The Canine Heroes of the Imperial Japanese Army
How three dead dogs helped sell the war to the Japanese public
This story originally appeared on Feb. 6, 2014.
In the corner of the Enmei Buddhist Temple grounds in the coastal city of Zushi in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture, stands a stone cenotaph that reads “Monument to the Protection of Animals.”
The inscription dates back to 1958, but before that time there was another memorial here called the Monument to the Loyal Dogs. Although the incense still burns for the ashes of three dogs interred here more than 80 years ago, few of Zushi’s residents could tell you what the stone actually stands in memory of.
Inside the granite memorial lie the remains of three German Shepherds, all of whom were military working dogs who served in Manchuria in 1931 under the loving care of their Zushi-born handler, Maj. Itaru Itakura.
Their story is one of a family tragedy twisted into military propaganda—of truth distorted into drama as Japan marched into the Second Sino-Japanese War.
It all began in Manchuria in September 1931.
Above — the Monument to the Protection of Animals at Enmei Temple as it stands in 2014. James Simpson photo. At top — dogs on parade at the Mukden Independent Garrison in 1932. Rekishi Shashin photo
Imperial Army shenanigans
On the night of Sept. 18, 1931, a Japanese officer detonated a bomb on the tracks of the South Manchuria Railroad. The Kwantung Army—Japan’s guardians of the railroad in China—blamed the explosion on Chinese troops at the nearby Peitaying Barracks.
The Mukden Incident, as it became known, was the Kwantung Army’s attempt to drag Japan into war.
For years the Japanese had skirmished with Chinese troops under the command of the Chiang Kai-Shek and the local Generalissimo Zhang Zuolin—the latter of whom was killed on June 4, 1928 when the Kwantung Army destroyed the railway bridge as his train crossed.
As the fighting continued month after month, the Japanese officers in Manchuria grew restless and ambitious. The Kwantung Army enjoyed exceptional autonomy over its dominion and frequently operated under a doctrine of “loyal insubordination” (gekokujo) which put it in direct opposition to the political leadership in Tokyo.
Faced with economic hardship in the home islands, many of the Kwantung officers subscribed to militarist conspiracies meant to revive Japan’s people and economy.
One such conspiracy—the Plan for Acquiring Manchuria and Mongolia—came out of this desire for stability and security. Manchuria was rich in coal, iron and minerals, all strategic resources that Japan needed for its economic security and independence.
The Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo approved the plan as a possible response to a major Chinese provocation—but the officers of the Kwantung Army were eager to ensure that this provocation actually occurred.
Despite the opposition of the emperor, the prime minister and the cabinet to the build-up of the Kwantung Army around Mukden—now known as Shenyang—the officers hurried plans to realize the Japanese occupation.
They did so against the clock. Their contacts back in Tokyo had informed them that the minister of War, Gen. Jiro Minami, had dispatched a government envoy—Maj. Gen. Yoshitsugu Tatekawa—to bring the officers to heel.
At a section of the South Manchuria Railroad near Liutiao Lake, 1st Lt. Suemori Kawamoto—from the Independent Garrison Unit of the 29th Infantry Regiment—set a minimal amount of explosives to damage the railway but not destroy it.
At 10:20 p.m. on Sept. 18, the charges detonated, causing no injury and little damage. But the blast would propel Imperial Japan down the path to its own destruction.
The Kwantung Army blamed the attack on Chinese troops at Peitaying Barracks, some 1,200 yards away, and implemented a brutal response that had been long in the making.
Based on plans that had been decided months before, late on Sept. 18 the Kwantung troops bombarded the garrison into submission with a pair of 9.2-inch howitzers brought up from Port Arthur in July. The cannons had been hidden away in a bunker disguised as a swimming pool built in complete secrecy on the grounds of the Japanese Officers’ Club in Mukden.
Victory was swift. Five hundred Japanese soldiers assaulted the 7,000-strong garrison, killing 500 Chinese soldiers for the loss of only two Japanese.
