Are Pets the "Children" of the 21st Century?
Some dogs live better than some people. They are better fed, better groomed, and better dressed. When ill, they receive better medical care. When they die they are more reverently mourned. The same could be said to everywhere in the world. But in Japan there are significantly more dogs and cats than there are children under 15 years of age. As Japan's pet population swells and its child population shrinks, it becomes hard not to wonder. But are pets really replacing children as the focus of family interest? Are little dogs the children of the 21st century?
Some dogs live better than some people. They are better fed, better groomed, and better dressed. When ill, they receive better medical care. When they die they are more reverently mourned.
This is true in many countries where rich and poor lead lives scarcely imaginable to each other. In Japan, a dog’s life is not what it used to be. Imagine a member of Japan’s rapidly growing “working poor” underclass, lodged in a cubicle at an all-night Internet café because the minimal pay earned at a part-time job (roughly one-third of Japan’s work force is now part time) doesn’t permit better housing; imagine this person, in his or her cubicle, thumbing through glossy magazines like “Dog Plus” or “Aikento” or “Neko Seikatsu” (Cat Life), all (there are many others) aimed at the new breed of Japanese pet-owners. What would our “Net café refugee” think, seeing page after page of tiny toy-sized dogs and cats, bejeweled, beribboned, fashionably costumed, elegantly coiffed, all set for an outing to a pet café or a pet spa or a pet massage parlor or a pet resort hotel? Would an irrepressible spasm of envy be altogether incomprehensible, under the circumstances?
Two startling facts concerning pets, noted by the weekly magazine Shukan Economist (May 6, 2008) in a special feature on the subject, give us a rough instant portrait of Japanese society today. One: the Japanese pet market—pets, pet goods, pet services—is worth an estimated 1 trillion yen a year. Two: there are significantly more dogs and cats in this country (12.5 million dogs plus 10.2 million cats as of 2007; 22.7 million altogether) than there are children under 15 (17.65 million as of 2005). As Japan’s pet population swells and its child population shrinks, it becomes hard not to wonder: Are pets replacing children as the focus of family interest? Are little dogs the babies of the 21st century?
“Mama” and “Child”
Pet booms come and go. A precursor of the current one swept Japan in the mid-1980s. As the economy entered its reckless “bubble” phase, golden retrievers and other large breeds became popular status symbols among the nouveau-riche. The bubble burst, and the boom fizzled. It revived around 2000 as the economy steadied—with two main differences: the dogs of choice today are the smallest imaginable—miniature dachshunds, Chihuahuas, toy poodles; and their owners are not necessarily rich. Anybody can own dogs like these. Lately, it seems, just about everybody does.
Is this surprising? Perhaps not. Demographic and social trends over the past generation have vastly expanded a void that a lovable little pet can help fill. An extended life span has given rise to legions of lonely elderly. Marriage deferred or rejected in favor of other lifestyles means more young and middle-aged adults living alone. New career openings for women, rising education costs, and a chronic shortage of daycare centers encourage more and more couples to remain childless.
Conversations reported in the August issue of “Aikento” permit us a glimpse into the minds of young women whose affection for their toy poodles and Chihuahuas is apt to strike a reader who doesn’t share it as eerily, distortedly maternal. In fact the magazine doesn’t hesitate to refer to the owners as “mama,” and the mamas seem instinctively to use the word “child” to mean dog. Their remarks come in response to queries by an “Aikento” reporter who, for example, asks about “accessories”—costume jewelry, pendants, and the like.
“ I look for accessories that are light so they won’t weigh the dog down, and yet look high-class,” says one mama.
“ In the hot season,” says another, “beads are the thing.”
“ Yes, beads are adorable,” chimes in a third. “They’re unisex, and go well with a small ‘child’ or a big ‘child,’ as the case may be.”
On the matter of dog clothing—from T-shirts to dresses, caps to booties—we overhear this exchange:
“ Basically I choose [dog] suits that match what I’m wearing. If the material or the workmanship looks cheap, I won’t buy it.”
“ Yes, the ‘child’s’ fashion has to harmonize with mama’s. Seeing the dog should give you an idea of what kind of person the owner is.”