Animal welfare in Japan by Elizabeth Oliver, founder, Animal Refuge Kansai
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2002:
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
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
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
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
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
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 dog–and 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 gardens–or 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 government–and 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; <email@example.com>.]
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.
Japanese shelter data
by Yoshiko Seno
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 Animals 1,000s
per 1,000 people killed people
KANAGAWA pref. 1.18 3,999 3,387
(except Kawasaki, Yokohama,
and one more city)
TOKYO (1999) 1.19 13,846 11,624
Kawasaki 1.37 1,713 1,254
Yokohama 1.54 5,305 3,435
Hiroshima 1.87 2,102 1,124
Kyoto 2.96 4,344 1,469
Kobe 3.53 5,271 1,493
Fukuoka 3.87 5,189 1,340
FUKUOKA pref. 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.