As the world watched on in dismay, the Kwantung Army moved quickly to occupy Manchuria, forcing Prime Minister Reijiro Wakatsuki to recognize the Imperial Army’s victory and legitimize the Kwantung Army’s war-footing. This, for many Japanese, was the beginning of the war that would engulf the Pacific.
The northern barracks at Peitaying in 1934. East Asia Image Collection, Lafayette College photo
Dogs of war
The Japanese military on the Asian continent relied heavily on animal-based logistics—horses for transportation, pigeons for long-range communications and dogs for short-range communications and sentry duties.
There were some 10,000 dogs in service with the Imperial Army as messengers, sentries, trackers and sled teams at time and, as Japan marched across Manchuria and later China, the military recognized the need to ensure a steady supply of animals. It asked the citizens of the empire to donate their pets to the military for use in Manchuria, which officials described as a “working dog’s heaven.”
How do you convince families to give up their household pets to serve on the front lines? Through propaganda—particularly aimed at children. It was in this fashion that Itakura’s story became a popular tale, one taught to children as a prime example of “acts of loyalty, bravery and martial passion,” to borrow a wartime government phrasing.
The following account blends the dramatized account contained in Genichi Kume’s 1932 propaganda book Major Itakura and his Loyal Dogs with added details from Japanese blogger Benigara’s investigation of the memorial at Enmei Temple.
A well-known researcher of military dogs, Itakura arrived in Manchuria from the Japanese home islands in March 1931, having been transferred from the Army Infantry School in Chiba, where he served as chief of the War Dog Training Center.
Itakura—then still a captain—lived in an area of Mukden known as Inaba, where he looked after his unit’s dogs. Of all the hounds he housed, his favorites were the German Shepherds Meri, Nachi and Kongo. Itakura trained them to deliver messages and patrol with their handlers at night.
As artillery thundered on Peitaying Barracks on the night of Sept. 18, Meri, Nachi and Kongo put their skills to work.
From 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., the handlers dispatched the dogs to and from battalion headquarters carrying messages from 1st Company out in the field. Despite being outnumbered, the Japanese soldiers quickly seized the upper hand, because the Chinese soldiers were under orders not to retaliate. But under relentless artillery fire, the Chinese soldiers couldn’t help but try to protect themselves.
According to Kume, Meri was with his handler Pvt. Ueno as he joined the assault on the barracks. As Ueno’s squad closed on one of the buildings, a hand grenade exploded and Chinese soldiers leaped up, forcing the Japanese into close-quarters combat.
Shrapnel gashed Ueno’s leg. Through the pain, he desperately tried to hold onto Meri, but the dog slipped away and dashed inside the barracks. Ueno attempted to run after him but Meri vanished into the smoke and dust. Elsewhere, Kongo and Nachi had also been cut off from their handlers and were also missing.
The Chinese retreated in the morning. Peitaying Barracks was in Japanese hands, but the three dogs were nowhere to be found. Even when Itakura went out whistling for them to come back, they did not return.
Three days later the bodies of siblings Nachi and Kongo were found covered in wounds and lying in blood-stained snow. According to Kume, the pups had been forced into the snowy wastes outside. There they had made an impassioned last stand—evident from the bitten-off scraps of enemy uniforms still clenched between their teeth and the nearby mauled bodies of Chinese soldiers.
The propagandist Kume described a likely fictional exchange between Itakura and his eight-year-old daughter Atsuko, upon the officer’s return home following the battle.
Itakura watched his daughter’s eyes turn wide and brim with tears as he told her of Kongo and Nachi’s fates. He tried to console her. “They worked very hard. Even with all the fighting, they made sure our messages made it all the way to headquarters. They were on their way back to me when they were shot by Chinese soldiers.”
“What about Meri? Was Meri shot, too?”
“We don’t know where Meri went or what happened to him. That’s why I came home—I thought maybe he had come back here but … ” Itakura’s voice trailed off.
Atsuko’s large eyes filled with tears.
Outside the house’s gate, a cart trundled up, its contents concealed under a white sheet. Itakura steeled himself and peered under the cover to see Nachi’s corpse.
