Takako Toda welcomed her lively, 7-year-old English pointer into her home in the city of Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, when the puppy she named Woowo was just a month old.

“It was our dream to have a big dog,” said Toda, 60, explaining that her husband, Yasuo, who is a university professor, looked for the dog on the Internet and bought him for ¥100,000 from a breeder in Gunma Prefecture.

“Since then, Woowo has become the center of my life,” said Toda, a housewife whose only child has grown up. “Now Woowo weighs 32 kg, so he is like an elementary school kid.”

Toda feeds Woowo allergy-free dog food as well as pork and vegetables that she cooks. And although she kept her previous dog in a kennel in the garden, Woowo lives indoors with all the comforts of home.

“Times have changed,” Toda observed. “Because many people began to keep their dogs in their homes around seven years ago, I thought it would be better to live with Woowo in my house. He sleeps in his own bed in my room and whenever he feels cold and growls, I put a blanket on him.”

Nowadays, the lifestyle enjoyed by Toda and her beloved pooch is shared by 18.3 percent of households in Japan, according to data supplied by the Japan Pet Food Association (JPFA). Also, while the average age of Japan’s population has long been steadily climbing, so too has the number of domestic dogs and cats as pets have come to play a bigger role in many people’s lives, and a more animal-friendly environment has developed nationwide.

In 1994, according to the JPFA, there were 9.1 million dogs and 6.2 million cats in the country. However, by 2009, those numbers had shot up to 12.3 million dogs and 10 million cats.

Tellingly, too, in a nation having kittens over its falling birthrate, there have now been more pets than children here since 2003. In that fiscal year, for the first time, according to JPFA data, the nation’s 19.2 million population of cats and dogs exceeded the population of 17.9 million children aged under 16. By 2009, that gulf had become even wider as the total of 23.2 million cats and dogs came to outnumber children by 6 million.

Although cats and dogs have lived with people in Japan since ancient times, most dogs nowadays aren’t kept for hunting or as guards and sentinels, any more than cats are kept as mousers. Instead, rather than being regarded as human helpers, most people now look upon their pet animals as members of their families whom it’s their pleasure to care for.

“Many people love pets in place of children,” said JPFA Secretary General Kimitoshi Yasuda, adding that, in 2009, 21.8 percent of the households of people aged 50 to 69 included pet dogs — the leading dog-owning age groups. That same age group also led the number of cat-keeping households, at around 13.7 percent of the total.

Meanwhile, increasingly close relations between people and their pets in Japan can also be seen in the changing residential conditions of condominiums.

According to Yumiko Nemoto, salesperson with Mitsubishi Real Estate Service Co., before 2000 the company excluded pet owners from almost all of its condominium sales. But then, as more and more people have begun to own pets over the last decade, the company has gradually increased the number of condos available for pet owners to buy, Nemoto said.

Indeed, her company has now become so pet-owner-friendly that Nemoto said all the condominiums it sells nowadays are available to pet owners as long as they stick to certain rules. Under those rules, a pet should stand no more than 70 cm high and weigh no more than 10 kg. And residents are allowed to keep two pets.

“Additionally, in the shared spaces for residents, such as entrances or elevators, pet owners must hold their pets or put them in cages,” Nemoto said, explaining the rule was so other residents wouldn’t feel threatened by the animals.

At present, however, the rental-housing sector in Japan is not as pet-friendly as that catering to owner-occupiers, and most rented-property landlords still bar tenants who own animals. There are a growing number of exceptions, though — among them Jecto, a real-estate company in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, that is building an apartment block especially for pet owners in the city’s Nakahara Ward.

Tetsu Togano, the company’s real estate section chief, said that the five-story building will have a 100-sq.-meter dog run in its courtyard and space to wash dogs after they’ve been taken for a walk. The building would also feature a first-floor trimming room where cats and dogs can have their claws cut and their ears cleaned.

“I believe the demand for rental apartments for pet owners is growing, though the supply is too small at present,” Togano said. “Owners of apartment buildings tend not to like pet owners because they think the animals damage the building. But if the building is equipped with facilities for taking good care of pets, the damage need only be minimal.”

While apartments like Jecto’s in Kawasaki are attracting attention, Shigeki Mori, a Tokyo-based pet- businesses counselor, said it is more important for society to increase its understanding of how to coexist with pets, — owners and those who don’t own animals — than it is simply to construct facilities for animals.

“If pet owners keep their pets well mannered, and people who don’t have pets are also considerate of the happiness of neighbor animals, they can all create a healthy community together,” said Mori, president of Alp Co., which has provided counseling on pets and pet-related problems and businesses since 2001.

“The pet boom has continued in Japan for more than 10 years now, and such terms as ‘companion animal’ have become common in the media,” Mori noted. “But people still don’t have enough knowledge of how to keep pets healthy and happy, and we find many social problems related to pets.”

Mori said he often hears complaints about barking dogs from those who don’t own the animals. “Often in such cases it’s not the dogs but their keepers that have problems. Because they started to keep their dogs without learning about the personality and physical characteristics of dogs, they don’t know how to communicate with them,” Mori explained, citing such factors as reasons why dogs may be stressed out and bark.

Turning to another cause of problematic behavior in dogs, Mori also pointed out that many puppies were separated from their mothers and siblings when they were very very young.

“Japanese people love puppies and buy them when they are very small. But they should be socialized by spending more time with their mothers and siblings,” Mori said.

To let dogs learn how to communicate with people and other dogs, Alp Co. is organizing classes for puppies and their keepers.

“We want to secure the quality of pets’ lives through offering various services,” Mori said. “I believe that this will also enhance the quality of people’s lives.”

Clearly, Japan has become a pet superpower. But it still has a long way to go in changing its environment and thinking before it becomes a heavenly state for cats, dogs and humans to live in happily together.

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