JAPAN : Comfort Creatures 

Creature Comforts

Pampering the Pet Pooch in Japan

 

Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier

 

Since there are more pets than there are kids in Japan, catering to the family pooch has become big business. That's because the Japanese not only feed and walk their dogs, they treat them like royalty. The family pet is pampered from his Louis Vuitton cradle to his customised doggie funeral. ERIC PASQUIER travelled to Japan and aimed his lens at the adorable creatures.

 

Gone are the days that you could make do with a leash and a dog bowl in Japan. Not that dogs were ever very popular in Japan. Japanese houses are traditionally cramped and the tatami-mat covered floors are not ideal when you are dealing with dirty paws.


But all that changed since Ku-chan – a diminutive Chihuahua - starred in a series of television commercials for loan company Aiful Corp.

The doe-eyed dog was an instant hit with Japanese viewers and soon became the subject of a photo-collection and a children’s picture book. To top it all off, the cute canine’s image – dressed in a little black suit and tie - features on Aiful’s credit card.

 

This kind of fad is nothing new in Japan where cuteness reigns. After twenty years, the classic Hello Kitty, or Kitty-chan as she is called in Japan, still reigns supreme. Her image is everywhere, on television sets, coffee makers and soy-sauce holders. Another perennial is the Tamagotchi, the egg-shaped key ring that has already sold more than 20 million worldwide. The idea of the Tamagotchi is to hatch the chick that appears on the tiny LCD-screen and feed and nurture it during its lifespan of thirty days. If ‘raised’ properly, the Tamagotchi will turn into an angel and go to heaven. So popular was the key ring that at the height of the craze high school students and even office workers and executives paid up to twenty times the regular price on the black market.  Having a Tamagotchi is more than just possessing a plaything: the egg has to be reprimanded, cleaned and even inoculated.

 

But now the Japanese have graduated to real-life pets; the Chihuahua is everywhere in Japan: on billboards, television screens, the pages of fashion magazines and, obviously, peeking out of the designer handbag. The Japan Kennel Club estimates that membership has doubled since the late 1980s with about 52,000 Chihuahuas currently registered.  Japan is now the epicentre of Asian petmania with 1.5 million dogs bought each year, mostly Chihuahuas, miniature dachshund and other small breeds. And with Japan's declining birth rate, the number of pets (around 19 million) now exceeds the number of kids under 15 (17.8 million).

 

So the Japanese have time, cash and affection to spare, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the ever-growing pet services industry. Over the past few years, 33 dog and cat magazines have been launched; pet insurers have come onto the market as have pet cafes and pet clothing stores.  The Japanese capital Tokyo boasts a dog designer shop that caters to Chihuahuas exclusively. The store sells trendy outfits, accessories and cookies especially formulated to agree with the Chihuahua’s delicate palate. Grobiz Pet Store, an online shop that caters to both US and Japanese dog lovers, offers canine couture including fancy dress, pyjamas, party and casual wear and, of course, kimonos. Restaurants cater to dogs with special menus including mineral water and special doggie dishes. Or, for the pet owner who is able to give his or her dog away, wedding services are available, complete with guests (canine, of course), an aisle and a cleric to lead the happy event.

 

For those who are not lucky enough to own a Chihuahua (it could set you back $4.000), there’s always ‘Puppy the World’, a shop in Odaiba that offers dogs for rent.  For almost $15 you can walk a Chihuahua for an hour. A leash, some tissues and a plastic bag are provided for free. For a real trial run, prospective buyers – or those short of cash – can take a Chihuahua home for a sleepover for almost $100 a night.

 

So, how to entertain such an expensive and well-dressed animal? There’s the amusement park Dog Forest in Shizuoka, a virtual canine Disney World that cost $10 million to put up. Admission is $10. Or alternatively, take your pooch for a swim in the Dog Petit Resort ‘Joker’ Tsunayoshi no Yu, the country’s first hot springs for dogs. For about $20, owner and pet can take the plunge together. That’s providing your dog is an able swimmer. If not, swimming lessons are also on offer, as are a Jacuzzi and a beauty salon that offers a paw massage, gel and mud packs.

 

This might all be very satisfying and tremendous fun for the dog owners but how about the dogs themselves? Are the pooches happy? Probably not, says the Japan Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Japanese might be crazy about their pets but they “don’t really know how to see dog behaviour from the dog’s point of view”. Rather, they see their pets as almost-human. Indeed, some pet owners don’t refer to their animals as ‘dogs’, they are ‘my baby’ or ‘babies’ while the owners refer to themselves as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’. Experts attribute the pet mania to the Japanese inexperience with dogs. Unlike in Europe and the US, the Japanese have never used dogs for hunting and herding nor is the Christian notion of ‘man’s dominion over the animal kingdom’ part of their legacy.

 

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