I’m not really 'into' dogs. As I type this, I can hear one barking. The one at Snow’s house (Taro-kun) is jumpy and scary, and has to be tied up when I visit. But I really hit it off with one last weekend. A kind Taiwanese girl from our class (let’s call her ‘Rabbit’) invited a few of us to her friend’s house in Toyota on the Saturday afternoon for sushi, beers and a round or two of Nintendo Wi. One of these video games involved throwing a フリスビー (furisubee) for a cute computerised dog to catch and return.
My teammate and I did the little trotting one proud, and we trounced our classmates with a few laser-guided throws. I suspect there are gameplayers out there who have bonded tamogochi-style with these animations. But rest assured: Mo-Kun (the one I “hit it off” with), as you can see from the photo below, is definitely an actual dog.
I expect the story of my linguistic boob when discussing this living, breathing woofer with our hosts to make a classmate’s website ( http://www.ettojapan.blogspot.com/ ) soon. You see, I thought we had found common ground: when told that Mo kun’s favourite thing was ‘sanpo’ (a walk), I agreed and said it was mine too. I had misheard: his favourite thing was, in fact, ‘sanpuru’ (dog biscuit samples).
The Japanese go to quite ridiculous lengths in lavishing affection on dogs, and the excitable Mo-kun is relatively unspoilt by the standards of his compatriots. And whilst inter-human relations in Japanese public places are rarely tactile (few kisses or embraces at the airport or railway station, for example), the tlc extended to their canine friends is anything but. They dress them and groom them and fuss over them, especially the small ugly ones. I’d say newborn babies get less attention.
In particular, dogs are the accessory of choice for the common Japanese phenomenon of ‘Girl Walking Alone in Park’. So much so that I recall reading somewhere that, for men looking to pick up Japanese, investment in a dog is a shrewd move. (I witnessed this only the other day in Osaka Park.) Dogs are innocuous talking points on which everyone can agree (“isn’t he cute?” etc) as a preamble to flirtation. There are other equally bland conversation-openers (notably the weather) but the advantage with the sweet, unpredictable dog is that it can sneak its owner through small gaps in the gender fence. Here, in the park, it is truly the (predatory) Man’s Best Friend.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that in Japan, with its low birth rate, the whole dog ownership craze has spawned an immense (and, frankly, tasteless) side industry which must account for a significant proportion of average Japanese household expenditure. This industry seems to be doing its best to bring Crufts standards and glamour to the masses. Petside.com ( http://www.petside.com/petsideblog/2009/06/putting-on-the-dog-in-style-in.php ) reported last year that:
“The number of pet dogs in Japan alone has reached an astounding 13 million or more over the past 10 years.
Of course this industry has attracted numbers of ancillary businesses, such as those specializing in dog sunglasses, doggie clothing, fancy collars and leashes, and any other product that you can imagine having to do to delight and dress up the canine species. Doggie day care centers and spas which provide the highest degree of pooch pampering are becoming popular with dog owners who wish to offer their pets the crème de la crème of canine care.
But can you believe that canine-centered restaurants are also opening their doors? Get this . . . these dog food franchise cafes are featuring the tops in canine cuisine. "Deco Dog Restaurant" is one of them. Their unique menu offers "sweet potato scones, chicken, cheese, vegetables and dog sweets" to tickle Fido's palate with these delectable treats. Trumping these offerings, some of these establishments also offer "doggie etiquette" and yoga classes as well.
For folks who live in apartments where dogs are not permitted, guess what? There are doggie rental services available so these folks can experience the pleasure of spending time with their favorite animal. Many of these agencies will even attempt to provide the renter's favorite breed as well. Rentals can range from several hours to many days. As of 2008 there were over 134 dog rental facilities open for business.”
If I had a dog, it wouldn't take me long to reach one of these places. As seems to be the case for most phenomena I consider iconic of modern Japanese life (e.g. Pachinko, 100-en stores), a short walk from my doorstep just around the corner from Wingtown brings me to what could easily be the archetype. Entering the street, I hear barking. Follow the sound and you realise that this isn’t just any other residential neighbourhood. It's the location of the grandiose-sounding IPC or ‘International Pet Culture General College’.
The IPC comprises (all written in English) the ‘Aichi Pet College’ , the Pet Groom Training Studio, ‘Studio Cut and Hotel Doggy’.
Uniformed staff head in and out, walking dogs at pace. Doggy-printed minibuses are parked out the front; they sometimes pass me on their rounds as I walk or cycle into school.
Do dogs humanise us? Or are we humanising dogs? And, if so, what next, I ask? Dog love hotels? Dog onsen? I wouldn’t bet against either existing already and, if indeed they do, can well imagine they’re queuing around the block.
Anyway, it being a pleasant day, I'm off to the park to play some frisbee. Who knows? I might get lucky and meet a dog.