The Case for Two Separate Akita Breeds

Sophia Kaluzniacki, DVM


First a Little History: According to Japanese history, the ancient ancestor of the Akita was the Matagi-inu. Matagi-inu means hunting dog. As time went on, and the social history of the Japanese people developed, these hunting dogs were changed in conformation and temperament so they could also serve as guard dogs and subsequent to that as fighting dogs. With the advent of fighting, other breeds were crossed with the native Matagi-inu to produce larger and fiercer fighting dogs. It was not until the early 1900’s that Japanese fanciers first became interested in restoring the original Pure Japanese Dogs. In fact, the Akita did not get its name until 1931 when it was designated a Natural Monument by the government. The purification process was slow due to the fact that many fanciers were still breeding for fighting dogs as well as the fact that Japan was involved in wars including World War II. Relatively few dogs survived the war, and those that did were mostly of the fighting type as well as what is called by the Japanese breeders, the German Shepherd type. During the war, most Japanese dogs were sought after as a source of fur for military garments. Many fanciers bred their Akitas to German Shepherds in order to avoid them being killed for their coats. Only German Shepherds were spared because of their use as military dogs. This plus the fact that it was very difficult to keep and feed large dogs during these very hard times, set the purification process back considerably.

Right after World War II, servicemen brought many Akitas to the USA. Other fanciers who had discovered this breed imported them up to the early 70’s. Most of these dogs were of the Fighting Dog type and the German Shepherd type. These were the Akitas most of us, including myself, fell in love with in the 60’, 70’s and 80’s.

The Akita was fully recognized as a breed by the AKC in early 1973. At that time the doors were closed to further imports because the AKC did not recognize the Japanese Kennel Club. This was because AKC has some very strict rules regarding record keeping and pedigrees that must be followed before it will accept a foreign kennel club. For a variety of reasons, JKC did not meet those requirements.

Meanwhile, in Japan the restoration process was in full swing. The Akita in Japan changed dramatically from the dog found right after World War II. The Japanese breeders decided that the true Akita was the ancient Matagi type. The Fighting Akita type was also deemed not correct because of the many foreign breeds that had been introduced over the past several hundred years in order to create it. Certainly the German Shepherd type, a necessity because of the war, was not desired. This did not come about easily and with the total agreement of all the fanciers. But in the end, the ancient Matagi type won out. In spite of the fact that the Akita breeders in Japan chose to promote the Matagi Akita, it must be understood that the Matagi and Fighting Akitas are both historically Japanese breeds.

And a Bit More History: In the US, the breeders and fanciers were more drawn to the large and substantial dogs typified by what the Japanese call the Fighting Akita. Some Akitas of the Matagi type were brought in over the years. But by and large, our breeders preferred the Akitas typical of what we have today. When the AKC recognized the JKC in 1992, it opened the doors for further imports. By this time, the Japanese dogs had diversified even further from what we were breeding here. Many of us found them to be quite exotic and some breeders imported them to cross with our type. A few started to breed them true to the Japanese type and have continued to do so.

It was at this time that problems started to arise worldwide in regard to judging and breeding. Most Akitas in other countries had come from the US and were of our type. The FCI is a show giving organization with which most countries other than the US and Great Britain are affiliated. It accepts the standard of the country of origin for a breed. Japan started to push toward having the FCI judges judge according to the standard and wishes of Japan Kennel Club. They phased this in gradually. At first, not much was made of it. However, when it became apparent that Akitas with black masks and colors other than red, white and brindle could not receive excellent ratings, and eventually could not be used for breeding, the issue of the two types rapidly came to a head.

Through pressure applied by several countries, most notably Mexico and the Central and South American countries, the FCI asked the JKC to help solve the problem of the two types. JKC then organized the first World Akita Conference that was held in December 1996 in Tokyo. At this conference, which was attended by representatives of 14 countries including the US, it was decided that the American type of Akita and the Japanese Akita were two different breeds and should be shown separately and not interbred. JKC would like the change to occur worldwide at the same time. FCI would like it to happen right away. To that end, representatives from JKC have visited us twice to present and discuss the issue. They will be visiting with us again at our National this October. They are also organizing another World Conference, which is tentatively planned for November of this year.

Which Brings Us to Today: Today we not only have American Akitas that cannot be shown or bred under FCI rules in the FCI countries, but also Japanese Akitas whose breeders and fanciers would like to have their dogs compete for AKC championships under their own standard and against their own type. In the FCI countries, the American Akita is the minority, while in the US it is the Japanese Akita that is at a disadvantage.

ACA, AKC & JKC Meeting in NY: JKC asked for a meeting with the board to discuss this issue. The meeting was held in NY in April. At that meeting, after a whole afternoon of presentation and discussion, the majority of the board felt that having varieties rather than breeds would be most beneficial to everyone. I and many others thoroughly disagree. In fact since the meeting there are members of the board who have changed their mind and now feel that a split of the breed is much more sensible. At this meeting, we were also told that it is a foregone conclusion that the FCI will split the Akita into two different breeds in the very near future. This will occur whether we agree to it or not.

