Japan has found an answer to loneliness, despair, fear, disgust and uncertainty. Hint: It’s alive, stands on four legs and barks. Well, so much the better if the gloom weighing us down can be so easily dispelled. Or is it?

Japan’s pet boom is an old story by now. Dogs and cats combined have outnumbered children under 16 since 2003 — 19.2 million vs. 17.9 million that year, 23.2 million vs. roughly 17 million in 2009. If Japan were a person instead of a country, we might find something psychologically unbalanced in this fixation on tiny toy-sized, or baby-sized, dogs. A whole industry has grown up around it — pet hotels, pet cafés, pet saunas, pet fur stylists, pet designer clothing, pet jewelry, pet massage parlors, gourmet pet food, pet insurance, pet sitters, vastly improved pet medicine, special care for aging pets going senile — even, when the time comes at last, pet funerals with full religious rites, not to mention counseling for pet loss syndrome.

Dogs — cats to a much lesser degree — have changed the face of Japan. There are whole neighborhoods across the country where an alien landing from another planet would conclude that dogs are the dominant life form. Their barks, yaps, howls and grunts fill the air. A young woman pushing a pram is as likely to be wheeling a dog as a baby.

Lovers of Japanese history will immediately be reminded — not that the parallel is exact — of the “Dog Shogun,” Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (ruled 1680-1709), famous for laws mandating the feeding and respectful burial of the hordes of stray dogs that infested Edo (present-day Tokyo), due mainly to samurai who bred the beasts to maximum fierceness, used them for sword practice, and blithely turned them loose when they proliferated unmanageably. Tsunayoshi’s Buddhist compassion was remarkable for seeming to focus more on dogs than on humans, whose sufferings affected him markedly less.

There was a pet boom of sorts then too — so historians hypothesize, based on contemporary ukiyo-e woodblock prints showing dogs and cats being fussed over by prostitutes in the licensed pleasure quarters.

Booms come and booms go. A precursor of the current one swept Japan in the mid-1980s, when golden retrievers, Labradors, Siberian huskies and other large breeds became status symbols among the bubble economy’s nouveau riche. Today’s minidog boom is said to have sprung around the turn of the century from a TV commercial featuring an irresistibly adorable Chihuahua. That will do as an immediate cause. Underlying it is the increasingly blurred distinction between human and nonhuman. The concern for threatened biodiversity has undercut earlier notions of a distinct place within nature for humankind. The sciences of robotics and artificial intelligence, though human creations, constitute a further challenge to human pretensions. There is talk now of “posthuman evolution” — hyper-intelligent machines designing each other, with humans as irrelevant onlookers. Some say it could start happening as early as 2030.

The puppy boom seemed to peak in 2009 and then abate somewhat. Attention began focusing on the darker side of all this cuteness — the “puppy mills” that mercilessly bred the little creatures to meet the inexhaustible demand, the increasing number of abandoned strays being gassed to death at local government facilities, and so on. The magazine Sunday Mainichi last week reported that several American municipalities have started banning the sale of pets altogether, so gross have been deemed the abuses associated with the trade. The article said nothing about Japan, but animal rights activists here have long been vocally unhappy.

Expect a fresh surge of dog ownership in 2011. The caninification of Japan will proceed apace. It’s inevitable, or seems so, given the bottomless discouragement with things human. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant crisis is the coup de grace, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s declaration last week that containing it will take not years but decades, while probably true and, if so, necessary, must have taken the wind out of a lot of sails that were none too full to begin with. The stumbling, helpless, uncoordinated, ineffectual responses to the catastrophe by the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company have been in such stark contrast to the confident assertions of happier times regarding the experts’ infallible ability to handle whatever problems arose, not that any would because the technology was even more infallible, that there seems nothing for us to do but throw up our hands. Lives, livelihoods and property aside, a great casualty of the entire chain of events is trust, and not just in nuclear power plants.

What tattered remnants there were of it even before this year dawned depended on the sheer human need to trust in the face of all we know of the untrustworthiness of any person or institution with a vested interest in something. Every sphere of life, it seems, is tainted, from sumo with its match-fixing to the food industry with its bogus labeling and, as with the raw beef poisonings in May, its sometimes fatally lax standards. Now, with radiation still spewing from Fukushima No. 1, Kyushu Electric Power Co. is caught red-handed trying to rig the public debate in favor of nuclear energy. It’s enough, as they say, to sicken the dogs.

So ordinary citizens will turn increasingly away from their own kind, and increasingly invest their affection in dogs. Dogs don’t have much to say for themselves, but they have no hidden agendas, no ulterior motives. Them, without fear of betrayal, you can trust unconditionally.

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