Cast in bronze, Hachiko sits in a position of prominence befitting a storied daimyo or prime minister, right next to the busiest intersection in Japan, if not the world.
As the oft-told story goes, the famed golden-brown Akita would greet his master, professor Hidesaburo Ueno of Tokyo University, outside Shibuya Station at the end of every day as he returned from work.
After the professor died suddenly in 1925 of a stroke, Hachiko continued to wait patiently outside the station for his master day in, day out for another nine long years, until his own demise.
This enduring loyalty earned Hachiko the respect and affection of the Japanese public and led eventually to his immortalization in bronze in Shibuya and in modern Japanese folklore, as the embodiment of the unbreakable bond between man and his best friend.
Hachiko was also a dog for his time. Born into 1920s Japan, he lived through the prewar period when Japan’s leaders were busy whipping up a nationalistic storm about fealty to the Emperor and nation to support their military aims in Asia. Hachiko came to symbolize this “dogged” and blind loyalty.
By the standards of the Shibuya pooches of today, who daintily walk in his comparatively very large footsteps, Hachiko would probably be a long way from being considered even remotely kawaii.
Photos from back in the day reveal him to be a mangy-looking mutt with lopsided ears and a grumpy, forlorn face (perhaps understandably, considering his predicament). Yet he was loyal, and that was enough — at least back then.
Today, it is unlikely Hachiko would survive nine hours wandering around Shibuya crossing on his own, let alone nine years. If he managed to avoid being run over by an impatient taxi driver, he would likely be promptly picked up by Tokyo’s animal control division. And then his chances of survival would be very, very slim.
More than 204,000 pets — 82 percent of the total taken into public “animal shelters” that year — were euthanized in 2010, according to the latest available government figures. Just under 52,000 of these animals were dogs; the majority were cats.
In that same year, less than 29,000 abandoned pets — 11 percent of arrivals — were successfully re-homed.
In the U.K., in contrast, just over 7,000 dogs were euthanized in 2011, even though more than 126,000 were abandoned — a rate of less than 6 percent. The euthanasia rate for animals in Canada based on responses from just over half of the country’s shelters in 2010 was 36 percent.
Such comparisons highlight Japan’s very low rehoming rate and beg the question of why so many pets end up being put down.
Hiroyuki Satake, deputy director of the Tokyo metropolitan government’s Animal Protection and Consultation Center in Setagaya Ward, says it is an uphill battle convincing the public to adopt abandoned pets, although things have improved slightly in recent years.
“Japanese people are in the habit of going to a pet shop and buying a puppy. In Tokyo there are no puppies brought to the pound and so we only have adult dogs to re-home. People don’t want an adult dog — they want to get a dog when it is still young.”
Satake adds that even out of the small number of dogs that are successfully rehomed, the majority are not taken in by members of the public as family pets, but are mostly picked up by volunteers working for any number of Japan’s private animal shelters.
One such shelter is ARK (Animal Rescue Kansai), established by Briton Elizabeth Oliver in 1990. One of most well-known and respected animal shelters in Japan, ARK has been something of a trailblazer in the field of animal rights in Japan. Oliver was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the queen last year for her services to animal welfare and civil society in Japan.
ARK currently houses about 180 cats and a similar number of dogs at its sanctuary in Osaka Prefecture, with around 30 more animals staying in ARK-registered foster homes in the Tokyo area.
A large number of the animals the shelter takes in are handed over by older people who are no longer able to look after them, Oliver says. “We get a lot of dogs from people in their 60s and 70s. Often they have to go into hospital and can’t take their dog with them.”
Oliver believes the root of this problem lies with the pet shops, which will only sell puppies. “I’m not against older people adopting animals, but if they go to a pet shop, the only animal you can get is one which is very young. If they come here [to ARK], we would say, ‘Well, take a dog which is 6 or 7 years old.’ ”
Oliver adds that in her native England the pet culture is very different and it is common for people to adopt older animals.
“People are more realistic in the U.K. If you are a certain age, you would be thinking to adopt something older. I think in Japan people just see cute puppies.”
