Ssh! Don’t say it too loud or you’ll frighten the neighbours, but Hachiko, Japan’s favourite dog, may not be the epitome of loyalty he’s cracked up to be. The faithful hound whose statue outside Shibuya station has become the most popular meeting spot in Tokyo, has been guarding a secret.

Everyone knows the story of the faithful dog Hachiko. He belonged to a man called Ueno Eizaburō, a professor in the Department of Agriculture at the University of Tokyo. Every morning, when Professor Ueno set out for work, Hachikō would accompany him to Shibuya station. In those days, Shibuya was little more than a satellite town outside the city limits, best known for its tea plantations.

The professor would bid farewell to Hachiko and take the train to the university, while his devoted pet would patiently wait for his master’s return in the evening. This went on for about a year, until one day in 1925, the professor died suddenly at work. Hachikō spent the night at the station waiting for his master to come home and went back every evening for the next ten years, always hoping that the professor would get off the next train, never understanding that he was dead.

Hachiko is a household name in Japan – this is the Hachiko bus in Shibuya, Tokyo. | Stéfan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hachiko’s story is a real tear-jerker, and unsurprisingly, it was seized upon by the journalists of the day, who were hungry for examples of unswerving loyalty in the face of tragedy. Loyalty was all the rage in the latter half of the 1920s. Then as now, the press was keen to stay on the right side of the government, which was keener than ever to remind people of the old samurai virtues of loyalty, devotion, patience and humility.

It might seem strange that a dog should be taken as a role model for a nation, but nationalists aren’t known for appealing to the loftier aspects of human nature. Indeed, the simplicity of their message is half their appeal.

In the feverish climate of nationalism that pervaded Japan in the wake of the Manchurian Incident of 1931, Hachiko’s story soon took on the aura of myth. The Education Ministry included the much-romanticized story in school textbooks to inculcate patriotism and loyalty in the younger generation and in no time at all the story was up there in the pantheon of great stories that no one ever questions.

The stuffed body of Hachiko in the National Science Museum in Ueno Park. | Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hachiko was on the right side of history in another sense too. His story came out just as a patriotic movement to preserve Japan’s six indigenous breeds of dog was gathering steam. Among those breeds was the Akita, a large dog native to Japan’s northernmost provinces, of which Hachiko was a sterling example.

The statue of Hachiko outside Shibuya station was unveiled in 1934. Unlike most national heroes, he actually lived to see his statue unveiled. He died the following year, ten years after his master’s death. By then, he was famous throughout Japan, so his passing was a major event. His body was taken to Shibuya Station, where he was given a Buddhist funeral, with prayers said for him by 16 priests from the local Buddhist association.

You can still see Hachiko’s stuffed body in the National Science Museum in Ueno Park. Because of the deep ties of affection between man and dog, he was also given a grave next to Professor Ueno’s family plot in Aoyama Cemetery. Eighty-six years after the faithful beast’s death, the small stone kennel-like structure atop his grave still attracts a steady stream of visitors.

Hachiko’s grave in Aoyama cemetery. | Hakaishi, CC BY-SA 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You have to pretty hard-hearted to remain untouched by Hachiko’s story, and with the passage of time he has only become more venerated. His statue outside Shibuya station was melted down during WW2 to make spare parts for trains, but a replacement went up after the war. With Japan currently in the midst of a ‘cute dog boom’, the memorial service held for him at his statue outside Shibuya station every April has become more popular than ever.

“So what’s the big secret? That Hachiko was a wartime hero?” I hear you scoff. No, the big secret is that Hachiko may not have been a particularly loyal dog at all. The novelist Oka Shohei (1909-1988) said that he used to see him outside the station every time he went there. He said that the dog spent all day there, not because he was waiting for his master, but because he got better treatment from the station attendants than he did at home.1

If true, this makes Hachiko not the epitome of loyalty, but of opportunism, tenacity, and a love of street life – which is no bad thing, though hardly worthy of a statue.


1As recounted in Tokyo: from Edo to Showa 1867-1989, Edward Seidensticker, p.401

By - George Lloyd.