Fukushima village appoints rescue dog as "PR envoy"

15 August 2017

The village of Iitate in Fukushima Prefecture appointed on Aug. 14 a search and rescue dog born there as an ambassador tasked with promoting the area. The 6-year-old male mixed breed, named Jagaimo (potato), was evacuated to the central Japan city of Gifu, where he was trained, following the 2011 nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant. The dog, named "Village Wonderful Madei Ambassador" ("madei" is a local dialect meaning careful and steady), passed the test to be certified as a rescue dog on his 11th attempt. Village officials expect Jagaimo to play the role of publicizing disaster-affected areas as well as the village itself.

An appointment ceremony was held at Iitate Village Road Station Madei. Speaking at the ceremony, Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno expressed hope that the dog "will deliver a positive image of the village." He then handed over the ambassador's certificate to Tsuneo Yamaguchi, head of the nonprofit organization Japan Animal Care Center which has kept Jagaimo since the Great East Japan Earthquake that caused the nuclear disaster. "I feel as if he passed the test in time for the lifting of an evacuation order," said Yamaguchi, 66, referring to the termination of off-limits designation in most of the village last March. "I want all of you to cheer for him."

After the ceremony, Jagaimo demonstrated his ability in a training session conducted together with his 44-year-old trainer, Chieko Uemura, as he sniffed around, successfully locating a casualty trapped in a wooden box set up to represent conditions in a destroyed house. He barked three times to indicate he had found his target.

Jagaimo was born as one of a litter of six puppies in June 2011 at the home of Shoichi Inoue, 67, in the Sekisawa district of Iitate. As the whole village was evacuated following the nuclear disaster, one of the siblings was given to an acquaintance while the remaining five were left in the care of the animal center in Gifu. Four of them were soon adopted as pets, leaving Jagaimo alone. Yamaguchi decided to prepare him for life as a rescue dog, a rare thing for a mixed breed. He had thought it possible for Jagaimo to develop into a rescue dog due to his young age and physical strength.

Tests for certification as rescue dogs, held twice a year, comprise two rounds: one for "obedience" such as sitting and lying down, and another for "search" in which dogs sniff out people. Pass rates range from 20 to 30 percent. Jagaimo failed in 10 straight attempts since beginning to receive the exam in the fall of 2012. But he continued training with Uemura, and finally passed on his 11th try in June this year.

According to the center, there are about 220 rescue dogs across Japan. Jagaimo, belonging to the center, prepares for emergencies while participating in disaster drills held by municipalities across the country and other practice sessions. Iitate is considering using the dog at events to help improve the image of the village. "I want him to do his best for his home village," Uemura said. "I also would like learn about Fukushima through Jagimo."

Former Jagaimo owner Inoue attended the ceremony and congratulated him on his new role. Inoue said he had once considered culling the newborn puppies when he was forced to evacuate amid the nuclear crisis. But he decided to put them in the care of the animal center at the suggestion of family members. One of the puppies liked donated potatoes, and he was christened Jagaimo. Inoue was surprised to hear Jagaimo was in line to become a rescue dog, but kept supporting his efforts from afar. The former owner felt Jagaimo was growing a lot when the dog came back on twice-yearly visits.

Inoue now lives in a house he bought in Fukushima city. "The village has yet to reconstruct itself," he said. "I hope Jagaimo will be of help to people."

(Translated by Kyodo News)