“Where was she?” Itakura asked the private pulling the cart.
“At the north end of the parade ground, sir. She died from a shot to the chest. I brought her over with Kongo.”
“Thank you. Still nothing about Meri?”
“No, sir. The others have split up to search for him, but there is still no word.”
As her father listened to his subordinate’s report, Atsuko begged to be allowed to see under the sheet. Itakura refused to let her see the bloodied canine corpses and ordered the private to take the cart to the rear of the house.
Before long, the private had whittled down a plain piece of wood into a suitable grave marker. Itakura took a brush and wrote upon it, “Here lie the devoted Japanese dogs Kongo and Nachi.”
Sentry dog training at the Imperial Army Infantry School in Chiba in 1930. Benigara scan
The account above is based on Kume’s popular story, published in 1932. It’s not the original account as written by Itakura himself. It’s an embellished dramatization—and the seed of a wider propaganda effort surrounding the dead dogs.
One florid account from 1932’s Conversation With an Anonymous Soldier From the Mukden Independent Garrison describes five dogs at work that night and three bodies being found—their blood staining the white snow around them.
Hirotoshi Asano, the man who gave Kongo and Nachi to Itakura, took these dramatizations to task in his own account, Remembering the War Dogs Kongo and Nachi. “To say that there would be white snow in Manchuria on Sept. 18 is going a little far.” Yet the imagery is found in many of the popular retellings.
The story goes that Nachi and Kongo’s bodies were buried in the grave at Peitaying, but an original account written by Itakura himself states that the bodies of Nachi and Meri, not Kongo, were recovered that day.
In The Desolate and Mournful Wind of the Raoyanghe from 1931—one of the earliest popularizations of the incident—this key fact has not yet changed. But accounts from 1932 onward resemble the story presented above, with Kongo found in Meri’s place.
Why didn’t Meri make the cut?
The names Kongo and Nachi carry a lot of weight. They originally come from exceptionally old Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in the western Japanese mountains.
Mt. Nachi also lent its name to a Japanese navy Myoko-class cruiser that sank off Manila in November 1944. Three war vessels have taken their name from Mt. Kongo—an iron-clad that served in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, a battleship that sank in the Formosa Strait in 1944 plus a modern missile destroyer.
By contrast, Meri’s name is a transliteration of the English name Mary. As was common in those days, Meri was also a male name. It’s possible the propagandists changed Meri to Kongo to honor the grand Shinto heritage.
While Meri’s Western name might have been unacceptable, the fact that he was a European breed would have had little bearing on his place in history. All three of the Sept. 18 war dogs were German Shepherds, just like 90 percent of serving Imperial Army canines at the time. And the Japanese military loved German Shepherds.
As government bureaucrat Kikuyoshi Miyagawa wrote in the teachers’ manual of a 1935 textbook recounting the Peitaying story, German Shepherds were the “essential expression of the Yamato spirit, the exemplars of repaying accumulated debt, the incarnation of dauntless courage whose loyalty and bravery rank with the imperial soldier, and which would even make a fierce god weep.”
According to Miyagawa, the dramatized popular accounts emphasized to school-aged children that the dogs had “died a death that is heroic beyond comparison” so that “a tough and courageous spirit may be cultivated through which the greatness of the Japanese nation (kokutai) will become visible.”
One school textbook from 1935 describes Kongo and Nachi’s deaths as follows:
At last they were found. However, they lay among a pile of dead enemies’ remains. The two dogs had taken several bullets each, and their death had been a bloody one. Looking closely, it turned out they were clenching shreds of enemy clothing between their teeth. The soldier who saw them immediately broke into tears.
According to Itakura’s original telling, there were no dead bodies around the dogs’ corpses, no clothes between their teeth and no heroic deaths. Meri was killed by a bullet to the abdomen, Nachi by a bullet to the chest—and they were both found together.
Kongo, whose body was lost, was presumed killed in action. Itakura noted that they bravely performed their duties under a hail of bullets and that their deaths would further the army’s commitment to the use of military dogs.
