest technology. Recommended for pet and Asian studies collections in public and academic libraries.
—Dan Forrest

From the Publisher
"Morie Sawataishi has learned from his beloved Akitas to embrace the wild. Read this book and feel that power." —-Neenah Ellis, author of If I Live to Be 100
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594483905
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/4/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 608,539
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author


Martha Sherrill is a former Washington Post staff writer and the author of The Buddha from Brooklyn and The Ruins of California.

Laural Merlington has recorded well over one hundred audiobooks, including works by Margaret Atwood and Alice Hoffman, and is the recipient of several AudioFile Earphones Awards. An Audie Award nominee, she has also directed over one hundred audiobooks.

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 25, 2010

    Lovingly crafted

    Writing really weaves the tale of the return of the Akitas and their incredibly beautiful snow country with their rescuers. Yet, with all the love and compassion given to each dog, the author does not explain why no vet, doctor, or nurse was brought to the heroic Samurai Tiger as he lay suffering for a month. And why were no pain medications given to him?

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2008

    The story is amazing!

    I love this story

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2008

    A reviewer

    This is a careful rendering of a Japanese man's passion for and dedication to the Akita dog, a reflection of his rural-northern Japanese boyhood. Morie's efforts help bring Akitas back from near extinction at the end of WWII. Author Sherrill skillfully weaves the stories of Morie's family life with his determination to see the Akita survive and become again a symbol of Japan's rural traditions. Most of these northern-Japanese 'mountain dogs' died during WWII when families could not afford to keep non-food animals. This story should appeal to people interested in animals, in Japanese rural culture, and in a Japanese point of view of its country's redevelopment after WWII. Morie is dedicated to these dogs and there are lovely descriptions and photos revealing the animals' temperments and presence, which to him are more important than their physical appearance. Sherrill strives for balance by also discussing Morie's family members and their struggles dealing with his obsession with his dogs. Dog lovers will marvel at the magnificent characteristics of this rugged, protective, brave breed 'but I still don't really want one!'. Anyone familiar with Cesar Millan will see the parallels-- long rambles through Japan's countryside 'Cesar's walks', Morie's insistence on dominance 'pack leader', etc. Morie was 30 when he acquired his first puppy. In his long career of breeding/showing, he never sold a puppy--it felt 'wrong' to him. Morie's wife, Kitako, is a uniquely tolerant woman who shoulders a great deal of the family burdens so that her husband can pursue his career at Mitsubishi and his dog passion. Sherrill treats her sacrifices with great respect, and quotes the couple often 'they're retired in rural Japan'. It's a great read, a lesson in dedication, in networking, and pursuing a passion. If you love dogs, you'll like this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Cultural Snapshot

    An excellent cultural snapshot of a Japan that has faded into history, as well as an excellent view of the development of the Akita breed.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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