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The year 2000 is the year of the dragon in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiacal symbols adopted long ago by Japan. The dragon, of course, is a mythical beast. Unlike Western lore, ancient Asian legend features the dragon using its many extraordinary powers for the ultimate benefit of humanity. Asian folklore contains no tales of brave warriors or knights like Siegfried or St. George saving lives by slaying fierce dragons. The other symbols of the Chinese zodiac all are real creatures. That prompts the question: Did this age-old influence shape Japanese attitudes to other creatures, both real and imaginary?

For example, the symbol for 1999 was the rabbit or hare, an animal whose furry appeal fits right into the acknowledged Japanese craze for anything considered “kawaii,” or cute. Yet rabbits, which are quiet and virtually trouble-free, have joined cats and dogs in the rapidly expanding ranks of abandoned pets here. Rabbits kept for learning purposes by many of the nation’s elementary schools often have been wantonly destroyed by unknown cowards under cover of darkness in deeds of appalling brutality. The symbol for 1998 was the tiger, a powerful creature with which Japan has long had a more problematic relationship — feared and yet in demand at the same time, its body parts used in still-popular traditional Chinese medicines. The tiger, like the legendary dragon, apparently is seen as living for the benefit of humans.

Now Japan is at long last imposing a needed ban on the trade in tiger parts, such as bones and the reproductive organs of both sexes. The ban goes into effect next April, more than two years after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species passed a resolution urging all nations signatory to it to tighten their laws covering the trade. The government’s action stems partly from continued criticism by nearly all domestic and international wildlife-conservation groups, which have been pressing Japan to join the other industrialized nations in taking appropriate action. In the meantime, while Japan delayed, the world’s tiger population fell to little more than 5,000 in the wild, limited to China, India and Siberia.

As welcome as the revision of Japan’s Endangered Species Conservation Law is, however, it will amount to no more than well-intended lip service if the steps to ensure an end to the trade lack the necessary teeth. It is reported that when the World Wide Fund for Nature Japan surveyed 54 drug stores in Tokyo and Osaka considered likely to deal in tiger-based medicines in 1998, it found 30 of them selling powders, pills and alcoholic tonics containing tiger parts. The new ban exempts such products made from parts brought into the country before Japan became a member of the CITES Convention in 1980. This loophole should be closed. The availability of these medicines contributes to the appearance of a continuing demand, which fuels the threat of poaching among the dwindling tiger population.

Recent international media reports have dealt with another aspect of Japan’s unending romance with cute animals and animal-like creatures. The fad now has traveled overseas, although in other countries the mania for Hello Kitty and such favorites as Doraemon and the Pokemon characters, among others, is largely limited to children and teenagers. Here, even large numbers of adults appear infected by the virus. Does history then account, at least in part, for the extreme fondness shown for unreal beasts in Japan while living pets quickly lose their original appeal?

Volunteer groups of animal lovers, often with foreign residents prominent among their members, have campaigned for years for more humane treatment of domestic animals in this country. Now the government says it has tried to do something for those often long-suffering creatures, too. The law covering the control and protection of animals has just been revised, for the first time in 26 years. It now provides specific penalties of fines or even imprisonment for anyone who deliberately mistreats, kills or abandons a pet.

The key is catching and charging the guilty parties. The revised law also places an extra burden on local government animal shelters, however, which already put down by gas 467,000 unwanted cats and dogs in the last fiscal year. In Tokyo, some 18,000 pets — including rabbits, ducks and chickens — were brought to the five municipal animal shelters, many by their owners, who were giving them up for a variety of reasons, some valid and some entirely selfish. The animals were sometimes ill and showed signs of mistreatment. Good intentions alone can never be enough. The real possibility of punishment, however, could begin to force pet owners to develop a sense of responsibility for the animals in their care.

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