“Brave soldiers honorably killed in battle by enemy bullets, their deaths were not in vain—they have secured the future of working dogs in the army,” he wrote. “I am confident their meritorious service will aid the development of younger working dogs.”
Itakura was absolutely right. The military dog program would continue in large part thanks to Kongo, Nachi and all the other subsequent stories in the press, cinema and literature of dogs fighting for the emperor.
Itaru Itakura, far left, with his colleagues at the Military Dog Research Group in 1930. Imperial Army photo
The compassionate handler
The story of “speechless warriors” dying with honor on the battlefield would probably have been compelling enough for a propaganda piece, but what gave the story legs was Itakura’s subsequent death on Nov. 27, two months after the Mukden Incident.
The 33-year old Itakura was a military academy graduate from Sanbu District, Chiba. Entering the army in 1921, he initially served with the 28th Infantry Regiment. He moved to the Army Infantry School in 1927 as a light-machine gunner cadet, after which he was promoted to first lieutenant.
The Infantry School at Tendai in Chiba split from the Tokyo-based Army Toyama School in 1912. It existed to research and propagate infantry tactics and education throughout the Imperial Army.
One subject that greatly interested army leadership was the Germans’ extensive use of military working dogs and carrier pigeons. On the orders of its commandant in 1913, the school began research into military dogs—and received its first actual canines in 1919.
All of the German Shepherds at the school descended from 11 German colonial police dogs confiscated in Qingdao, China, which was occupied by the Japanese during their limited engagement in World War I. Until the arrival of the Japanese, Qingdao had been a de facto German colony.
Itakura became the chief of the War Dog Training Center in February 1930, but was called to Mukden a year later by Lt. Col. Sadao Yoshida, the founder of the Mukden Garrison’s War Dogs Section.
Itakura took the dog Meri with him from the Infantry School. Meri, a male German Shepherd, had been donated to the Army by the National Shepherd Club, of which Itakura was also a member.
Nachi was donated to Itakura directly by Hirotoshi Asano, another National Shepherd Club member. Asano had considered Nachi particularly suited for service after taking her and her litter-mates for a walk. The puppies scattered in panic when a motorbike backfired.
Asano searched and searched for Nachi as he collected the puppies, and was sure she was gone for good as he walked her litter-mates home. He found Nachi was waiting for him back at home. This intelligence and homing instinct was rare among his dogs, and this encouraged Asano to supply Nachi to the army.
Kongo was Nachi’s brother, and his donation to the military was entirely accidental. As Asano’s wife prepared to crate and send Nachi to Itakura in Mukden, she worried that the pup would be lonely on her long journey. Searching for a companion for poor Nachi, Asano selected Kongo due to his similar character.
The pair arrived in Dalian and from there joined Itakura and his wife on their trip to their new home in Mukden.
Itakura had one other dog he wanted to take with him—Hopu (“hope”), donated to the army by Qingdao resident Kakusaburo Suzuki. But the army understood the need for good public relations to maintain a steady supply of donated working dogs, so it rejected Itakura’s request and sent Hopu back to Japan to do publicity work.
It’s safe to say that Itakura loved dogs. He worked with them, lived with them and reportedly brought them home to bathe and play with his daughter and son. It seems fitting that his legacy would be dominated by them.
League of Nations political map showing railroads of Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1932. Heidelberg University scan
Death of the master
Clashes between Japanese and Chinese troops escalated in the aftermath of the Mukden Incident. Anti-Japanese Volunteer Army troops invaded Jinzhou on Nov. 27, 1931. The Kwantung Army dispatched its own troops from the Mukden Independent Garrison in armored trains to fend off the Chinese advance.
At 5:40 a.m., Itakura left Mukden on an armored train heading west toward Shanhaiguan. His train did not go unnoticed—a spy reported its departure and a Chinese armored train was dispatched to intercept.
The Japanese arrived at Baiqi Station at 8:15 a.m. Station staff told them there was a freight train inbound from Raoyanghe Station. The staff was unable to contact other stations up the track because the communications cable had become disconnected, so two messenger boys boarded the Japanese train and at 8:30 a.m. it set off through the snow at a steady 30 kilometers per hour.
