How Japan succumbed to a massive attack of puppy love

The Japanese treat their dogs like children. But that's because a nation whose population is in freefall desperately needs child substitutes. David McNeill reports
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The Independent Online

Daktari animal Hospital in the up-market Hiroo district of Tokyo has everything for the needy pet. Open 24 hours a day and boasting bilingual staff the two-storey clinic offers everything from cardiovascular surgery to nail clipping. Rows of sad-faced pooches and cats sit in cages wired up to heart machines and IV drips, while a technician tries to calm a timorous-looking rabbit before a pre-op X-ray in the surgery.

Daktari animal Hospital in the up-market Hiroo district of Tokyo has everything for the needy pet. Open 24 hours a day and boasting bilingual staff the two-storey clinic offers everything from cardiovascular surgery to nail clipping. Rows of sad-faced pooches and cats sit in cages wired up to heart machines and IV drips, while a technician tries to calm a timorous-looking rabbit before a pre-op X-ray in the surgery.

Upstairs, a Noah's Ark of yelping, whimpering and purring pets are groomed and massaged by a small army of vets and assistants. These animals are the subject of unadulterated adoration. Owners lavish them with praise, gifts and kisses. They treat them as if they were people. All this in a nation where the human population is in freefall and loneliness is increasingly society's hallmark. Animals are filling the emotional gap.

Founded a decade ago, just as Japan's economy was heading south, Daktari has grown steadily and is now so busy there is barely enough room for the 10 vets, 20 technicians and hundreds of animals crowded into its two floors, despite its hefty fees: A one-day stay in the "animal hotel" next door costs up to 13,000 yen (about £63), more expensive than many of the business hotels in the district, but then pooches need more attention than the average salaryman, says "veterinary technician" Maiko Tamaoki: "A lot of the animals, especially the dogs, miss their owners when they're away, so we comfort them."

The Daktari is just one of thousands of facilities for animals set up across Japan in the past 10 years, evidence of a country that seems to have gone pet mad. Restaurants and massage parlours that cater for dogs, and pet cemeteries that offer burial rituals and monumental statues to cats are just some of the innovations on offer but not the most startling. Many pet stores now hire pets out at day rates and allow potential owners to take prospective pets for a test drive.

A service called Catwan.com sends photographs and descriptions of the bodily functions of cats by e-mail to reassure absent owners that their moggies are staying regular. For a little extra, they will clean the ears and clip the toenails of their charges. Luxury brand makers are churning out leashes, shoes and even dresses for pets at prices that would make Dr Dolittle blush. Cake-makers for pets no longer cause sniggers.

With its cramped housing and dearth of parks, Japan once trailed far behind famous pet-lovers such as the British but no longer. The country now has a pet market to match its economic muscle and is second only to the US in the amount it spends on caring for animals. The Japan Pet Food Association estimates there are 10.4 million dogs and 8.5 million cats in the country, and that the number of dogs alone is growing by a rate of 2.4 percent a year, much faster than humans are reproducing.

Indeed, the pet boom is reflection, say experts, of huge popular anxieties about Japan's demographic time bomb.

"Japan needs more children but, for various reasons, people here seem unwilling to make them," says sociologist Yoshihisa Yoshida. People are worried about the future and women especially are increasingly putting off having children because it is so demanding here. When they do have children they have them late, meaning more one-child families. In the absence of children and grandchildren, pets and other substitutes bring comfort to many."

Japan's health ministry announced yesterday that the fertility rate of Japanese women in 2003 fell below 1.3 for the first time to 1.28, way below the rate needed to maintain the current population of 127 million. At that rate, the population is set to plummet to just more than 100 million by 2050, shrinking the country's labour pool by more than a third and dragging down the country's national wealth.

Government bureaucrats are nervously eyeing the other end of the population pyramid, where life expectancy rates continue to stretch ahead of the rest of the world, meaning the contracting workforce will be asked to support a growing army of pensioners. By 2005, there will be just two younger workers supporting each retired person, down from 11 in 1960. It is a system headed for collapse.

One solution is to persuade women to have more babies but many are working longer, having children later, and enjoying freedoms their mothers never dreamt of. The idea of giving all that up for motherhood in a cramped flat with a workaholic husband, almost two million of whom work over 60 hours a week, doesn't hold much appeal.

