The Akita originates from native Japanese dogs from the Akita prefecture of northern Japan and go back up to 1000 years. This breed in the 1600s was involved in dog fighting, which at the time was popular in Japan. During the early 20th century the Akita was in decline, as a result of being cross bred with the German Shepherd Dog, St. Bernard, Mastiff. As a result, a lot of specimens started to lose their spitz characteristics and instead took on drop ears, straight tails, non-Japanese color (black masks, and any color other than red, white or brindle), and loose skin. A native Japanese breed known as Matagi (hunting dog) was used along with the Hokkaido Inu breed to mix back into the remaining Akita Inu to bring back the spitz phenotype and restore the Akita breed. The modern day Japanese Akita have relatively few genes from western dogs and are spitz in phenotype after the reconstruction of the breed took place, however the larger American breed of Akita largely descends from the mixed Akita before the restoration of the breed, and thus American Akita are typically mixed and not considered true Akita by the Japanese standard.
During World War II the Akita was also crossed with German Shepherds in an attempt to save them from the wartime government order for all non-military dogs to be culled. The ancestors of the American Akita were originally a variety of the Japanese Akita, a form that was not desired in Japan due to the markings, and which is not eligible for show competition.
In 1931, the Akita was officially declared a Japanese Natural Monument. The Mayor of Odate City in Akita Prefecture organized the Akita Inu Hozonkai to preserve the original Akita as a Japanese natural treasure through careful breeding. In 1934 the first Japanese breed standard for the Akita Inu was listed, following the breed's declaration as a natural monument of Japan. In 1967, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Akita Dog Preservation Society, the Akita Dog Museum was built to house information, documents and photos. There is a tradition in Japan, that when a child is born they receive a statue of an Akita. This statue symbolizes health, happiness, and a long life.
In 1937, Helen Keller travelled to Japan. She expressed a keen interest in the breed and was presented with the first two Akitas to enter the US. The first dog, presented to her by Mr. Ogasawara and named Kamikaze-go, died at 7 1/2 months of age from distemper, one month after her return to the States. A second Akita was arranged to be sent to Miss Keller: Kamikaze's litter brother, Kenzan-go. Kenzan-go died in the mid-1940s. By 1939 a breed standard had been established and dog shows had been held, but such activities stopped after World War II began.
Keller wrote in the Akita Journal:
If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikaze. I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet. The Akita dog has all the qualities that appeal to me he is gentle, companionable and trusty.
Just as the breed was stabilizing in its native land, World War II pushed the Akita to the brink of extinction. Early in the war the dogs had a lack of nutritious food. Then many were killed to be eaten by the starving populace, and their pelts were used as clothing. Finally, the government ordered all remaining dogs to be killed on sight to prevent the spread of disease. The only way concerned owners could save their beloved Akitas was to turn them loose in remote mountain areas, where they bred back with their ancestor dogs, the Matagi, or conceal them from authorities by means of crossing with German Shepherds. and naming them in the style of German Shepherds of the time. Morie Sawataishi and his efforts to breed the Akita is a major reason this breed exists today.
During the occupation years following the war, the breed began to thrive again through the efforts of Sawataishi and others. For the first time, Akitas were bred for a standardized appearance. Akita fanciers in Japan began gathering and exhibiting the remaining Akitas and producing litters in order to restore the breed to sustainable numbers and to accentuate the original characteristics of the breed muddied by crosses to other breeds. U.S. servicemen fell in love with the Akita and imported many with them upon their return.