At 9:30 a.m., the Japanese train suddenly came under fire. As shells burst around them, the chief of the train’s guard element, 1st Lt. Shimoshiba, ordered the train’s mountain guns to return fire. The attacking train’s front carriage came into view—it was the eight-carriage Chinese Zhongshan.
As many as 80 shells rocked the Japanese train in the first hour. The continuous volleys of gunfire by the Japanese had slowly depleted their ammunition supply. With only 20 shots remaining, one of the messenger boys from Baiqi headed back along the tracks to request resupply from the next train down the line.
On the way, the messenger bumped into Itakura, who had been busy scouting the area. Itakura told the boy to return to the train with orders to charge the enemy. The messenger asked about the civilians aboard—including a Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun journalist—but Itakura reiterated that the train was to charge with all hands.
Frustrated, Itakura decided to deliver the message himself.
Aboard the train, members of the Japanese 2nd battalion prepared their counter-attack. The Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun reporter noted the pre-battle nerves that rippled through the train at 11:30 a.m., as it began to close the 1,500-meter gap with its attacker.
The Chinese halted the advance by pulling back to Raoyanghe Station and destroyed the connecting bridge. The Japanese train made an emergency stop and was now a sitting duck. A crewman died. The Chinese bombardment continued unabated across the river and Shimoshiba, seeing the danger his troops faced, ordered a 300-meter retreat.
Itakura was now 700 meters away, in the middle of his round trip to deliver a situation report and receive orders from the battalion commander. After arranging an ammunition resupply to the forward train car, Itakura opened the carriage door to continue down the tracks when an artillery shell exploded, spraying him with shrapnel.
The Nichinichi reporter described Itakura falling to the floor, calling out, “I’ve been hit!” Shrapnel had penetrated the left side of his abdomen and he was bleeding out. Battalion commander Kojima lifted Itakura onto his shoulder and rushed him back inside the train.
The Desolate and Mournful Wind of the Raoyanghe includes the propaganda version of Itakura’s last moments. Despite being spread thin by mounting casualties, the battalion physician Tamura came over to tend Itakura’s wounds.
The shrapnel had penetrated deep into Itakura’s gut and shredded his insides. His prognosis was not good. Crouching beside Itakura, Tamura shouted, “Capt. Itakura, pull yourself together!” He was pleasantly surprised when Itakura opened his eyes. “You’re awake!” the physician said. “Guess what—the enemy is retreating!”
It was a lie to make a dying man happy, and it worked.
Itakura bowed his head to the doctor. “Tamura, I can die in peace, following behind my beloved dogs. If you go back to Mukden, tell my children that I died fighting for my country and to take care of the remaining dog in my place.”
The Asahi Shimbun report tells what is probably the true story of Itakura’s last moments. “Please take care of my three children,” he asked battalion commander Kojima.
The fighting raged until the the Chinese train beat a retreat at 3 p.m., one of its carriages completely destroyed. In recapturing Raoyanghe, the Japanese lost several of non-commissioned officers wounded or killed. Itakura was the only officer killed in the attack. He was posthumously promoted to major for his actions that day.
The Asahi Shimbun’s coverage of Itakura’s death also included the original and unaltered story of the deaths of his dogs. Itakura became inextricably linked to his faithful canines. For that, he surely would have been happy.
Postcard depicting the Monument to the Loyal Dogs in Zushi. Benigara scan
Endorsing the myth
On July 5, 1933, during the first award presentations for animals of the Imperial Army, Kongo and Nachi each received the highest honor—an honorific collar which is now kept in the museum on the grounds of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
The Mukden Independent Garrison Headquarters had requested public recognition of the dogs’ efforts on June 10:
First, on the night of Sept. 18, 1931 the 2nd Battalion were dispatched for the offensive on Peitaying near Liutiaoman. Kongo and Nachi, war dogs attached to 1st Company participated in the battle.
Namely, on that battlefield they were responsible for carrying orders between the company and battalion headquarters through darkness and under enemy fire and performed with distinction.
