Do dogs in the United States, Japan and South Korea have the same emotions?

According to Takara Co., a major toy manufacturer in Tokyo, they do, although they may respond to different languages.

The company thus started marketing its Bowlingual, an electronic device attached to a dog’s collar that “interprets” the emotional tones of a canine’s bark, in South Korea earlier this month and will introduce it to American stores in August.

The Bowlingual transmits a dog’s barks and whines to a palm-size console held by the animal’s master. The console classifies the sounds into emotional categories. The product comes with 200 explanations about a dog’s feelings, which are expressed on the console with such sentences as “I am frustrated,” “I want to be with you,” and “Do you want to play with me? I am ready!”

“Dogs in South Korea and the U.S. generally act the same as Japanese dogs, so we translated most of the expressions in the Japanese version to the South Korean and American versions,” said Masahiko Kajita, Takara’s marketing manager in charge of the Bowlingual.

Takara has yet to confirm how well its product is selling in South Korean this month, but the company has received favorable but unexpected news from the country. South Korean police used a dog equipped with a Bowlingual in April to hunt for an arsonist.

“I am happy that South Korean police have highly valued our product. However, the Bowlingual is a communication toy. It is not designed for looking for criminals,” Kajita said.

Takara sold 300,000 Bowlingual units in Japan between last Sept. 27 and March 31, Kajita said, pointing out that in the toy business, selling 100,000 units is a benchmark for a popular product.

The Bowlingual, however, was not easy to develop.

In 2001, Takara developed software for the Bowlingual in cooperation with Japan Acoustic Lab, a Tokyo-based research organization, and Index Corp, a mobile phone contents developer in Tokyo. Takara also received advice on dog behavior from Dr. Norio Kogure of the Kogure Companion Animal Clinic in Tokyo.

However, it took time to develop hardware for the Bowlingual software, Kajita said.

“When I joined the project in January last year, we initially planned to put the Bowlingual on the market in a matter of one month,” he said. “However, the launch date was delayed from February to June, and finally to September.”

The delay was due mainly to technical glitches, including difficulties such as downsizing the device attached to the dog collar and making it run longer hours, Kajita explained.

He recalled a day in August when Takara ran an advertisement for the Bowlingual in major newspapers.

“When asked if we could sell it on schedule, I pretended that we had no problem,” he said. “To tell the truth, we weren’t even sure the toy could be completed on schedule.”

The Bowlingual was selected in early September as one of the best inventions of 2002 by Time magazine in the U.S. After completing the toy, Kajita flew to the U.S. on Sept. 29, two days after the toy debuted in Japan, to attend the awards ceremony.

“While staying in the U.S., I worried that the Bowlingual would not attract dog owners because its price (14,800 yen a unit) is a little expensive as a toy,” he said.

He eventually received a call from headquarters. Takara told Kajita that the company had been receiving many complaints about the Bowlingual — complaints about its unavailability.

“In Japan, the Bowlinguals sold out in a few days at many toy shops. I was relieved, but I had to quickly start thinking of ways to cope with the unexpected popularity,” he said.

Since then, Takara has been increasing Bowlingual production to catch up with the growing demand and forging a worldwide sales plan, Kajita said.

Takara is also planning to market the Bowlingual in Europe early next year, and is now trying to decide which country should get the initial launch.

“We will start developing a cat version in July, because we have been receiving many requests from cat lovers,” Kajita said.

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