Can the Subaltern Bark?

Last year, the critically acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson released “Isle of Dogs.” The stop-motion animated movie tells the story of a young boy Atari who goes in search for his dog after the evil mayoral administration banishes the entire species to a trash island following an outbreak of the canine flu. Critics praised the film humans and canines flocked to see it.

Watch the trailer

Around the time “Isle of Dogs” opened, several people asked me if it was based on my book, Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World, which was published by Cornell UP in 2011 (and will be issued in paperback in a few months).

“I wish,” I replied. Although “Isle of Dogs,” like Empire of Dogs, is set on the “Japanese archipelago,” it depicts developments “twenty years in future.” My book looks back at events on the archipelago and beyond from about 1850 to the early 21st century. “So that means,” I explained, “my book is a prequel to the movie.”

Unlike the noble dogs in the film (sequel), the book’s dogs do not talk. But they do “speak,” I claim–playing off of Spivak’s famous query–and have with people shaped history. Specifically, I argue that two modern technologies, photography and taxidermy, produce sources that allow some animals to influence discussions about them.

The question “Can the Subaltern Bark?” also highlights the transformation of certain dogs in the imperial world from the nineteenth century to the present. That transformation turned previously denigrated indigenous dogs into celebrated national symbols.

As Westerners embarked on projects of empire building and colonial rule, they were accompanied by large, purebred, and powerful dogs. Throughout the imperial world, Westerners explicitly contracted their “colonial dogs” with indigenous canines in places like Japan that they characterized as barbaric and savage, aggressive but cowardly, and of mixed or wolfish breed.

It would be easy to dismiss such language as nineteenth-century trash talk, but it had devastating consequences in Japan and elsewhere. As Japanese embraced Western-style modernization, many elites acquired an enthusiasm for Western dog breeds and dog-keeping practices. Although such practices may seem harmless, they entailed a bloodier component: authorities simultaneously launched campaigns to systematically slaughter native dogs that did not fit into the “civilized” mold.

In the 1930s, native canines in Japan, long despised as disorderly, savage, and mongrel, were rediscovered and transformed into an icon of purity, loyalty, and bravery—of a distinctive and superior Japanese identity. No dog represented this transformation better than Hachikō of the newly codified Akita breed. He was said to appear each evening outside of Tokyo’s Shibuya train station to await the return of his master, who had died many years earlier. A statue memorializing the apparent loyalty of Hachikō was dedicated outside of the station in 1934 even while the dog was still very much alive. You can still see the statue today. Here is how a Japanese movie from 1987 imagined Hachikō’s relationship with his master.

Hachikō became famous precisely because dog enthusiasts and government bureaucrats cast him as an exemplar of the Japanese empire’s canine ideal: Japanese in character, pure in blood, loyal to a single master, and a fearless fighter. That said, photographs of Hachikō (like the one below), his body that was “preserved” by a taxidermist, and even bamboo yakitori skewers that were disgorged from his stomach by the taxidermist complicated and constrained his metaphorical manipulation. Perhaps these were Hachikō’s attempts to have the last word.

Photo of Hachikō on the street and stuffed Hachikō at the National Science Museum

So, when can the subaltern bark? First, as illustrated by the transformation of Japanese dogs from the nineteenth century to the 1930s, the subaltern can bark when the native dog is transformed into a colonial dog. Second, the subaltern can bark when we recognize sources, such as photography and taxidermy, that give them a voice. The bark, as well as the neigh, bray, roar, and even the meow of other creatures deserve to be heard and included in the histories we humans tell.

Aaron Skabelund teaches history at Brigham Young University and enjoys walking and bicycling with his six-pound sidekick Pochi (@pochithepoodle), a neglected, lost puppy who thankfully wandered into his life four years ago.

Can the Subaltern Bark?