Japan’s upwardly mobile dogs

Dog on a bike

Japan’s favourite dog (a Shiba Inu) going for a ride.

When you first visit Japan it doesn’t take long to notice that Japanese dogs are treated like babies. Since I arrived I’ve been trying, stalker style (I’m not proud of my behaviour), to take photographs of dogs in cute outfits. It’s tricky because when they’re out, they’re on the move, either towards you or away from you. If they’re not walking they’re still likely to be mobile, just via some other means, usually pram or pushbike.

A figure that’s often quoted on this topic is that the official pet population in Japan is around 22 million, while the number of children under 15 years old is closer to 17 million. Back in 2012 The Guardian wrote at length on the cause and effect of this phenomenon linking it to Japan’s declining birthrate. What the article doesn’t mention is the more sinister side ofcommodifying animals on such a scale.

Japanese pet shop

The small glass cubicles housing puppies and kittens in a pet shop.

‘Puppy mills’ (also a problem in Australia and other countries) supply pet shops and department stores leading to an increased likelihood of Japanese dogs having serious health problems. There is also a high rate of dogs being abandoned or surrendered once the cute puppy stage is over and owners realise a full-grown dog is not going to suit their lifestyle. In a culture where adopting pets from refuges is not common practise, this leads to high rates of euthanasia.

Fellow blogger and dog lover Linda Lombardi wrote about this on tofugu.com not long ago. Like me, she spends more time in her post revelling in the cuteness of Japanese dogs than she does confronting the ugly truth behind the industry. Just as I am about to, she reconciles this dilemma by declaring that dogs ‘in loving homes’ in Japan must certainly have some of the best lives of any dog around the world. After all, they live with minimal effort, being either carried or pushed around in dog prams.

Dog pee pads

Dog toilet pads for sale.

They don’t even have to go outside to pee, commonly trained to use indoor toilet pads or, the ultimate, wearing a nappy. For entertainment they are taken designed clothes shopping, pampered in day spas and are taken out to cafés with special dog menus.

As a dog owner, I’m not entirely convinced that this ‘ultimate dog’s life’ is true. For my fella (a rescued Jack Russell Terrier X) many of these things would be ultimate torture. Putting any kind of dog clothing on him results in instant full-body paralysis. He will not move. Not for a walk. Not for a treat. He hates being carried.

Dog in a pram

Ready to roll.

Confining him to a pram or bicycle basket rather than letting him sniff and pee and find every disgusting rotting bit of food to eat on our daily walk would be denying him a favourite activity. He hates baths.

On the other hand, a dog café with a special menu of treats is something he would most likely dream of. He also, somewhat embarrassingly, is often too lazy to get up off the couch while he’s sleeping to let us know he needs to go outside (if you get what I mean…) In the middle of a Canberra winter with temperatures dropping below zero at night, I expect he’d probably be quite happy with an indoor pee pad, or even a nappy, so he didn’t have to get up at all.

It’s a terrible thing that humans do – anthropomorphism – projecting human qualities onto other species. Anyone who owns a pet however will readily admit that theirs has a distinct personality and that they engage with them in the same way we do our human companions.


These guys, totally happy to be wearing matching shirts.

In Japan it seems that this has gone to the extreme. For well-loved Japanese dogs I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing for one, largely unfounded, reason – they don’t know they’re dogs. A sad fact of the industry is that dogs are often taken away from their mothers and brothers and sisters very early (too early) and therefore don’t get exposed to any kind of normal dog behaviour. They are dressed up and carted around from a very young age. They don’t know any different.

Dogs in t-shirts

These guys pretending they’re NOT wearing matching shirts.

I’ve made some promises to the universe about being a good dog owner when I get home. The main one is letting my dog be a dog. No more t-shirt torture. Lots of good walks with plenty of time for exploring. Plenty of dog-appropriate treats. Although, as we’re getting close to winter back in Australia, I might just see if a pack of dog nappies will fit in my suitcase…

5 thoughts on “Japan’s upwardly mobile dogs

  1. Haha love this post. I love your stalking to take photos. I’ve been known to pretend I’ve taking a building or cute scene when my focus is really an interesting person. That’s probably worse than stalking dogs.

    I also laughed at your dog and Canberra winter. Must say our dog wasn’t too keen to go out on a cold winter’s night. It got so we had to go out and watch her and insist (with our special word) that she do what she had to do, rather than instruct her from the comfort of the back door, otherwise she’d run out and run back in again without doing anything.


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