Japan's reluctant childmakers cause the old men in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a lot of aggravation. Last year, party bigwig Seiichi Ota enjoyed brief infamy when he said a bunch of gang rapists at least showed a healthy appetite for sex rather than sitting back and waiting for the birth rate to plunge.

Single women and lonely grandparents and, increasingly, unmarried men compensate for the lack of human contact with dogs, cats and other animals - Japan's third most popular pet is the ferret, and jellyfish have enjoyed a recent boom. One survey claims that two million reptiles were legally imported into Japan in 1999. The country seems to have been overrun with chiwawas, following their use in a hugely successful commercial for a consumer finance company, and thousands of them can be seen poking out of the designer bags of trendy young female shoppers.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, have stepped into to fill the human void with electronic substitutes. Sega Toys has sold millions of toy dogs and nearly half a million of its Yumeneko cats in Japan. Takura has enjoyed runaway success with a device called Bow-lingual and its follow-up Meow-lingual, by boasting that that they translate dog barks and cat meows into human speech. Bandai, maker of Tamagotchi, the irritating bleeping bird that swept the world in the mid-1990s, has enjoyed another huge hit with a cuddly toy called PrimoPuel, a talking robot marketed as a "comfort product" to lonely women.

"It has an internal clock so it knows when it's Christmas and will demand a Christmas present," says Bandai President Takeo Takasu Takasu. "And it also has a built-in sensor so it knows when it's too hot or too cold. We've sold 900,000 of these at 6,900 yen each, mostly to middle-aged and older women. My wife is a big fan."

Japan could also, of course, embrace mass immigration as a solution to its demographic crisis but here too lie problems. Foreigners have trickled into this still ethnically homogenous country at a rate far below the 600,000-plus needed to stop the population from falling. Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, said recently that Japan has to accept close to 30 million immigrants over the next half century.

Japan has dealt so far with its population crisis by avoiding a much-needed national debate and allowing foreigners to dribble in under variety of disguises. Young Chinese pay huge fees to universities where they will never study, disappearing instead into the illegal economy; thousands of foreigners enter on "technical trainee" visas and help to prop up the small-business sector, and a quarter of a million people live in permanent fear of being deported. In the meantime, Japan seems content to robotise many of the jobs that poor workers from third world countries do elsewhere.

In the recent hit film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray as a washed-up movie star adrift in a high-tech Tokyo, the drapes in Murray's hotel room fling themselves open in the morning and his personal trainer is a machine. In the real world, manufacturers like Sanyo and Matsushita are already marketing robots to care for the elderly, a substitute for the foreign nurses and care workers who do that work in other advanced countries. Robot health care promises to be one of the big growth industries here of the 21st century.

"Japan seems to be trying to explore all options before it faces the inevitable -- a shortage of people" laughs sociologist Yoshida. Pets and robots are just substitutes but many people seem to prefer them to the alternatives, which involve a lot of pain and compromise."

The theory that robots and animals are being used as substitutes in Japan is borne out by the increasingly human-sounding names and treatment given to both. Sony's best-selling robot dog "Aibo," which means "companion" is typical of the attempt to humanize the mechanical. In a recent PR document, Toyota said it wants its robots to "have human characteristics, such as being agile, warm and kind, and also intelligent enough to skillfully operate a variety of devices in the areas of personal assistance, care for the elderly, manufacturing and mobility."

The company says it has developed "artificial lips that move with the same finesse as human lips, which, together with robot's hands, enables the robots to play trumpets like humans do." Many businesses now offer animal services that were once reserved for humans. Tender loving care for the dearly departed at the Tama Dog & Cat Spiritual Home in Tokyo includes a service that combines the ashes of master and pet, provided the master has no relatives. Dog-lover Mariko Fujita, who calls pets "the great healer," sees no problem with that:

"My husband left and my two kids are grown up, so I've grown really close to my dog. Sometimes I joke that she's better company than my ex-husband! I would certainly consider bringing my dog with me when I die." She admits to spoiling her dog with expensive treats and once taking her for a massage. "Why not? She has been good to me."

Is it all harmless if irrational confirmation that lonely humans are capable of anything? The rise of pets and robots as human substitutes may smack to others of a country facing a profound identity crisis, but Gen Kato is not complaining. The director of the Hiroo clinic and owner of another 23 Daktari Animal Hospitals around Japan, Dr. Kato has been a practicing vet for over 35 years and business has never been so good. The reason for his success is, he said, because "we really take care of the human-animal bond".

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