fbpx East vs. West: Japan's Pet-A-Palooza

People in the West love their pets and it isn’t surprising that the Japanese have a similar affinity for furry (or non-furry) domestic companions. What may surprise some foreigners visiting the country however, is the extent to which pets are pampered. Dogs being pushed around in strollers isn’t a rarity in Japan’s metropolitan areas; some days they seem more common than actual baby carriages.

Japan’s pet industry has an estimated worth of over $13 billion (USD) which has been steadily increasing over the past several years. Pet owners who want to treat their partners have a wealth of selections, both in merchandise and services, to choose from. There are even onsens that have spa areas for dogs, such as Ichinoyu’s Sengokukogen Daihakone location. If you’ve ever experienced the relaxation of a Hakone onsen, you may come away feeling your canine friend would like it too!

Even when it comes to pet funerals, Japan has upped the ante. Grieving owners can lay their pets to rest with full Buddhist rites and cremation for $8,000 or more. It’s important to consider that many people living in urban areas don’t have a backyard that they can bury their pet in. That’s why it almost makes sense when you hear that there’s actually a mobile pet cremation service. A nondescript silver van houses a mini-furnace to cremate their remains right outside your house. And be warned—Japanese law requires proper disposal of a pet’s corpse, otherwise you may be charged with illegal dumping. Luckily many local governments provide pet disposal services for a small fee should you not be able to afford a full funeral.

Picking a Partner

Pets as a substitute for children are becoming more common, both in America and in Japan, so finding the right companion is crucial. Large Japanese pet stores carry all the staples, such as dogs, cats, hamsters and birds, but also often feature animals that may surprise you.

Meerkats, armadillos, chipmunks and capybaras are just some of the more interesting creatures that can be found in various shops. Some of those are actually illegal to own in many states or require a special license to keep. These pets could be a viable alternative to a more common species, but their long term care is likely just as hard as it would be in a Western country. One can only hope that prospective pet owners are thinking about more than what would make the best conversation piece to have in their home. Western visitors may also be dismayed to see the small cages Japanese stores often use to house the pets they’re selling.

Japan also has a distinct fascination with bugs, especially massive rhinoceros and stag beetles, kabutomushi and kuwagatamushi respectively in Japanese. These beetles are native to the island and can be found in wooded, rural areas. It’s common for kids to catch them and keep them as pets, but there are also many dedicated adults who breed them as well. Supplies for them, such as dirt, wood, and beetle jelly, are all commonly found in 100 yen stores across Japan during summer.

Dogs are the second most common types of pets, even considering the small living spaces found in large cities. It’s hardly a shock though that many of the most popular dog breeds are smaller varieties. In fact, they’re so popular that there have been problems resulting from too much inbreeding to meet the demand for them. The unique Japanese breeds of shiba inu and akita are also popular amongst dog owners and are often seen as a culture symbol of the country, both at home and abroad.

“Divine Cat” by Soki Yamaguchi, 1725

Finally, the most common prevalent type of pet in Japan is cats. As the country known for exporting Hello Kitty throughout the world, could you expect any less? The rich and powerful in Japan have a long history of owning feline companions, but they have gradually worked their way into homes of the general populace as well. Even if you can’t own a cat yourself, there are now plenty of “cat cafes” across the country to enjoy their companionship in short doses.

Public Critters

Nara Deer Park, a hunter’s dream–Photo by candicelin

“Pets” in Japan can sometimes be a community affair. Several well known areas are home to a specific type of animal that visitors can enjoy. One of the most famous of these is Nara, where 1,200 freely roaming deer can be fed special rice crackers by tourists. The city has a special relationship with the animals going back over one thousand years. Be careful though, these are still wild animals and injuries are still reported each year from human-deer interactions.

You may have also heard of a ‘cat island’ in Japan as well, but in truth there are actually several! Aoshima is one such location and the cats there outnumber humans 10-to-1, which sounds more impressive before you learn there are only 13 people. As Japan’s population ages, care of these islands (which often started as fishing villages) is a cause for concern. All of Aoshima’s cats are currently in the process of being spayed and neutered to reduce their population. Similarly, there’s also an island full of rabbits called Ōkunoshima—and cats are specifically forbidden.

Plant of the Apes lesser-known sequel, Onsen of the Macaques–Image by Mig Gilbert

There are also various nature parks which allow their visitors to directly observe or interact with the animals. Some of the most popular are Jigokudani Yaen-koen which is home to onsen-bathing snow monkeys, Zao Fox Village, and the Kushiro Crane Reserve. These may not be pets in the strictest sense, but they offer a unique way to interact with the natural world. For many foreign visitors it may be the best way to enjoy animals that are accustomed to human presence.



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