Why Not Varieties? Varieties are groups within a breed that vary by mutually exclusive characteristics. These are such things as color (Cockers & Bull Terriers), coat type (St. Bernards, Collies & Dachshunds), height (Poodles & American Eskimos), weight (Manchester) and ear type (prick vs. hanging as formerly in the Norwich & Norfolk). The conformation of each of these breeds is the same in each variety. We do not have mutually exclusive characteristics between the two types of Akitas. Not unless we choose to divide them by color. I am certain that most of us would not want to do that as our standard allows for any color with or without a mask. We certainly would not want to exclude Akitas without masks from the American type. If we create varieties based on overall conformation, it would just muddy the waters. There would be too many dogs in between that would fit neither one type nor the other. Breeders, fanciers and judges would all be confused. Other breeds where there is a huge variation in type, generally do not have both types compete in the conformation ring. One type is usually considered to not be competitive. The best examples are among the breeds that have field and conformation types as is found in Setters and Spaniels. The mutually exclusive characteristics do not apply in the same way to two different breeds as they do between two varieties. The whole look is different between the American and Japanese type and this is what constitutes the mutually exclusive difference. In other words, an excellent example of an American Akita cannot be confused with an excellent example of a Japanese Akita. A very good American Akita would not win under the Japanese standard even if it were one of the colors approved by it. And it has already been shown that a very good Japanese Akita cannot expect to win much under the AKC standard. Finally, there is no guarantee that the AKC would allow us to split the breed into varieties, even is the club voted to do so. Currently there is a big problem with the Belgian breeds (Malinois, Shepherd & Tervuren). In other countries they are varieties, in the US they are separate breeds. Because they are interbred in other countries the imports can frequently have litters with two or more varieties in them. This causes no end of problems as the pups that are not of the same variety as the parents can not be shown in the US. It is very difficult to deal with situations where dogs are varieties in one country and breeds in another.

Finally the Breed Split: It is my own conclusion that the sensible thing to do is to divide the Akita breed into two. The American Akita and the Japanese Akita. The dogs coming from Japan today have been isolated from our gene pool for well over 25 years. They are very different from our American Akitas in both looks and in their genetic makeup. They are very lovely and exotic looking Akitas that deserve to have a platform of their own to stand on. They should not be swallowed up by the sheer size of our gene pool. Whatever we want to correct or improve in our American Akitas can be done from within our existing gene pool.

When we first started seeing the new imports in 1993 I was of the firm opinion that the Japanese had somehow radically changed the Akita and it no longer conformed to what the Akita had been in Japan and is in the US. How wrong I was! It is only in the past few years that I have begun to really understand the history of the Akita. My first clues were the presentations at the first World Akita Congress in Tokyo. After that, I started reading as much material as possible in old Akita Worlds, Akita Journals and Akita Reviews. I started to see the published material in a new perspective. My many conversations with officials and breeders from Japan have also contributed to my knowledge. Finally, my most recent experience in helping with the translation of a book on the history of the Akita, soon to be published by the JKC, has helped me to really understand the whole situation.

For over a hundred years before the turn of the century, there were already two different breeds that we consider Akitas today. These were the hunting dog or Matagi-inu, and the guardian/fighting dog or Kuwae-inu. Between World War I and the end of World War II, these breeds were often crossed between themselves and also with German Shepherds. This was very necessary in order to be able to preserve the breeds at all. We in the US re-developed the guarding/fighting type, while in Japan the breeders re-developed the more ancient hunting type. Both Akitas, both Japanese breeds, but historically used for different purposes. It would be a shame to not allow them to be separate breeds as they had been in Japan prior to the advent of the twentieth century.

A Little Genetics: Some have argued that we need the Japanese dogs for genetic diversity, hybrid vigor and certain points of conformation. This is not the case at all. The gene pool of our American dogs is many times greater than that of the Japanese dogs. We have more genetic diversity and hybrid vigor available within our own gene pool than the Japanese dogs do within theirs. Furthermore, the Japanese Akitas have the same health problems that our American dogs have. I have both first and second hand knowledge of this. Through my correspondence with owners, breeders and veterinarians around the world, I know this to be a fact. My contacts have been both personal and through several veterinary e-mail lists I subscribe to.

Take into consideration the fact that when we cross two breeds or two very different types within a breed, the first generation is usually quite uniform in looks. Depending on the particular cross, the dogs may even be quite attractive. Just consider cocka-poos. Two different breeds, but the combination is quite attractive and very similar in looks. This is also true of our "tweenies". Cross a good Japanese dog with a good American dog and the first generation offspring can look quite good. The difficulties start to come out in the second and third generations when the genes recombine again and sort themselves out along the whole spectrum. You have to breed toward one end or the other of that spectrum and end up having everything in between. This is not what most of us are looking for. By and large, the combining of the two types has not worked out either here or in Japan. Most of the breeders who have followed this path through more than two or three generations will tell you that it is not worth the effort, and in many cases has set them back a step or two. And for those of you who still insist that you should be given the opportunity to try, just realize that there are already enough Japanese Akitas in our lines that you can do this for a long time to your hearts content. There is nothing in our existing gene pool that will prevent you from breeding for the characteristics you are looking for.

The Logistics: Many of you have expressed some concern about how all of this can be accomplished and the ramifications thereof.

1. There cannot be a division into breeds or varieties without a vote of the membership.

2.  Any name change has to be approved by the membership. Both types would still be Akitas. They       could be American and Japanese or anything else the membership chose.

3.  We have no control over the name the FCI chooses for our American Akitas unless we choose to        work with them on this issue.

4.  AKC has to approve any decisions the ACA membership makes.

5.  Logistically it is much cleaner and simpler to split into breeds rather than varieties.

6.  How this is accomplished will be up to AKC and the ACA board. AKC has indicated that they will       work with us to accomplish whatever decision the membership makes.

7.  The "tweenies" would most likely be included in the American type.

8.  There would have to be two different standards, but nothing in the existing ACA standard needs to        be changed.

9.  If we work together with AKC, JKC, FCI and the other countries in the world, we can be a part of         history and achieve something that will be compatible to everyone, but most of all in the best              interest of Akitas throughout the world.