ARK also takes in a lot of dogs from hoarders and what she calls “balcony breeders” — amateurs trying to make some quick yen breeding from home but who fail to sell the dogs.
Animal hoarders are people who keep an abnormally large number of domestic pets in their home despite lacking adequate space to house the animals or the ability to feed or look after them properly.
Hoarders are often mentally ill people who have an unhealthy, obsessive attachment to their pets and are unable to comprehend the suffering they are causing.
Recently six miniature pinschers were brought to the ARK shelter after the owner was apprehended by the authorities.
“She was a hoarder type and she had abused the dogs. The animals hadn’t been properly fed,” Oliver explains. “Amongst those six, two have died already. One, a so-called puppy, was about 8 months, but looked about 1 month. It weighed only 560 grams — the weight of a kitten.”
Walking the streets of Tokyo, you could be forgiven for thinking Japanese pets are the luckiest in the world. In many cases, they probably are.
Veterinarian Midori Wada from Daktari Animal Hospital in Tokyo says she is often impressed with how conscientious and devoted most pet owners in Japan are.
“From personal experience interacting with patients and their respective owners, a pet is family, not a family pet,” she says. “If an animal has an incurable disease, Japanese owners tend to be very devoted and they will do whatever they can to prolong the pet’s life rather than euthanize, so they can be together for one more day.
“We have patients who are hospitalized for months. The owners come to visit on a daily basis and I experience the strong human-animal bond and medical miracles that come from not giving up in our hospital.”
Wada adds that the responsible attitudes of many pet owners also make it possible to administer preventative treatment. Even people with completely healthy pets will diligently pay for vaccinations every year, as well as general health checks that include a variety of tests from a physical exam to a blood test — and even a CT scan.
Yet Wada also believes Japanese pet owners can at times go too far and overindulge their pets, which can create problems down the road.
“We have many pet owners who treat animals too much like people, making them good parents to their pets, maybe, but becoming too obsessed with them at the same time,” she says. “I’m used to seeing Louis Vuitton carriers, baby strollers, and a dog’s diet including Kobe beef and Yubari melons, which cost upwards of $50 per fruit.”
Wada says that sometimes this over-the-top treatment can result in serious medical issues for the animals. Forcing dogs into clothes in the very hot summer months can cause matted fur and skin problems, for example, and an imbalanced diet can lead to obesity.
As with any other fashion craze in Japan, ground zero for this pooch-pampering obsession is trendy Shibuya and neighboring Harajuku. Boutiques selling designer doggie clothes and accessories are now almost as common a sight as high school girls dressed up as “gothic Lolitas.”
Dare to imagine it and these shops have probably got it: ripped designer jeans for the Chihuahua, a heavy-knit English duffle coat to keep the Pomeranian warm in winter, or a Buzz Lightyear costume for the miniature dachshund — because, of course, he loved the film.
There are doggie necklaces, bracelets, hats, bootees, socks, carry bags, push chairs, nappies — even a bandana with a built-in gel cooling pad for those scorching summer months. And if money is no object, Chanel, Dior, Hermes and Gucci now have luxury dog product lines in Japan.
Then there are the service industries — pet theme parks, restaurants, cafes, hotels, swimming lessons, grooming sessions, manicures, massages, facials, and even special pet-only spa resorts. One can’t help but wonder who is enjoying themselves here — the dog or the owner?
And if old, noble Hachiko was raised from the dead and ambled once more through his old stomping ground, what would he make of the spoilt brand of toy dogs that crowd the area today? Would he even recognize them as being of the same biological order, let alone species, as himself?
For better or worse, Japan is in the throes of a pet boom and there is serious money to be made. In a climate of general economic stagnation, the industry is proving to be remarkably recession-proof, with the pet business estimated to be worth over ¥1 trillion a year and growing by the day. The nation’s total pet population is now a staggering 22 million — that’s over 5 million more than the number of children under 15 in Japan today.
No one can complain about an industry doing well, and a pet — just like a human — loved too much is better off than one not loved at all. But sadly, as the pet population grows, so does the number of animals that fall through the cracks.
