Animal Welfare in Japan

by Elizabeth Oliver, founder, Animal Refuge Kansai

Visitors to Tokyo who expect to see street dogs, ubiquitous in much of Asia, may be surprised to see only pampered purebreds.

Perhaps because Japan is an island, street dogs have never been common here­­ although dogs did once enjoy much greater freedom. Before World War II, dogs were kept primarily by people affluent enough to have a house and land. They may have been kept as guard dogs, but were seldom chained and could roam at will.
Because they were free and were usually greeted by everyone, they tended to be friendly. Hachiko, for example, an Akita, used to see his master off at the Shibuya railway station in Tokyo every morning and go back to the station to greet him on his return in the evening. One day his master died suddenly, but Hachiko continued to go to the station every day until he died of old age. The Japanese were so impressed by his devotion and loyalty that they erected a statue to him, which still stands outside the Shibuya station.
A dog like Hachiko could not roam in Tokyo today. People would be frightened of him, and the hokensho would quickly dispatch him to the gas chamber.
Dogs all but disappeared from Japan during the war years, eaten by the starving people. By the time petkeeping resumed, attitudes had changed. As part of a zealous campaign to eradicate rabies, chaining became mandatory. Stray dogs were hunted down and often brutally killed in front of the public. Many Japanese became dog-phobic.
To this day some people scream at the sight of a lively dog. Others cross the road to avoid meeting even a well-behaved dog on a lead. Mothers tell their children, "Be careful ­­the dog will bite you!" So children learn early to fear dogs and to assume that all dogs bite. There is some ironic truth in this, since prolonged chaining increases canine territoriality, making dogs more likely to bite.
Pet fads
As Japan gained affluence, people who abandoned cramped apartments to buy their own houses tended to want the accessories to go with a house. One of these accessories was a dog, of whatever breed was currently fashionable. First-time house owners became first-time dog owners, knowing very little about how to keep a dog. The resulting breeding fads were tragic in consequence.
The husky boom may have been the worst. Huskies are totally unsuited to a cramped urban environment; they shed hair, which hygiene-obsessive Japanese hate; they are hard to train; and the hot, humid Japanese summers are torture to dogs native to the Arctic. Huskies soon filled the gas chambers, and the countryside was full of abandoned huskies and their crosses. Subsequent fads developed around golden retrievers, black Labradors, border collies, and Welsh corgies.
Japan also became a lucrative market for exotic pets. At one shop in Osaka, for example, you can buy almost any animal from a pony to a pig to a civet cat. Even wallabies, eagles, owls, cockatoos, rare reptiles, and a variety of monkeys are often in stock. The owner was once prosecuted for selling smuggled baby orangutans. The police confiscated them and sent them back to Indonesia. The owner was fined a paltry amount, but continued in business as brazenly as ever.
When these animals are no longer fun, or become unmanageable, they are dumped. Crocodiles, red-eared slider turtles, raccoons, and mongooses introduced to Japan as pets are now often accused of damaging the environment and attacking indigenous species. Yet once exotic animals are smuggled into Japan, nothing prevents them from being sold.
The breeding and pet shop business are reputedly controlled by gangsters. The Kennel Clubs of both Britain and Ireland have warned their members against exporting to Japan, but rural puppy mills often do, and since there is no quarantine for animals originating from the U.K., British-bred dogs can be flown straight in, to fill the cramped cages of Japanese puppy mills, where they are bred as young and as often as possible.
The Japanese retail pet industry makes a profit by selling about 10-20% of the animals they stock, disposing of the remainder. Kittens and puppies taken from their mothers at the age of one month are stressed, frequently fall ill, and often die. If they die after a customer takes them home, the pet shops will never return the money but may offer another animal as a replacement. Many animals are sold with forged pedigrees, giving no indication where the animal was born.
Some pet shops have cages outside where people may dump their old dog while purchasing a new puppy. The old dogs are disposed of as a customer service.
If pet shop animals remain unsold, their price is dropped as they grow, until finally they fill the cage and are also disposed of, by methods which include being killed on the premises, being taken to the gas chambers of the hokensho, or being sold to laboratories.
No one in charge
No Japanese government office oversees animal welfare. Pets are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health & Hygiene, which collects and disposes of animals in much the same way as garbage. Dogs are actively hunted, since they may carry rabies and can bite. The dogcatchers sometimes put out traps, or if they can corner a dog, will throw a wire noose around the dog's neck and fling the dog up into a truck with other dogs. These trucks are seldom air-conditioned, nor are the dogs separated, so many animals end up badly mauled or dead.
