VOX POPULI: 3/11 disaster-hit village’s search dog embodies spirit of recovery

There are students who have sufficient scholastic aptitude and work very hard but often fail to do themselves justice in examinations.

A male mongrel named “Jagaimo” (potato) born in Iitate, a village in Fukushima Prefecture, is a typical example of a learner who is vulnerable to pressure.

Jagaimo failed in a test to be certified as a disaster search dog as many as 10 times. Last month, he finally passed the certification test in his 11th attempt.

Jagaimo was put under the care of Japan Animal Care Center, a nonprofit organization in Gifu, after its owner was forced to be evacuated from the village in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

As I visited the NPO to meet the dog, I found him to have a sharp, masculine face that belies the impression created by his friendly name.

While he swiftly moved his nose close to the back of my hand, his eyes remained alert.

“We tackled the tough challenge (of making him certified as a disaster search dog) in hopes of encouraging people in Iitate, but found it even harder than we had imagined,” said Tsuneo Yamaguchi, 66, head of the NPO.

Certification tests for search-and-rescue dogs are held twice a year in principle. The tests are designed to see whether the dog doesn’t fear the sound and white smoke generated by a powder explosion, whether it can follow orders and whether it can find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters within a certain time limit.

Jagaimo is terribly shy. Even though he can find buried survivors, he hesitates to bark to signal his discoveries.

Because of his shyness, Jagaimo failed repeatedly in certification tests.

To make him feel comfortable in the presence of many strangers, his trainer, Chieko Uemura, 44, took him to convenience stores in shopping districts and walked him through throngs of people during Bon festival dances.

Compared with the German shepherd and other breeds typically used as search dogs, Jagaimo needed three to four times more training to acquire the necessary skills.

This spring, the evacuation order was lifted for most of Iitate.

The people of Iitate have asked Jagaimo to serve as the village’s “ambassador” to symbolize its recovery from the disaster. In response to the request, Jagaimo will return home during the Bon holidays in August.

He will demonstrate his search-and-rescue skills in an opening ceremony for a new roadside station in the village.

Jagaimo, who tends to feel uncomfortable within a large crowd of people, may fail in the demonstration due to pressure.

Even if he commits a blunder, however, he will undoubtedly receive warm applause from the people of the village where he was born.

–The Asahi Shimbun, July 30

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.


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