Pet ownership in Japan
Over the last few decades, pet ownership in Japan has gradually moved from a predominantly utilitarian function, into a concept that more fully incorporates pets into the family system. In the majority of cases[quantify], pets are now considered to be family members[according to whom?]. To many Japanese[quantify], pets are as well loved as children, and may even serve as a substitute for those who choose to forgo child-rearing.
In the context of spiritual hierarchy, pets occupy the space directly below humans, but above all other animals and forms of life. This position is not clearly defined, leaving many aspects of pet ownership open to interpretation, including the practice of keeping and caring for pets, as well as the correct means of caring for them after death. This position within the family is presented through various forms within the everyday flow of contemporary life, spiritual expression, memorialization, and the burial rites of Japanese pets.
Pets have been increasing in numbers throughout Japan. Providing a convenient way for companionship without having the demands that a child would, pets are a popular alternative for people who do not have the time required to raise a baby. Although it is not by any means definitive, studies reflect a trend showing that this is exactly what is happening, as adopting pets into the family in lieu of children has become more and more common. Currently, “estimates place the number of pets above the number of children under the age of fifteen”. This has been troublesome since Japan is already suffering a declining birth rate, but the trend does seem to be increasing.
The Japanese “pet boom” can be traced back to 2003 where it was estimated that the combined number of dogs and cats in Japan have outnumbered the amount of children. The estimated number of pets and children under 16 in Japan was 19.2 and 17.9 million respectively in 2003, which increased drastically to 23.2 million to 17 million in 2009.
Pets in everyday life
Although Japan’s crowded environment makes for a not so pet-friendly country, Japanese have found ways to incorporate their pets into their everyday lives. One way, in particular, is to choose small dog breeds as their companions. Some common dog breeds for Japanese families are chihuahuas, miniature dachshunds, and toy poodles. The most common reason for choosing small breed dogs are the lack of space, and smaller dogs mean cleaner houses.
But the Japanese do not only house small dogs. One of the most popular dog breeds in Japan is the Shiba Inu. Although the Shiba Inu can grow to be two feet tall and weigh up to 25 pounds, some Japanese prefer the Shiba Inu because they are so family-friendly and have a lifespan of up to 15 years, making the Shiba Inu a long-lived companion. The Japanese also have an even larger breed unique to Japan, the Akita, made well known after the story of Hachikō.
Because of the declining birthrate and aging population in Japan, there are now households in Japan with no children, only pets. Since some families have no children, they instead pamper and lavish their pets like they would do their own children. Businesses in Japan such as cat cafes, dog spas, and restaurants that allow pets to sit down at a table and eat with the rest of the family have been booming since 2004. Some pets in Japan even have the luxury of their own pet closets filled with expensive couture clothing from Chanel to Gucci designed specifically for pets.
Pets in Japan are not only for companionship. Therapy dogs play a huge role in helping the disabled, comforting hospital patients, and as companions for the elderly. Some organizations in Japan, such as the Tokyo-based International Therapy Dog Association train dogs with no owners into therapy dogs and send them to various nursing homes and hospitals throughout Japan. One such dog was the basis for a 2004 film Walking With Dogs: Chirori and Tamaru, where the main character, Chirori, instead of being put to sleep, was discovered by a Japanese singer and was trained to help the elderly. The story of Chirori was so inspiring, there is now a statue in her honor.
According to Japanese folklore, there is a darker side of pet spirituality in Shinto, know as the Inugami, which literally translates to dog god. Inugami are dark dangerous spirits which are conjured up through dark rituals involving the sacrifice of a common pet dog. In a way similar to shikigami, these rituals allow the dog’s tortured spirit to be under the control of whomever summoned it. The Inugami can then be used by its owner to do their bidding and curse other people or even possess them and bring misfortune. The idea of this type of spirit could be linked to the fact that traditionally pets in Japanese culture were kept for utilitarian purposes as opposed to companionship.
Memorialization and posthumous care
Japanese traditional folk religion and Buddhism have significantly influenced the death rites of pets, and their memorialization thereafter. To some extent, Western culture and Christianity have also made an impact. However, the aspects present in such procedures vary across Japan and rely heavily upon the beliefs, traditions, and circumstances of each individual family.
