The tragic story of the ill-fated Japanese Polar expedition that due to unexpected weather conditions was forced to leave in Antarctica a team of fifteen sled dogs of the Sakhalin Husky breed, two of which survived a year of hunger and neglect.
Digital Journal readers have had the chance to know about touching stories of loyalty and devotion of extraordinary dogs. These include the story of Hachiko, the Akita dog who waited every night for 11 years for the return of his master at Shibuya station in Tokyo, and the account of Capitán, the German Shepherd mix dog who located and kept guard for six years over his master’s grave at the cemetery of Villa Carlos Paz, Province of Córdoba, Argentina.
The Museum of National Treasures is an old building dating from the Meiji Restoration Period. It was built in 1882, before the opening of the Hokkaido University Botanical Garden.
Another story of canine sacrifice, endurance and perseverance is that of the pack of sled dogs of the first Japanese expedition to Antarctica. I learnt about the amazing story of these dogs during my visit to the Museum of National Treasures located in the Botanical Garden of Hokkaido University in Sapporo. It is a story little known outside Japan, thus I decided to investigate the details and share them with the readers of Digital Journal.
Japanese Antarctic Research
The Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition Program (JARE), under the auspices of the Japan National Institute of Polar Research, started in 1957 in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year (IGY). In January 1957, JARE established Syowa ("Showa") Station in East Ongul Island (Lat. 69°00' S; Long. 39°35' E). The research team for the first over-winter expedition consisted of 11 researchers supported by an all-male team of 15 dogs of the Sakhalin Husky breed (known in Japan as "Karafuto-ken"), which would pull the sleds in the outings from the base. According to the plans, the research group was to remain at the Syowa Base for a full year. In February 1958, it was to be replaced by another team. Unfortunately, a strong and unexpected storm caused "Soya", the icebreaker carrying the relief group, to be stuck in the ice well away from the Japanese base.
Penguins "complain" about the "parking spot" occupied by the USCGC Burton Island in Antarctica. The Buton Island was the US icebreaker that rescued the crew of Syowa Station that left the team of 15 sled dogs in Antarctica.
The ship and its crew were assisted by the United States Coast Guard icebreaker “Burton Island” (WAGB-283), but the landing of the second group to the base had to be suspended. The eleven members of the first expedition were evacuated by helicopter, but were forced to leave behind the fifteen dogs. At the time the researchers left the base, the dogs were tied together with chains and had food for just a few days. At the return of the men to Japan, JARE was widely criticized for abandoning the dog team, but the explanations given were that rescuing the animals was impossible and would have involved a significant and dangerous risk to humans which the organization decided not to take.
Return to Syowa Station
A year later, on January 14th, 1959, the third expedition returned to Syowa to resume the work discontinued during the previous year. They found evidence of the tragedy endured by the dogs. Seven of the fifteen dogs (Aka, Goro, Pochi, Moku, Kuro, Pesu and Kuma from Monbetsu) died still tied to the chains that held them, but eight others had released themselves and left the base. Of these eight, six (Riki, Anko, Deri, Jakku, Shiro and Kuma from Furen) were never found, but two of them, Taro and Jiro were still alive and near the base.
Sakhalin dogs Taro (left) and Jiro (center), who were left to endure harsh Antarctic conditions for a year, greet members of the third expedition (1959). The third dog at the right side of the picture was just happy to see them.
Gov't of Japan
Taro and Jiro were brothers, sons of Kuma from Furen, and at the time the dog team was left at the base, they were 3-year-olds, being the youngest of the pack. The siblings survived in the Antarctic for eleven months, including the extremely harsh winter months. They respected the bodies of their dead comrades, who were found intact, with no signs of cannibalism. The dogs may have learnt to hunt penguins and the occasional seal, which allowed them to survive for almost a year without human support and under extreme weather conditions.
Taro and Jiro, Japanese national heroes
Obviously, the two dogs became national heroes in Japan. Their breed, the Karafuto-ken, became the most popular dog breed in the country and was in high demand until the 90s.
Jiro remained in Antarctica and continued serving at Syowa Station. He died in 1960 of natural causes. At his death, his body was brought back to Japan, and it was embalmed. It is on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno District, Tokyo. Taro returned to Sapporo, his hometown and lived at Hokkaido University until his death in 1970. His embalmed body is on display in the Museum of National Treasures at the Botanical Garden of Hokkaido University.
The embalmed body of Taro is on display in a glass case at the Museum of National Treasures, Hokkaido University Botanical Garden, Sapporo. (Apologies for the reflections; 'Couldn't get the museum staff to open the glass case).
The embalmed body of Jiro is on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno District, Tokyo.
In cities across Japan there are monuments commemorating the sacrifice of the pack that died at Syowa base, and the heroism and endurance of Taro and Jiro. One of the best known monuments is at the foot of the Tokyo Tower. It was erected in 1959 by the Japanese Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA) and includes the entire pack.
Monument to national heroes Taro and Jiro in Nagoya, Japan.
In 1983, the touching story of the dogs of Syowa Station was told in a movie, mostly filmed in Canada, made by director Koreyoshi Kurahara under the name "Nankyoku Monogatari" ("Antarctica") with music by Vangelis (See 7 min. video below). In 2006, Walt Disney Pictures made another movie called "Eight Below", also based on the ordeal of Taro and Jiro, and the 13 dogs that lost their lives in Antarctica.