For some pets that end up in the Animal Protection and Consultation Center in Tokyo, rehoming is not even attempted and they are sent to their death after only seven days.
“We observe the animals and decide if the chance of rehoming is high or low,” says Satake, the center’s deputy director.
Factors taken into consideration are the health, age and character of the animal, such as whether or not it is overly aggressive.
“If the odds of re-homing are good we keep it here for a long time, but if they are low then we quickly destroy the animal,” says Satake.
“The decision is ultimately made by one of our staff and it is hard for that person. They must themselves decide on life or death for the pet. This is a heavy burden for them to carry.”
In cases where animals are put down, the method of euthanization is one which has largely been abolished in the West: gassing by carbon dioxide.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) strongly criticized the use of carbon dioxide to put down animals in a recent report, citing the suffering it inflicts.
“Concerns over the humaneness of CO2 stem from its association with breathlessness and hyperventilation,” the report says. “At high concentrations, CO2 dissolves in the moisture of the animal’s airways producing carbonic acid that causes irritation and pain in the animal’s nose. Induction to unconsciousness is accompanied by escape attempts, licking, sneezing and increased movement or agitation indicating exposure is distressing.”
Satake says that carbon dioxide gas is still used in Japan because in the past the number of stray animals was even higher. This made it impractical to euthanize animals individually, such as by lethal injection, whereas with gas a large number can be killed simultaneously.
Satake acknowledges that the system currently in place is not ideal, but says changing to a more humane method would cost a lot of money.
“The truth is the most current method is not carbon dioxide but anesthetic gas,” he says. “There is a machine available which uses this gas, but it is very, very expensive. We want to buy this machine and change to this method, but it’s too costly.”
Currently, Shimonoseki city in Yamaguchi Prefecture is the only municipality in Japan that euthanizes its animals using anesthetic gas.
Another option for euthanizing unwanted pets would be to give them an intravenous injection of a barbiturate or anesthetic agent, inducing death through an overdose.
The WSPA regards an IV injection of a 20-percent pentobarbital solution (a barbiturate) as the most humane method of euthanizing cats or dogs as it induces “rapid loss of consciousness” and causes no “distressing side effects.”
Pentobarbital is also commonly used in conjunction with other drugs for the execution of criminals for capital crimes in some U.S. states.
However, Satake sees obstacles to such a hands-on method being introduced in Japan.
“In the case of giving an injection to each animal, well, it can lead to mental problems for the individual who has to do the killing, so we want to avoid direct methods such as injection,” he says. “In the case of a machine, well, the person can avoid directly handling the animals.”
Tucked away in a corner of the car park at the Animal Protection and Consultation Center — the place where the unwanted pets of Tokyo are processed before being sent to the gas chambers in Jonanjima on the outskirts of the city — is a small shrine.
Here, the staff of the center from time to time burn sticks of incense and say a prayer for the souls of those pets who never found a home — pets who never got to roam, free but lonely, like mangy Hachiko through the crowded streets of Shibuya to bum a stick of yakitori or a pork bun from a friendly passer-by.
Three-quarters of euthanized pets in Japan are cats
Of the more than 204,000 pets euthanized in Japan in 2010, around 152,000, or 75 percent, were cats, according to the latest available government figures.
The high proportion of cats being put down reflects a massive decrease in the number of puppies being abandoned, especially in large urban areas, rather than an increase in the number of cats, says Hiroyuki Satake, deputy director of the Tokyo metropolitan government’s Animal Protection and Consultation Center.
For example, in the Tokyo metropolitan area only two puppies were brought to the Animal Control Center in 2011 compared to 1,736 kittens.
Satake says this positive trend for dogs can be attributed to an increase in neutering rates and the urban Tokyo lifestyle.
“Everyone gets their dog spayed nowadays. In the past they didn’t due to the prices, perhaps, or they felt sorry for the animal,” he says.
“Also, in Tokyo everyone keeps their dogs inside their house rather than outside so there is no chance for them to breed.”
Cats, on the other hand, are more likely to roam free and so the risk of an unspayed female getting impregnated is a lot higher, he added.
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