Traditionally, pets were not often considered to be members of the family. Although there are some examples of pets being memorialized and given posthumous names during the mid-nineteenth century, there are few records of such efforts and those that exist have been attributed to the elite samurai class. During this time, most dogs and cats were considered community residents and did not inhabit any one individual home. Upon a community animal’s death, folk tradition required that special care be taken of the deceased animal’s remains, in order to protect the entire village from vengeful spirits. The concept of vengeful spirits comes from the belief that “small animals such as cats and dogs were believed to be able to travel freely between the here-and-now and the afterworld, and to possess the power to wreak spiritual vengeance (tatari) on people”. In order to ensure that the living would not be harmed, and in some instances to enlist good luck or protection from the animal spirit, special procedures were required, such as burial in a specific location of significance or inclusion of certain items within the animal’s grave. If the correct process was followed, the village could rest assured that they would not be troubled by the deceased spirit.
Buddhist practices, specifically ancestral memorialization, have directly influenced the death rites and rituals performed for pets in Japan. However, “there are no scriptures specifically for animals, let alone pets” in Buddhist doctrine. Thus, memorialization of pets is left open to diverse interpretation. One central disagreement among spiritualists revolves around the Buddhist cycle of rebirth. Some individuals claim that it is indeed possible, through proper care during life and correct memorialization after death, for a beloved pet to eventually be reborn as a fellow human, thus making enlightenment achievable. Others feel that pets are only capable of being reborn as pets. Often, Buddhist clerics tend to allow families to decide for themselves what process they would like to follow. As different temples interpret the rites in different ways, they often combine various elements or omit some entirely.
Over the last few decades, pet cemeteries have increased in popularity, particularly within crowded urban areas. In rural areas, many pets are buried directly in the ground “in the hills outside the village, creating a harmony between the decay of the pet’s body and the fading away of memories and grief”. In more urban, metropolitan areas, pet owners generally choose cremation for their lost companions. They can then choose to inter them in individual or communal graves, or display the remains in columbariums  On occasion, pet owners request to be buried with their deceased pets, and some choose to conduct the rites just as they would be conducted for a human. However, most “actual practices reinforce boundaries that place pets in a marginal position and delineate their liminal status within human society”. In contrast with the traditional folk beliefs, the majority of pet owners no longer believe that the spirits of their deceased pets will cause them harm as a result of their choice of memorialization. Moreover, the rites and rituals serve as a means of easing the grief and loss of the living. As a result, “the significance of animal funerals in Japan has shifted from prayer for the animal soul to a way of expressing grief by the pet owner". Deceased pets are now more commonly remembered as members of the family, and are often memorialized at the family altar and become a part of the family’s ancestry.
In contemporary society, elements of Western thought and Christianity have also become interwoven into burial practices of deceased pets. One example of this influence is found in the image of a “Rainbow Bridge,” a concept very much like the Western ideal of heaven. The Rainbow Bridge is described as a utopian space where the deceased pet’s spirit remains until the death of their owner, at which time both spirits travel together into the realm of heaven. This concept further emphasizes the growing familial connection between pets and their owners in contemporary Japan.
- Why Japan prefers pets to parenthood | Life and style. theguardian.com. Retrieved on 2014-06-23.
- Ambros, B. (2010). The Necrogeography of Pet Memorial Spaces: Pets as Liminal Family Members in Contemporary Japan. Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, 6(3). 304-335. [DOI: 10.2752/175183410X12862096296801]
- Hoffman, Michael. (2011-07-17) It seems Japan has literally gone to the dogs. The Japan Times. Retrieved on 2014-06-23.
- Pampered pets. The Japan Times. Retrieved on 2014-06-23.
- Rescued canines trained to give disaster-zone therapy. The Japan Times (2012-06-02). Retrieved on 2014-06-23.
- Pets In Japan
- Veldkamp, E. (2009). The Emergence of Pets as Family and the Socio-Historical Development of Pet Funerals in Japan. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals, 22(4). 333.
- Ambros, B. (2009). Vengeful Spirits or Loving Spiritual Companions? Changing Views of Animal Spirits in Contemporary Japan. Asian Ethnology, 69(1). 35-67.