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Not so Kawaii – Purchasing a Puppy in Japan

“We were expecting to get animals coming in from people who were sick, but that wasn’t the case,” said Julie Okamoto. 

“It really started a year down the track after COVID started. People lost their jobs, people got divorced, and people left the country. Those are reasons we get animals in, and it’s still happening,” Okamoto explains. 

“With dogs, we had about a 30% increase in intake last year [2021],” says the animal welfare activist from the animal rescue organization ARK. She is explaining the fallout of pet culture in Japan following the pandemic. 

Conversely, from 2019, dog and cat ownership has increased in Japan. There has been more than a 14% increase in 2020 alone. Are pets the consumerists’ new prize?

Pets in the Jomon period

Dogs were thought to have migrated to Japan during the Jomon period, one of the earliest recordable periods in Japanese history. Dogs were not seen as pets, but rather as companions, helpers, and hunters. Even records of dogs being buried with humans have been observed. 

These dogs were small, and those who did not have an owner were seen as local dogs and not harmed. This early generation has been predicted to be the ancestors of breeds that still exist in Japan today such as the Shiba Inu. With a vast gene pool, these dogs eventually diversified into the breeds we can see in Japan today.

Dogs as Pets Today

With most of the urban population non-reliant on pets for labor, dogs with an owner tend to be very small, purebred, and cute. Selectively bred dogs have been refined into authentic Japanese breeds such as the current Shiba Inu, Japanese Spitz, and Akita Inu. 

A survey conducted by the Japan Pet Food Association in 2021 indicates that pet ownership has increased significantly in Japan, with more owners spending more money on dogs than on cats. 

Recently, animal domestication is more focused on the appearance and cuteness of the breed in question.  “It’s the looks and the smaller size… I wanted a dog that was small enough but acted like a large dog,” says Yumiko. She is explaining why she wanted to purchase Bijoux, a miniature Shiba from a Kojima pet store. 

“Because of the living situation, with a lot of people living in apartments, the law requires a dog to be small.” Yumiko is referring to weight limits on dogs living in apartment buildings, many of which require a dog to be under 5 kilograms. With such restrictions in most cases, as well as a very prevalent bias toward miniature culture in Japan, it’s no wonder why the dogs we see in the city are so small. 

Four-year-old Miniature Shiba, Bijoux, courtesy of the owner Yumiko.

How Easy Is It?

Although expensive, the ease with which a fashionable dog can be purchased is surprising. “Anyone can buy a dog. You go, you pay, and you do your registration paperwork. There’s really no interviewing or screening,” says Yumiko. 

“There are a lot of pet shops here. But go to Europe and you’ll find no pet shops. I think that’s why it’s so easy here,” she adds. 

The information that pet stores must give customers and require from customers is so minimal that animal hoarders and serial purchasers are not unexpected in Japan. As Julie illustrates, saying, “The larger number of animals we take in come from a single person or hoarder who is not capable of looking after them, but doesn’t know what to do with them.” She then recited a recent case in Shimane Prefecture where there were 164 dogs in one small house.

With the number of purebred dogs in Japan steadily increasing since 2014, it appears the market for these pets is any business’s goldmine. 

What’s Ethical Breeding?

Popular, cute, and small dogs such as the Chihuahua, Dachshund, and Miniature Poodle have such unique characteristics that they can only be produced by selective breeding which often occurs on puppy farms. When not practiced responsibly, this type of breeding can lead to health complications caused by inbreeding and lack of care for a large number of animals. 

Japanese law provides guidelines for breeders, but “regulations are so slack and vague, that even if an arm of the government went to have a look, they wouldn’t find much amiss,” says Julie Okamoto, adding: “Breeders can keep animals in shocking conditions but still not break the law.

“For example,” she says, “adequate space, what’s that? There’s no law against having wire bases in cages that their little paws are on,” says Julie Okamoto. 

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Photograph of the Kashima, Ibaraki prefecture breeding site described (courtesy of Animal Refuge Kansai

Breeding Practice in Japan

Breeders are able to obtain a license very easily, and once gained, it is almost impossible to lose. When recounting an incident with a woman breeding in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, Julie tells us, “There were 200 dogs in a tin shed. There was one Italian Greyhound who seemed very close to giving birth, but was in a cage with another animal. It was a horrible place.” 

To Julie’s knowledge, there were no legal repercussions for the breeder. “The woman, who was on the Coo and Riku website as a responsible breeder, spent 40 minutes yelling at us and telling us that she hated animal welfare,” Julie continued. 

The incident brought to mind the question of how pet stores selling these animals are not aware of the malpractice behind the product. Julie replied “One of our volunteers worked for a pet shop to see what it was like. She said they lie and place pressure on salespeople to sell animals, even if the purchases are unsuitable,” Julie related. “Certainly the management are very well aware of what they’re doing. I’m not sure all the staff is.”

So how are these breeders allowed to continue with animals raised in conditions of arguable animal neglect? 

“The registration process for breeders is not strict and they’re not monitored carefully,” Julie explains. “Once they have a license it’s very hard to lose it. Clients think that because they have a breeder name from a pet store, it’s come from a responsible individual.” 

Every pet store I asked to interview on this issue declined.

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Photograph of puppies for sale in Tokyo at a Pets First store

Looking for a Companion of Your Own

Best said by Julie, “A good breeder will be vetting you, to make sure you will take good care of the animal.”

“More education for the average person on taking care of animals is needed,” she stated. “One of the problems that cause people to give animals up is a lack of research.”

“Some people can’t afford trimming and grooming for their dogs,” she pointed out, “and it’s something people don’t factor into taking care of animals. If people spent time and money working with a trainer for their animal, they would have a better companion.”

Julie concludes by emphasizing that ”the most important thing that anyone can do, is to shine a light on the fact that rescued animals are wonderful companions, because it’s easier to change the consumer than it is to change the vendor, and if the consumer is armed with more knowledge, they will make better choices.”

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Continues in part two

Author: Audrey Vanessa Yoko Dumas 

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