In addition, at the height of the battle 1st Company broke through under machine gun fire, the dogs broke into the ranks of the enemy volunteers, killing and wounding with their bites, causing much loss and menace, aiding the company’s battle before being honorably killed in action.
For their meritorious deeds we put them forward for highest honors.
Meri received no mention—and it is blindingly obvious that the “official” story was taken from the popularized retelling and not the initial account Itakura gave to Asano.
Four days later on July 9, the dogs were commemorated by the opening of the Monument to the Loyal Dogs at Enmei Temple in Zushi. Itakura’s widow, Army Minister Sadao Araki and former minister of war—and soon-to-be commander of the Kwantung Army—Gen. Jiro Minami all attended the ceremony along with other political and military dignitaries plus more than 2,000 school-children who had raised the funds to erect the statue.
The students sang a song in the dogs’ honor called “Nachi and Kongo’s War Feat.”
Shizuko and her children stand in front of the Monument to the Loyal Dogs. Benigara scan
Hijacking a family memorial
Itakura’s widow Shizuko moved to Zushi from Mukden following her husband’s death, taking with her a male German Shepherd named Juri—taken from the English name Julie.
Juri had been purchased by the Shanghai Shepherd Club from a Russian trader in the city and donated to Itakura in September, immediately after the deaths of Kongo, Nachi and Meri. Itakura had put this new dog to work as a railway guard in Mukden.
Shizuko returned to Japan in 1932 with her three children and Juri. She had worked at an elementary school in Mukden and found work in Kanagawa Prefecture teaching English and music at Zushi Practical Course Girls’ High School and Zushi Elementary School.
Juri died from distemper-related infection on Valentine’s Day in 1932, around the same time that Nachi and Kongo were becoming household names. His remains were buried at the rear of Enmeiji Temple.
Itakura’s eldest daughter Atsuko entered Zushi Practical Course Girls’ High School—where her mother worked—in April 1933. Principal Yujiro Arai learned of Itakura’s story during the initial entrance inspection. He visited Juri’s grave with children from the school and related the story of Nachi and Kongo.
According to a bulletin by the Imperial War Dog Association, he concluded his story, saying:
Even though they were non-native dogs, Kongo and Nachi lived in the empire and were trained by a solider of the Imperial Army, working loyally to the Imperial Japanese Army. … We should remember their devotion and loyalty.
Arai’s words apparently stirred something in the pupils. Flowers and money started to stack up in front of Juri’s grave. The head priest of the temple promised the children he would set aside a corner for Juri if they could raise enough money for a gravestone.
The children solicited donations and handed over their own pocket money. Some kids placed a collection box outside the staff room at the school and in two days it was full. The funds totaled ¥20, approximately $75 today. The school itself had raised enough money to purchase a gravestone—but the collection efforts were far from over.
On April 22, Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun published a story on the children’s efforts. Money flooded in from the public. Very quickly, the children’s coffers exceeded ¥900, or $3,350 today. With the explosion in donations, the principal founded a support committee including Enmeiji’s chief priest, Zushi’s mayor, the local veteran’s association and Vice Adm. Kamiizumi.
Inevitably, plans for the memorial evolved beyond a simple grave for a beloved dog and instead became a monument to faithful hounds everywhere.
Toshio Aoyanagi, a young engraver, won the commission to produce a bronze statue in Juri’s image. But with Juri already deceased, Aoyanagi was forced to use a dog from Tokyo named Hirumoa—probably from the name Gilmore.
In contrast to the obedient canine his image would represent, Hirumoa was reportedly a very difficult model. But after a year of labor, Aoki finished the double-size mold of a German Shepherd standing tall with his messenger pack.
Juri’s remains were placed in the memorial alongside the remains of “Kongo” and Nachi, retrieved from Peitaying. Their interment capped the much adapted story of Itakura and his loyal dogs—but what had been gained?
