Culture | 2010S: DECADE IN REVIEW

Animals of all stripes (and spots) found their 15 minutes of fame in the 2010s

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

In the beginning, there was doge. Much laughs, such influence.

When kindergarten teacher Atsuko Sato snapped some photos of her Shiba dog, Kabosu, and posted them on her personal blog in early 2010, little did she realize that she would help foster one of the decade’s biggest memes. One shot of Kabosu side-eyeing the camera morphed into “doge,” a photo overlaid with words in comic sans font that became a constant presence on social media, before inspiring online games and cryptocurrency.

Besides being one of the most popular memes of the past 10 years, Kabosu’s unlikely turn into internet artifact reflects the big decade animals had in Japan. The web — domestic and international — loves a cuddly critter and ate up stories about them. This diet taught us a lot about how the web worked and evolved over this time, with added kawaii for good measure.

One of the earliest animal trends in Japan at the start of the 2010s was the rise of stationmaster animals. It started out in Wakayama Prefecture, when the Wakayama Electric Railway appointed a calico cat named Tama to be stationmaster of a stop on its line. As you’d expect from such an appointment, the internet went wild over the news … as did visitors to the remote spot — the company saw ridership shoot up till Tama died in 2015.

Tama’s assignment to a stationmaster role inspired a slew of (cough) copycats. Some other floundering outposts appointed felines to management roles, while savvier lines elevated dogs, monkeys and other species. These efforts to boost local tourism foreshadowed the boom in costumed mascots that performed even better in terms of revenue and viral fame in the years to come.

Animals factored heavily in the tourism boom of the 2010s. Cafes devoted to cats and dogs had long been a point of curiosity for those visiting Japan, but this decade saw the stakes raised and the ethics of it all really twisted up. Forget your common household pets, because Tokyo now has cafe spaces devoted to owls, hedgehogs and pigs, among others. Meanwhile, your more common furry friends, cats and rabbits, drew attention by isolating themselves on islands. Like many aspects of life, tourists probably ruined those as well.

Speaking of stories with downer endings, one of the more rollercoaster-like days on Japanese Twitter this decade revolved around a zebra. One escaped from a farm in Aichi Prefecture in March of 2016 and pranced around a golf course in Gifu Prefecture, evading capture, much to the delight of netizens following along online. Things ended sadly, though, when authorities shot the zebra with a tranquilizer dart … and watched as it fell in a water trap and drowned.

The online ecosystem of the 2010s wasn’t solely defined by short-lived events, it was also all about celebrity — and Japan had an animal for that, too. Back in 2015, it was a hot gorilla summer courtesy of Shabani, who wowed crowds in Nagoya and online thanks to his sharp looks. This was perfect bait for Western online outlets — which love animals and weird Japan stories in equal measure — and Shabani’s fame spread globally. He’s still shining today, and you can even buy a pillow in his likeness.

Gorillas, giant squid and hamsters (or, more specifically, their rear ends) all enjoyed a good decade, as did a newborn panda at Ueno Zoo. Xiang Xiang, a giant panda cub born in the summer of 2017, kicked off a boom for all things related to the bear. It also resulted in massive lines of people wanting to sneak a peak at Xiang Xiang when he made his public debut.

In the end, though, it was the familiar cats and dogs who really dominated the 2010s. Thank social media for that, as those two species saturated platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, aided by the strong bond already established between humans and their pets. Rotund Scottish Fold Maru and his quest to slide into a box helped turn him into Twitter’s first social-platform-embraced cat, and opened the mini-door for others to become stars online — like the dog that mans a tobacco kiosk in Tokyo. Now pups attract millions of followers on Instagram, while YouTube channels devoted to documenting the lives of pets who live together.

The Akita dog specifically enjoyed newfound attention, as the breed took on the role of spreading a positive image of Japan around the world. This variety of pooch inspired all kinds of content, and organizations have given them out as presents to Russian figure skater Alina Zagitova and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, nothing topped the Shiba-inu, and the dog whose uncomfortable gaze started it all.

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