There are also "dog posts" in some rural areas, where unwanted dogs can be shoved down a chute into a container below. As the contents of the container cannot be seen from outside, nobody knows what is inside: possibly old dogs, puppies, cats or kittens. It is easy to imagine the carnage that results.
Some animals never reach the hokensho itself but are sold along the way to either breeders or labs. Over 73,000 dogs and 13,500 cats per year are used in experiments.
Animals who reach the hokensho seldom leave. Some hokensho now operate Aigo Centers (Love Animal Centers), where puppies are adopted out, but never adult dogs.
Impounded dogs are kept from 3-5 days, except for dogs who have bitten someone, who are quarantined for two weeks of observation. At many hokensho the killing system is so automated that animals go directly from the gas chambers into the furnace at the press of a button. No one verifies that the animals are dead.
Gassing is the standard killing method, but some hokensho still use decompression or electrocution, and until recently, bludgeoning dogs was common in rural areas. Veterinarians are employed at the hokensho, but seldom touch the animals, and certainly never euthanize animals by lethal injection.
Catching animals, killing them, and disposing of their bodies is typically done by contract workers, who usually belong to the Burakumin class, equivalent to the "untouchables" of India. In medieval times, the Burakumin were considered the lowest of humans, and were called Eta, which literally means "having four legs." They lived in separate villages, could not marry other Japanese, and could only work in "unclean" trades such as butchering, plumbing, removing night soil, leather work, prostitution, and undertaking.
After Japan opened up to outside trade in 1868, the old class system was abolished, but the descendants of Burakumin are still discriminated against.
Like U.S. Southerners, who speak of "house dogs" and "yard dogs," the Japanese differentiate between lap dogs, usually kept inside, and larger dogs who mostly live outside. Inside dogs are often pampered. Their hair is tied up in ribbons, and sometimes dyed, they are fed choice snacks, and they are carried rather than walked.
The same family may also keep a guard dog, who is chained to a miserable kennel with no protection from heat or cold, walked minimally, and given cheap food. Walk along any street in Japan and you see house after house with chained dogs or dogs locked in tiny cages. Yet their keepers think they are doing the right thing, and to be told that this is cruel either shocks or angers them.
Native Japanese dog breeds, such as the Shiba-inu, Kishu, Kai-ken, Akita-ken, Ainu-ken and Japanese Spitz, tend to be known for stoicism and endurance, not surpringly, since they are chained and basically ignored all their lives. Years of this treatment have bred into these dogs a dislike of being handled. They cannot relax when cuddled. They are also more aggressive and territorial than western breeds, and harder to train.
Since Japan has no shelters, people wanting to get rid of their pet or who can no longer keep the animal are faced with a dilemma. It is against their Buddhist beliefs to kill a living thing, so most would never take their pet to be euthanized by a veterinarian. Besides, most Japanese vets refuse to euthanize any animal, even if in pain. If the pet is taken to the hokensho, the animal will be killed, which is then on the former petkeeper's conscience. So they abandon the animal, or fall prey to schemers who offer to take unwanted pets, for a fee, and find them new homes. The schemers may collect as much as $250 U.S. to accept a cat or dog­­and may then turn around and sell the animals to labs, take them to the hokensho, or just dump them.
Many Japanese believe neutering is unnatural. Instead, they dump unwanted litters of puppies or kittens on mountainsides or along river banks, sometimes with food that the newborn animals cannot eat. The abandoners feel they have returned the animals to nature. Most die of exposure or dehydration, or are killed and eaten by crows. Those who survive go feral and breed.
From dogs to cats
The Japanese are primarily "dog people." Although cats have long been kept on farms to hunt mice, their appearance as pets is very recent. As cats with long tails were considered bad luck, especially black cats with long tails, people would cut them off. Over time the preference for short-tailed cats made cats with naturally short tails the norm.
Since Japan no longer has many free-roaming dogs, feral cats have taken over the available habitat. Many are fed, but few of the feeders have the cats sterilized. Thus the cats proliferate, to the annoyance of neighbors. Japanese houses are side by side, sometimes only inches apart, with very small gardens­­or none. There is nowhere for a cat to go except into dangerous places.
Some cats fall afoul of the makers of shamisen, a Japanese musical instrument which is traditionally stringed with catgut.