Postcard of military dogs in a large-scale Japanese army exercise in 1932. H. Kohno scan
Barking for the war effort
The propaganda continued in Tokyo Broadcasting’s May 28, 1932 Famous Dogs of the World, which had Meri suddenly showing up again months after his disappearance and the subsequent death of his master. The pup arrived at the Itakura home in Inaba, exhausted and emaciated but alive.
The show featured an interview with Capt. Shigemitsu Kishi, who had been stationed in Mukden during the Incident. Kishi described the dogs being unleashed upon the enemy barracks, attacking the enemy while the Japanese attackers were pinned down.
According to Kishi, when the Japanese soldiers checked the barracks the next morning, they found Kongo and Nachi with their throats slit and several gunshots to the abdomen. He claimed that Meri had returned home 53 days later without a single cut on his body.
He said that Meri was still at work in the military, two years after Itakura had recorded that the dog had died.
Kishi was no knave—he was the adopted son of Lt. Gen. Iyajiro Kishi, advisor to Zhang Zuolin, the warlord of Manchuria killed by a Kwangtung Army plot in 1928. He was also Itakura’s successor at Mukden and had passed through the Chiba Infantry School’s War Dog Section.
Keenly aware of the need to promote the military in the eyes of the public, Kishi and colleagues pushed this new and even more dramatic version of Itakura’s loyal hounds to the media.
The donation of dogs to the military was a primary source of canine recruitment, as Aaron Herald Skabelund recounts in his book Empire of Dogs. Just as parents watched their children march off to war, waving flags emblazoned with the rising sun insignia, so too were pet owners expected to sacrifice their beloved dogs for the good of nation.
Popularizing the 1928 story, glamorizing the three dogs’ roles and portraying their deaths as heroic helped the army meet growing demand for canines and handlers.
The introduction of Meri’s survival to the story had lasting impact. It appears in Genichi Kume’s Major Itakura and his Loyal Dogs, as well as many other later retellings.
Yet we know from Itakura’s letter to Asano that Meri was found dead—and it is unlikely that his return would have gone unreported in the press. It also seems unlikely that the Itakuras left Meri in Manchuria. Nor does the pup’s name also appear in records of dogs dispatched for “anti-bandit operations” in 1932.
The lack of evidence for the survival of one of Itakura’s dogs suggests that Kishi was lying.
Entrance to Enmei Temple in Zushi in 2014. James Simpson photo
Whatever the truth was, it was this altered version of the story that gained national attention. The notion that Kongo and Nachi were born together, trained together and died together for their emperor and country gratified a propaganda-addled media. Meri’s survival and continued service was a bonus.
Despite the popularity of the story of Nachi and Kongo in wartime Japan, they are relatively unknown today. Their tale of loyalty and bravery has been overshadowed by the story of Hachiko, the Akita-ken dog who stood waiting for his civilian owner to return to Shibuya Station, day after day.
Hachiko entered the limelight with an article in the Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 8, 1932. Appearing alongside Kongo and Nachi in ethics texts from 1934, he has his own statue, several movies and is truly world famous.
Hachiko endures thanks to his civilian roots. Kongo and Nachi, born and popularized by the militarist propaganda machine that pressed the Japanese Empire into a war it couldn’t possibly have won, were purged from children’s texts by Gen. Douglas Macarthur’s postwar occupation administration.
The occupation staff examined “existing curricula, textbooks, teaching manuals and instructional materials” to “eliminate … those portions designed to promote a militaristic or ultra-nationalistic ideology,” according to staff documents.
Even the monument in Enmei Temple did not survive the war. Aoyanagi’s bronze statue was melted down for military use in 1939. The militarist corruption of the memorial was thus complete.
The memorial was rebuilt in 1958 with its new, more pacifistic name—Monument to the Protection of Animals.
This willingness to sever ties to their wartime past has served the majority of the Japanese population well in the postwar decades. This severance is ongoing despite the vocal minority of activists who glorify the memory of Japan’s imperial history.
Most Japanese consider their nation a victim of the ultranationalism that swept through Japan in the 1930s—and I suspect many would now sympathize with Itakura’s dogs as pawns of the militarist propaganda machine.
The author would particularly like to thank blogger Benigara for his support in writing this article.