Visitors to Japan may be familiar with the legend of chūken Hachikō, a famously loyal dog. As the tale goes, Hachikō lived with his owner Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agricultural science at Tokyo Imperial University. Best friends, Hachiko waited for his master at Shibuya station every day as he returned home from work. One fateful evening, the 53-year-old Ueno left for the university, but never returned home.

Unbeknownst to Hachikō, Ueno suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while working and passed away. Faithful until the end, Hachiko nevertheless continued his daily pilgrimage to Shibuya Station and waited for his missing companion. He continued to do so for nine years until he too passed away.

Hachikō was an Akita dog, a canine breed recognizable for its long, white fur and loyal temperament. Commonly husbanded by samurai, the large breed of dog was originally domesticated in Akita Prefecture—hence the name. Hachikō, permanently memorialized as a bronze statue outside of Shibuya Station, is easily the most famous member of the clan.

However, another prominent pooch had warmed the hearts of Japanese residents in recent years. With charm to spare, the unique-looking Akita dog Wasao was a hero in his northern heartland of Aomori. A "tourism stationmaster" and movie-star, he visited and comforted areas devastated by the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake. Sadly, however, he passed away in early June after being found in a state of immobility.

Akita Dogs

According to Wikipedia, “the Akita is a powerful, independent and dominant breed, commonly aloof with strangers but affectionate with family members.” Although there is an American “Akita” strain that sports several coat colors, the Japanese breed is white-furred and largely considered a separate lineage.

Bred in Japan for over a thousand years, Akita dogs are well-proportioned and striking in appearance. They are broad-chested and muscular with a short muzzle and triangular head. An Akita’s ears are petite and erect, and they have tiny, dark-brown eyes. Accustomed to northern climates, they are double-coated with a rough, waterproof outer coat and an insulating and soft undercoat. Overall, they resemble their spitz-cousins, the Husky.

Wasao Makes the Scene

In 2007, Setsuko Kikuya stumbled upon a forlorn scene: an abandoned 6-month-old Akita puppy. She naturally took him in and raised the pup who developed a peculiar appearance as he aged. Wasao became the focus of Setsuko’s blog whereby he gained online notoriety. Called "busa kawaii"—Japanese for "ugly-cute"—the young dog's unique squinty-eyed face pulled on the heartstrings of netizens.

Like any other rising star, first came the affiliate links and promotions followed by TV appearances and exclusive interviews. In 2011, he hit the silver screen in the self-titled Wasao, a Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey-like epic about an abandoned dog.

Shortly after that, the Great Tohoku Earthquake devastated the northeast region of the country. Dutiful, Wasao toured the area while trying to provide comfort and relief to victims.

As his visibility increased, Wasao gained international notoriety while cementing himself as an icon of Aomori. He was designated as the “tourism stationmaster” in 2011 where he greeted guests alongside his wife Tsubaki, a “deputy stationmaster,” and their daughter Chome, a “trainee.” The Wasao Project, a support group, established his representation as visitors began traveling breath-taking distances to meet the pooch in person and snap a photo—or video. YouTuber Keira Ashley trekked to the northern region of Japan to meet him—during a blizzard, of all timing.

She seemed as though she enjoyed the meet-and-greet, and an all-around had a good time visiting the region.

A Fond Farewell

Per the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “It is not length of life, but depth of life.”

In early June, Wasao sadly passed away after being found in a debilitated condition. Unable to stand, his condition quickly deteriorated. He was 13-years-old—early 90s in human years. The Wasao Project hosted a farewell event in his honor.

Online admirers of the ugly-cute “stationmaster,” were quick to express their condolences. Fans retweeted tweets from his Twitter handle, while others wrote in memoriam articles and heartfelt eulogies. Wasao’s owner and town assembly member, Tadamitsu Kikuya, responded to the outpouring saying “Thank you for everything. I feel proud to have been a family with Wasao.”

Indeed, it's sad to admit that Wasao finally alighted at that great terminal station in the sky. However, he lived a life that is easy to celebrate. Among Japanese residents, his life seems to have reminded many of core cultural values like loyalty and resilience in the face of adversity. At the same time, his anti-gorgeous appearance and steadfast character tugged on the heartstrings of an international audience. He will be missed.

By - Luke Mahoney.