The Peeves of Pet Culture in Japan

Features - February 5th, 2010

by Elisabeth Lambert

Walking up the stairs into the store’s premium top floor space, one could be easily forgiven for thinking he or she has entered a jewelry shop. At one end of the small room is a well-dressed couple pouring over a display cabinet, looking at the enclosed products carefully, as though they are selecting engagement rings.

There is another glass display case in the middle of the room, adorned with sparkling diamantes. To the left of the stairs is glass partitioning, enabling patrons to study the expensive goods behind it without having to touch them. The word ‘celeb’ is emblazoned across the black walls in fancy script, and you can’t help but feel that this some sort of exclusive VIP shopping area.

Yet this isn’t a jewelry store. It is a pet store. And the couple is not choosing a ring. They are choosing accessories for their new purchase—a ¥410,000 long coat chihuahua puppy, barely five weeks old. The display case in the center of the room contains another young chihuahua, standing on its hind legs begging for my attention. And behind the glass partitioning sits a very small owl, the size of my hand. There is also a young rhesus monkey in one corner of the room, trying unsuccessfully to stretch out in a cage that is far too small for it. The monkey lifts its head and stares at me with big, round eyes that are dull and bored. The monkey could become mine for a hefty ¥460,000.

A quick glance at the kittens and puppies on display in the glass cabinets around me tells me that none of them are more than seven weeks old. There are three animals—two cats and a bull dog—that look out of place because of their size, and I realize it is because they are adult animals and I wonder why they are for sale. It soon becomes apparent that each of these three animals is some sort of prizewinner, and the fully-grown bulldog looks extremely frustrated with his 80 square centimeter home.

In a country where the number of pet animals is higher than the number of children under fourteen, the realities of owning a very real and live pet seem to be negated by the inaccurate perception that a pet is an accessory

Downstairs things are not much better, although the young animals for sale on this floor are a couple of hundred thousand yen cheaper. Most of the tiny animals here can barely keep their eyes open, and those that are moving are still very wobbly on their feet. Yet that is to be expected from creatures that are barely a month old and would normally, by nature’s rights, still be suckling from their mothers.

At the end of 2007, the Japanese pet industry was worth ¥1.12 trillion, with the sale of actual animals accounting for around 15 percent of this. So with food, accessories and other pet-related products making up the rest, being involved in the Japanese pet business is extremely profitable—but at what cost to the animals?

Unfortunately it seems that the welfare of the animals that this very industry is built around is barely a concern to the breeders, animal handlers and stores involved. Many animals are put up for sale only a few weeks after birth, too young for de-sexing and vaccinations, and far too young to be on food other than the milk that would be suckled from their mothers. This can leave some animals with a lifetime of illness, or complications from diseases catch once they arrive in store. Some pet shops stay open 24 hours, leaving the animals on constant display. With no rest from the bright lights, shop noise and customer interaction, many animals become visibly stressed and anxious.

Although the Act on Welfare and Management of Animals was put into place in 1973, the standards on animal care and requirements that need to be met are vague and leave too much room for interpretation. Animal-handling businesses and breeders are required to register with local governments, though this isn’t policed and gives rise to ‘balcony breeders.’ “These are the worst offenders, the casual breeders”, states Elizabeth Oliver, Director of ARK, an animal refuge that operates in both Osaka and Tokyo, facilitating the adoption of unwanted pets. “They are often breeding animals as a hobby or as a side business to earn extra cash.”

The Act was updated in 1999 and again in 2005, increasing fines and putting harsher penalties in place for those businesses and individuals that do not comply. However, the Act is largely unenforced, and most of the pet-owning public is not even aware of its existence, as well as the possibility that the place from which they purchased their pet could be operating highly illegally.

In fact, the pet-owning public is largely unaware of its responsibilities as well. Many pet owners do not understand the needs and effort involved in raising and keeping a pet, which is mostly due to a lack of education rather than disinterest or intent.

In a country where the number of pet animals (25.5 million in 2007) is higher than the number of children under fourteen (17.5 million in 2007), the realities of owning a very real and live pet seem to be negated by the inaccurate perception that a pet is an accessory. It was estimated that in 2008 pet accessories, including toys, apparel, grooming and household products, generated ¥154 billion in revenue.

You do not have to go far to see evidence of this. A walk through an international pet expo held in Odaiba showed barely a pet left au natural. Outfits included jackets, pants, capes, masks and booties, and the fur that was left visible was shaved, braided, colored or frizzed. Even the common practice that exists in Japan whereby dogs and cats are placed in strollers rather than walked and exercised as they should be indicates that these animals are viewed with a sort of detachment usually reserved for toys and playthings.

The way in which people view their pets isn’t helped by pet stores putting young animals in brightly colored catalogues that have sale prices, discounts and promotions splashed across the page—not unlike a K-mart catalogue advertising goods on special. It only serves to objectify the animals and add to the notion that they are a product or an item that can be easily bought, and unfortunately, just as easily discarded.

In no way is this more evidenced than by the sheer numbers of animals that are destroyed each year. Precise figures are hard to come by, but between 350,000 and 600,000 cats and dogs are destroyed in Japan annually by a government agency known as the Animal Control Center, or Hotenjyo. Most of these animals were once pets, and after ending up at this facility, have one week to be adopted or re-claimed before being put down. Although this practice is similar in some ways to what happens in other countries, animal activists and animal welfare groups take issue with the way these animals are treated and then put to death.

Animals on death row are shoved by machines into what is called the ‘dream box,’ which is then injected with carbon dioxide. It takes between three to five minutes for an animal to die, in which time they suffer heavily; at first convulsing violently and then eventually dying via suffocation. Some animals that breathe shallower than others will take longer to die. The bodies are then put into a furnace so that they may be disposed of. A special report by photojournalist Shigemichi Oishi for the magazine Days Japan pushed Hotenjyo into the spotlight for a short time, but many Japanese people did not believe this was actually happening.

When asked about lethal injection as a means to an end for the sentenced animals, Oliver explains that you will be hard pressed to find a vet to do this in Japan. But surely this is more humane? “The Japanese, including veterinarians, believe they should not interfere that way. So often a vet will let a sick animal suffer until the end or send it to Hotenjyo to deal with. Our vet at ARK will euthanize animals [via lethal injection], for which we are often criticized.”

Yet how can a nation full of Buddhists, who stand for equality and preservation of all creatures great and small, stand for such treatment of  their pets?

Fusako Nogami, of ALIVE, a Tokyo-based organization advocating the defense of animals, points out that animal welfare education is what is lacking on all levels of schooling. It “is not even taught in veterinary universities [in Japan].”

“It is true that the traditional culture of Japan teaches to adore nature and not to kill any living thing,” Nogami continues. “However, in my opinion, in the late 19th century, Japan started taking on Western technologies and regulations with great success. Although in Western countries, people [eventually] stood up and questioned the use of animals in experiments and farming, Japan is behind in that way.”

It is apparent that solid and consistent education covering animal welfare and basic pet ownership responsibilities will go a long way in resolving the pet owner and industry issues in Japan—and that this information needs to be reaching people before they decide to bring an animal home. As Nogami sums up, “People are not really aware of what animals are going through in the system.”

And until that changes, the price some animals will pay for simply being born little and cute will be far more than any money that changes hands for their lives.

ARK Animal Refuge

If you are interested in adopting a pet—or can help out in the short term by fostering an animal—please visit the ARK website:
Tel: 050-1557-2763


For more information on ALIVE’s activities and work in Japan, please visit the ALIVE website: