The first thing you’re going to notice when comparing the American Akita with the Japanese Akita is the size. Japanese Akita are significantly smaller than American Akita. An American Akita is a large to extra large dog - females range from 70 to 110 lbs while males range from 90 to 130 lbs. Most American Akita top 80 lbs with ease. A Japanese Akita is a medium to large dog - females range from 45 to 65 lbs while males range from 60 to 80 lbs. It is almost unheard of for a Japanese Akita to exceed 80 lbs.
It is not simply a matter of weight, for the American Akita is definitely more heavyset than the Japanese Akita, but height as well. An average American Akita will be around 26” at the shoulder, and some specimens can even reach up to 29”. The breed is getting bigger and bigger as American breeders select for massive size. An average Japanese Akita will be around 24” at the shoulder, with few ever exceeding 26” and many falling closer to 22”. The breed is trending towards smaller size, due to the tighter living conditions of breeders in Japan.
In general, an American Akita will be 3” taller and 40 - 60 lbs heavier than the same gender counterpart Japanese Akita. The difference is astounding; an American Akita is almost twice as much dog as a Japanese Akita.
When you look at the two breeds, you will notice far more than just the size. The American Akita is a heavyset breed with thicker bones and a massive amount of padding. Its coat is short compared to the Japanese Akita, so what you’re seeing is all muscle and fat, not fluff. By contrast, the Japanese Akita is a lighter boned, athletic breed. It has a noticeable tuck-up around the groin and much less padding all over its body. The legs are more slender and the chest more narrow. The coat of the Japanese Akita is longer than an American Akita’s, so they can often appear larger and thicker than they really are. When the dog sheds its coat or gets wet, it appears to shrink down two sizes.
The same differences in body type applies to the head and face of the two breeds. The American Akita has a massive, heavy skull with a blunted muzzle that is almost as wide as its face. It has closer set rounded eyes and loose jowls. The head is round like a soccer ball with a steeper vertical slope between the eyes and more dome-like skull. This appearance has lent the nickname of “bear” to the breed, for the dog is indeed very bear-like in build and head. The Japanese Akita has a longer, more narrow muzzle that fits into the middle of its face with wide fluffy cheeks on either side. It has slanted, smaller eyes and finer facial features. The head is flatter and wider on top between the ears and it has a gradual slope from the forehead, between the eyes, to the muzzle. Many refer to the Japanese Akita as a “fox” because of how angular it looks.
The pricked ears and curly tail are both characteristic features of the Akita breeds, yet both breeds are different in this regard as well. The American Akita generally has a looser curled tail, often laying across the back or side limply without completing a full circle. The Japanese Akita has a tighter curled tail, almost always making a full circle, and sometimes held upright like a wheel on top of the dog’s spine. The American Akita’s ears point straight forward, and stand almost straight up when viewed in profile; they’re also close together, only a hand span or two apart. The Japanese Akita’s ears point forward and out to the sides, and when viewed in profile follow the same angle as the neck line; they’re further apart, usually at least two and a half hand spans.
Color is the least important trait when it comes to conformation, yet many rely on it to differentiate between the two breeds. This can lead to erroneous assumptions, because the colors and patterns are not mutually exclusive. An American Akita can come in any color, although typically they will be a black, brown, mahogany, or fawn color with large areas of white (called pinto) and a black mask. More rarely they come in solid white, brindle, or a brilliant orange color we call red. These three colors - white, brindle, and red - are the only colors that a Japanese Akita comes in. The Japanese Akita may not have a black mask or pinto markings. So, although a Japanese Akita will not be colored like a typical American Akita, it is possible (albeit rare) for an American Akita to be colored like a Japanese Akita. Do not assume that a white, brindle, or red dog is a Japanese Akita simply because of its color. You must look at the dog’s size, build, head, coat, ears, and tail - really see the whole picture - to determine which breed it is.
At present there are between 200 to 250 Japanese Akita in all of the US and Canada. The breeding population consists of approximately 30 dogs. There are less than a dozen reputable breeders and only a couple disreputable ones. Most of the breeders and dogs are in California, where there is a thriving branch of the Japanese Akita preservation society, Akitainu Hozonkai (AKIHO), in Los Angeles. The breed preservation efforts include importing dogs from Japan and working closely with Japanese breeders. If you meet an Akita or Akita mix in the US, the odds are extremely high that it is an American Akita.
2020 Update: This was originally written eight years ago. Since then, the number of Japanese Akita in the US has about doubled. The rise of social media has made access to foreign breeders, particularly in Europe, much easier. This has led to a number of undocumented imports and litters, and far more dogs winding up in shelters than ever before. It is no longer true that you will not find a Japanese Akita or its mix in a shelter, at least in certain parts of the country where these unscrupulous breeders operate.