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.