In 1973 Japan hastily adopted the present Animal Protection and Control Law, just before a visit to Japan by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. But the law was designed to protect people from animals, not the other way around. It was ineffective, was unknown to many of the authorities who were supposed to enforce it, and included no definition of cruelty. The handful of successful prosecutions in the past 30 years have typically won fines of less than one would get for stealing a bicycle.
Amendments adopted in December 1999 included higher fines, but little else of much practical use. A revision is due in 2004. Whether an effective updating can be won depends on the ability of animal welfare groups to win political influence.
The Japan Animal Welfare Society, the first humane organization in Japan, was started circa 1946 by the wife of the then British Ambassador, Lady Gascoigne. It attracted members and supporters among the affluent foreigners based in Japan, and from Japanese socialites, including members of the Royal Family. Thus JAWS has always had strong links to the government­­and has tended toward restraint in advocacy.
A handful of other animal protection groups have offices in Tokyo, but none run shelters. JAWS for a time had a rescue centre in the Hanshin area, but it now is closed.
Currently the most active organization for animal welfare in Japan is ALIVE, run by Tokyo activist Fusako Nogami. Other small groups operate on shoestring budgets from the founders' homes, often concealing their addresses and telephone numbers from fear that animals will be dumped on them.
Veterinarians in Japan, as everywhere, focused until recently on agriculture. Small animal practice is a specialty of recent origin. Even today the veterinary curriculum does not include discussion of animal welfare.
Due to the high cost of land in Japan, especially in cities, veterinary clinics are usually small, and many vets practice alone with the help of their wife, who is typically a veterinary technician. Because land, buildings, and equipment are all inordinately costly, veterinary fees are high. Sterilization can cost from $167 to $416 U.S. Routine vaccinations may cost $50 to $84. The high prices discourage petkeepers from making frequent veterinary visits. As with human doctors in Japan, clients rarely question vets about the types of treatment being given. The lack of a questioning clientele inhibits veterinary progress.
In recent years the rising profile of service dogs has helped to improve the image of dogs in general, but even service dogs have difficulty gaining access to restaurants, shops, hotels, public buildings, and public transport, where their presence is now widely accepted in the U.S. and Europe.
Things are slowly changing, but the transition from viewing pets as possessions and objects to viewing them as family members has really just barely begun.
[The Animal Refuge Kansai is the largest nonprofit shelter in Japan, located at 595 Noma Ohara, Nose-Cho, Toyono-Gun, Osaka-Fu, 563-01 Japan; phone 81-727-37-0712; <>.]
Editor's note:
The attitudes and conditions that Elizabeth Oliver describes in Japan today are remarkably similar to the norms of many major U.S. and European cities during the mid-20th century. The rapid transformation of U.S. and European treatment of homeless animals in recent years, still underway, gives hope that Japan too can achieve a rapid turnabout.
[See below.]
Japanese shelter data
by Yoshiko Seno
"AnimEarth" <>
The Japanese dog population is estimated to be 10 million: less than 10% of the human population, about half of the U.S. dog-to-human ratio. The total number of licensed dogs was 5,779,482 in 2000, believed to be 60-to-70% of the population. In Japan 98 self-governing bodies do animal control under the two applicable national laws and city or prefectural bylaws. They killed 280,819 dogs in 1999, or about 2.8% to 4% of the total dog population. This is very similar to the U.S. rate of dog-killing. However, since we do not have no-kill shelters doing high-volume rescue and adoption in Japan, many cities unnecessarily kill young and healthy animals. In other cities, people have been working hard to reduce the killing. I have gathered the 2001 animal control data from the major cities and prefectures:



Animals killed per 1,000 people

Animals killed 1000s people  
KANAGAWA pref. 1.18 3,999 3,387 (except Kawasaki, Yokohama, and one more city)
TOKYO (1999) 1.19 13,846 11,624  
1.37 1,713 1,254  
1.54 5,305 3,435  
1.87 2,102 1,124  
2.96 4,344 1,469  
3.53 5,271 1,493  
3.87 5,189 1,340  


6.11 15,408 2,520

(except three cities population)


I feel so sad living in Fukuoka prefecture. About 10 years ago Kanagawa and Fukuoka prefectures were not much different. Since then, they have chosen completely different directions. Fukuoka prefecture kills the most animals now, but people in Fukuoka do not beep the most dogs and cats, and it is not the poorest prefecture.

As the numbers are still relatively low compared to those of the U.S., Japan could become a no-kill nation very quickly, if inspired with the will to do so. Some cities are already close to the goal. If those cities could reach it, more might follow.