Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain
by Martha Sherrill
NY: Penguin, 2008
What did I expect when the title Dog Man caught my eye? Some yeti-like legend of northern Michigan? Perhaps at first glance, but when I picked up the book that expectation had to be quickly discarded. The dog man of the title was an Akita breeder in the snow country of Japan.
So, a tale of dogs set in the North -- much more appealing....
At home I began reading and found the book once again exceeding expectations, taking me not only far from home but back in time and to a part of Japan that was itself far behind the times in Tokyo and other large cities. Dog Man is as much about the man’s wife, Kitako, and their life together as it is about Morie and his dogs. The couple marry in 1940 in a Shinto ceremony held at the grand former residence of General Maresuke Nogi and his wife,
held as paragons of virtue for killing themselves on the evening of Emperor Meiji's funeral.
Immediately after the wedding, Morie and Kitako, a 20-year-old city girl raised all her life in comfortable circumstances (she is college-educated with a teaching degree), set off on a 22-hour train ride to the north where Morie was raised. Kitako feels out of place in the midst of Morie’s big, noisy family (he is the youngest boy in a family of five boys and five girls) but is even more confused by the snow country itself and its primitive isolation, far from the nightclubs of Tokyo.
...”Where do we go tonight?” she’d asked Morie, who looked at her with an expression she didn’t understand. It was so cold—still winter, with snow everywhere, as though spring was hesitant to arrive in such a serious place. And so dark—no streetlights or city lights, nothing but black sky and looking black mountains.
To Kitako’s dismay, Morie turned down a job in Tokyo, choosing instead an assignment in distant Manchuria, then a new colony of imperial Japan. Had Morie been happy there, Kitako would have had to endure life in Manchuria much longer, but neither of them was immune to the resentment of the local population.
The Japanese expansion into Manchuria had been particularly violent and the Manchurians, beleaguered and beaten down, carried a strong, lingering resentment of their conquerors, who were now immigrating in great numbers into their towns and cities. Kitako was shocked by the way her countrymen behaved in Manchuria, treating the Chinese like lesser beings, “as if they weren’t really human,” she says. And when she went to the market, she felt self-conscious, suspecting that she was hated by the local vendors simply for being Japanese, and for having money....
Their first child is born in Manchuria, but after only two years Morie and Kitako, still without dogs, return to Japan, where Morie will be in charge of building and running a power plant in snow country, not far from his family home.
The place name “Pearl Harbor” does not come into this story, but the war does. Due to circumstances, Kitako must make the long, difficult return trip to Japan alone with her baby. Resettled at last in snow country, a place of hardship and poverty, she finds the dialect hard to understand. A young mother, she has no friends or family in the cold winter world. And life in the north, never luxurious or easy, is made more challenging by war and rationing. No electricity, no gas, no hot water – a woodstove for cooking (all kindling and firewood to be gathered in the woods behind the house) and kerosene lamps for light. But when the firebombing of Tokyo begins, Morie brings members of Kitako’s family to the north to live with them, and Kitako sells her wedding kimono for enough money to buy three days’ worth of rice.
But into these dark, hard times of struggle comes Morie’s first dog.
Nobody talked about the thing in the woodshed—the creature that was now eating six pounds of food a day—or said anything directly to Morie about his dog. Morie never raised the subject either. He fed it quietly, walked it quietly [in the dark of morning and dark of evening], and tried to keep it out of sight. Actually, he wasn’t sure if his in-laws even knew about it. But they knew. They all knew. And they were speechless with disgust. You weren’t supposed to feed dogs when people were starving. You weren’t supposed to give dogs rice when your family got only potatoes.
It went beyond that: possession of dogs was illegal at that time in Japan. But Morie, who had never had a dog in his life, was seized by a “sense of mission.” He made discreet but careful investigations and estimated that only sixteen Akitas, so long the pride of the snow country, had survived the years of extreme hardship and prohibition against dogs. The breed was close to extinction. His mission, as he saw it, was to save the breed and return it to its former glory.
Who can say what inspired his love for these dogs? Something in them called to something in him.
After the war, life became easier and more pleasant. Morie applied his engineering inventiveness to the growing family’s wilderness home, bringing hot water into their lives. Their traditional Japanese soaking tub with hot water was available to all guests and neighbors. The hospitality of the house became legendary, and Kitako learned from local women how to prepare regional dishes life was no longer lonely. Her life was no longer lonely.
