TOKYO (majirox news) – Many foreigners do a double take when they see a woman pushing a stroller with two poodles in it, an increasingly common sight in Tokyo. They shouldn’t be surprised at the lengths Japanese cat and dog lovers will go to pamper their pets.
According to Elizabeth Oliver, founder of ARK, a non-profit organization that has been rescuing abused animals for about 20 years, “there are now more pets in Japan than there are children under 16.”
Pets from some of Tokyo’s top pet stores such as Barkerys command eye-popping prices, around $6,500 for a toy poodle and $5,000 for a Chihuahua. The Japanese tendency to opt for brand goods and the latest popular craze has run wild when it comes to pets.
“The pet boom is caused by Japan’s changing society,” Oliver says. “Fewer women are getting married and want a pet as a companion. Older, retired people want a dog to walk during their free time.”
Like everything in Japan, even animals should come beautifully packaged. There has been a strong shift away from mixed breeds, and other fun dogs to small, expensive dogs. “Breed, style, color, shape, and cuteness are more important now than whether the dog will fit their life-style or they should even buy a dog at all.”
Sadly, few owners ever ask if the dog will be happy with them. Some parks, apartment complexes, and mountain sides are full of abandoned cats and dogs, thrown away by their owners when they got tired of them.
However, while the Japanese economy is suffering, the Japanese pet industry continues to grow. “The industry is worth 12.5 billion dollars annually,” says Shimpei Iwama, a researcher at Fuji Kezai Company in Osaka. This is the highest figure recorded since data became available in 1990 and represents a 4.6 percent increase from the previous year.
More than 70 million dollars is spent on stylish clothing, excluding cosmetics, accessories, insurance and other services. Many people buy premium pet food. Ten years ago, a typical owner would spend about 35 dollars a month for pet food, but today they spend at least 120 dollars, notes Shimpei. Single men and women from 35 to 59 and retired people, spend the most on their pets. Women spend four times more on their pets than men do.
Crooks come out of the cracks when there is money to be made. Many Japanese don’t know that many of these cute dogs come from puppy mills where dogs are bred under horrifying conditions.
Recently, ARK rescued four French Bulldogs from a 72-year-old breeder who suddenly quit the business. The dogs were going to be given to a government-run animal management center. If a suitable owner is not found within a certain time, the animals are usually euthanized with carbon dioxide gas. However, many of the machines used for euthanizing the cats and dogs are old, so they often suffer a long, painful death.
The French Bulldogs were fenced in an open field in the countryside with no roof. They were cramped together, sleeping on top of their own urine and feces, and fighting each other for food. One of the dogs at ARK’s Center in Tokyo had red eyes, which had been blinded while he was fighting for food.
Some breeders keep dogs alone in small cages stacked against walls, says Junko Kanegae, director of ARK at Tokyo. “Many of the dogs we see suffer from a variety of diseases and their coats are full of hair balls. Some are prematurely aged, with rotten teeth and weak bones from endless breeding,” she says.
“The further you go outside the big cities the worse it gets. To these people dogs are just things without any life inside them.”
According to Environment Ministry figures, there were about 337,000 abandoned dogs and cats in Japan in 2008. Of those about 300,000 (90 percent) were put down while about 36,000 animals found new homes.
Motoharu Iida, who filmed the 2009 documentary Dogs, Cats & Humans, says things are improving, but the numbers are still too high. In 2000, about 650,000 animals were abandoned.
Iida’s film contrasts Japan’s situation with that of Britain, where the pet death rate is far lower due to the public’s willingness to adopt animals from shelters and offer their financial support. Iida says today there are more support groups and places like the Kanagawa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a privately run no-kill shelter where people bring pets they can no longer care for.
The staff do their best to take care of the animals and train unruly dogs to give them the best chance of getting adopted by new owners. Unfortunately, they have limited resources and are forced to release many animals after they’ve been spayed or neutered.
Oliver adds that at present breeders and pet shops in Japan are supposed to be registered and inspected by local authorities, but the guidelines are vague and difficult to enforce.
In ARK’s 2010 winter newsletter, Oliver wrote, “The Japan Kennel Club collects a registration fee and no questions are asked. In the meantime, breeders will be trying their utmost to produce a dog small enough to fit in a teacup or a blue Chihuahua; in other words, a mutant to satisfy the public’s demand and to make a lot of money.
“The tragedy is that thousands of dogs suffer and die in the process. True breeders are as rare as blue Chihuahuas.”
Feature photo was shot by Majirox News’ contributing photographer Kyoko Harada