In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

Two shocking 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?

In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

“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.

In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

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.

In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

“ 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.”

 

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?

In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

“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.

In Japan there are more pets than there are children under 15

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.”