As for Morie, a Mitsubishi supervisor, who earns his salary by electrifying rural Japan, his passion, more and more, is dogs. Akitas. Acquiring dogs and puppies, learning about them, breeding and raising and showing and talking about Akitas with other dog owners and breeders. Had his character been different, Morie’s obsession might have become, as it did for so many others in Japan at this time, all about increasing his personal wealth and prestige.
But Morie made a decision early on: he would never sell a dog. He gave dogs away, he traded a puppy for stud service, and he loaned dogs--sometimes for the dog’s lifetime. But he would not sell a puppy or a dog, nor would he let one go to a stranger.
Each chapter in Dog Man has for a focus one particular dog. Anyone whose life has been blessed by dogs will understand the reason: the succession of dogs marks epochs in the owner’s life. There was Manchuria, without dogs. There were the war years, bringing the first dog. And so on. The author understands and builds on this way of marking time so that Morie’s engineering career, his wife’s life at home, their growing family, additions and expansions to the family home – an entire way of life in the faraway snow country at that time in rural Japan – are all, beautifully and naturally, revealed and integrated into the story. The early illustrations in the book show only dogs, later ones a few people, but the houses and forests and mountains of the snow country life we must (and do) imagine from the author’s richly detailed descriptions.
One of my favorite individuals in the story is Uesugi, the matagi, or migratory hunter-forager and “forest inspector” in a tradition older than samurai. Uesugi becomes a regular visitor to Morie and Kitako’s home in Kamaguchi, where Morie’s work had taken them in that period of their lives.
Uesugi came by quite often that autumn, until the deep winter snows in December drove him away, farther south. He traveled all the way to Osaka then, on foot, in his tabi and snowshoes, migrating from snowy forest to snowy forest, sleeping in abandoned bear caves and beside fallen trees. His clothing grew heavier and more eccentric: fox pelts around his neck, wool scarves wrapping his head, a wide-brimmed hat with rabbit fur earflaps. He carried a shotgun inside his coat, a knife at his waist, and a fishing hook and line curled in a pocket. And in the fabric pouches that he slung over his shoulder, he kept dry rice, miso, toasted green tea, shavings of ginseng, and chunks of kumanoi—the dried gall bladder of a Moon Bear.
Only Uesugi can still find wild ginseng in the forests. Uesugi has the best kumanoi to slice sparingly into green tea. And other than visits to the various mothers of his children, the only house he sleeps in that of Morie and Kitako. Although Uesugi is practically a wild man, Kitako feels a connection to him from the first, and he recognizes both husband and wife as kindred spirits from the start.
Morie himself, a native of snow country, becomes more at home in the wilderness every year, with Uesugi as his mentor. Although largely responsible for the region’s modernization, as time goes by Morie values more and more the wildness of the country that is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
...He’d be gone for days sometimes. He slept in snow dens and built fires in caves. He pole-vaulted across creeks and ponds with tree branches. He studied the differences between poisonous wild mushrooms and the edible varieties.... He tracked rabbits and deer and learned to catch fish using the maggots inside the bark of a beech tree for bait.
Everybody else had gotten faster and busier. Morie had gotten slower and more single-minded. And while modern life seemed more complicated but more convenient, Morie had gravitated to the essential and the difficult. He craved the natural world, the mysteries of its woods and groves and meadows, the primal focus of the hunt, and the company of dogs.
His life was changing as much as anybody’s had, but seemed to have gone in the reverse direction.
His life altered by dogs and the matagi, Morie becomes more and more himself with the passing years.
At the book’s beginning, we found Morie and Kitako rising in the dark, at 2:15 a.m. on a morning in late May to “open the mountain,” an old religious tradition now become part of popular culture. They have gotten up earlier on this festival day every year, because Morie likes to be first at the snow line, and this year Kitako, his 83-year-old wife, will be with him, along with Shiro, a 13-year-old Akita.
I write this post before reaching the end of the book. If Morie is still alive today, in 2016, he would be 100 years old. Not impossible.
Eventually, I will reach the last page and close the book, and sometime later I’ll search online to see if I can find anything about Morie and Kitako after 2008. But for now I am content, in the dark of my own northern winter morning, to be sharing one couple’s unfolding life with dogs in the wilderness of the legendary Japanese snow country. I am in no hurry to come to the end of their fascinating story.