Akita Inu, a domestic hardy breed of dog that until recently was hardly known outside of Japan, is now more popular overseas than in its native land.

And much of the credit for that is apparently due to “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” a 2009 Hollywood remake of the 1987 Japanese film “Hachiko Monogatari,” starring Richard Gere.

The movie is based on the true story of an Akita Inu whose loyalty to its master in Japan is immortalized in the much-beloved Hachiko dog statue that stands in the forecourt of bustling JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo.

Akita Inu originate in the snow country of Akita Prefecture in northeastern Japan and typically have an adult body height of between 60 and 70 centimeters.

An Akita Inu puppy was presented to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 as a gift from Akita Prefecture.

The annual number of Akita Inu dogs registered overseas exceeded that of Japan for the first time in 2016.

Kennel Shirai, a dog breeder in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, run by 77-year-old Koji Shirai, has exported nearly 500 Akita Inu dogs to around 20 countries and regions, including Taiwan, Italy and Brazil, over the past 35 years. In China, a growing number of new rich keep Akita Inu dogs.

Shirai said Akita Inu dogs suddenly became popular overseas after the release of the Hollywood film.

“It's easy to keep Akita Inu dogs because they don’t bark unnecessarily, and they are very loyal to their owners,” said Shirai’s wife Yukiko, 76. “It is often said in Japan that these dogs embody the spirit of 'bushido’” she said, alluding to the creed of loyalty that samurai warriors lived by.

Italy and Germany are among countries that hold an Akita Cup, in which Akita Inu dogs are judged by their body shape and facial appearance. The standards are as high as those in Japan, she said.

DIPLOMACY AND TOURISM

In July 2012, an Akita Inu puppy named Yume generated headlines when it was presented by Akita Governor Norihisa Satake to Putin. Relations between Japan and Russia at the time had deteriorated due to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the disputed Northern Territories off eastern Hokkaido. The islands are occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan.

According to Koichiro Genba, who was then foreign minister and flew to Russia with Yume, Putin was delighted with the gift and asked that his gratitude be conveyed to the governor.

In a single stroke, there was a perception that relations between the two countries had improved.

In 2016, the city government of Odate in Akita Prefecture set up Akita Inu Tourism, an organization dedicated to luring more overseas tourists by promoting Akita Inu dogs.

Searches on Google using Akita Inu as a keyword have increased sharply since around 2010, according to the organization.

Akitainu Hozonkai (Akita Inu conservation association), based in Odate, maintains a registry of Akita Inu dogs.

It said annual registrations in Japan peaked at about 46,000 in 1972. Numbers started to fall as large-sized dogs fell out of favor with owners. In recent years, the figure has hovered around 2,000.

On the other hand, the number of overseas registrations has been increasing sharply since around 2012. In 2016, the figure exceeded registrations in Japan.

By the end of last October, the overseas figure in 2017 stood at 3,432, of which 70 percent or so were registered in China, while the figure for Japan was 2,240.

“Keeping large-sized Akita Inu dogs has become a status symbol for wealthy people (in China),” said an official of the conservation association.