Kansai Scene Magazine


Diamond dogs

What do diamonds, Hummers and pooches have in common? Yup, they can all be symbols of status.

Aside from the occasional deadly stampede at Wal-Mart, looming financial realities have brought restraint to even the loosest of American wallets, with the most coveted, status-boosting items in the States these days maybe being food, gasoline and mortgage payment money. The year 2008 may be remembered as when Americans finally Got Serious, and decided that must-have, neighbor-impressing items like the 16 Gig iPhone, 46'' Sony Bravia HDTV and - the king of American status symbols - the H3 Hummer SUV, were secondary considerations, rather than first priorities.

The people of Japan, however, can certainly give Americans and everyone else more than a run for their money when it comes to coveting status-boosting items that may not be entirely useful, reasonably priced, particularly nice-looking or even worth having. The lines around Yodobashi Camera when the Nintendo DS first went on sale in December 2004 stretched far and long; the constant allure of Louis Vuitton is enough to drive high school girls to thievery in international airports (and, if the nation's more-tawdry dailies are to be believed, to far worse with lecherous salarymen happy to 'lend' the extra cash for a purse).

Less thought of in connection with lines, theft or moral depravity - though no less in demand - is perhaps the one status symbol that can operate as both an accessory and a surrogate family member: the humble dog.

'Humble', though, as anyone who's ever beheld a proud Kansai obachan walking a ¥300,000 purebred Pekinese with a color-coordinated cap and sweater set, the nation's ideals of subtlety and restraint seem to go flying out the window when Man's Best Friend is involved.

The local love of the four-legged ones is, of course, not new. High-ranking samurai were often known to keep around a loyal, well-trained dog or two; Tokugawa Tsuna- yoshi was known as the Dog Shogun for his affection for the things; and there is always someone in Shibuya Station in Tokyo snapping pictures of the memorial statue for Hachiko, the famous Akita who showed up every evening at the station to seek out his already-dead master (definitely not just because people at the station kept giving him food, and don't let any cynic ever tell you different).

Things, perhaps, began to turn slightly weird 20 years ago, when a confluence of pop culture hits and a cash-rich Japan full of status-seeking shacho (company presidents) sent the nation well down the road of Dog Mania.

The ranks of dog lovers - preferable large dogs, particularly purebred large dogs - exploded overnight. Love for the Siberian Husky received a huge boost when the popular manga Dobutsu no Oisha-san (Animal Doctor) premiered in 1987; popularity for the French Mastiff is said to have also soared in the wake of, of all things, an early Tom Hanks comedy. "My dad just had to get a French Mastiff after [the 1990 dog-and-detective film] Turner & Hooch came out here," one friend confided. "But everybody wished Tom Hanks would have died at the end, instead of the dog."

Siberian Huskies and French Mastiffs are obviously not the smallest of dogs - which, of course, may have seemed all well and good back then to the preening, sopping-rich company men happy to impress neighbors, coworkers, family members and themselves by selecting the absolute largest animal possible, common sense and space constraints be damned. (Maybe everyone does want to own a Hummer … )

Though Hooch may bark no more, and the love for big dogs greatly waned, the slavish affection for smaller purebred dogs is greatly on the rise. Tomorrow, for instance, you will likely encounter at least one person - probably an older woman, possibly an older man filling in for the older woman, paying a great deal of attention to a French Bulldog, teacup poodle, Welsh Corgi, Yorkshire Terrier or some other little fur-covered thing that may actually be wearing more-expensive clothing than you are.

Though popular culture has, again, done its part to boost the phenomenon - moneylender Aiful's spokesdog Ku-chan the Chihuahua was extraordinarily popular in the early '00s - a cultural shift that's taken place in the last 20 years has driven up demand for a reason that doesn't simply involve impressing the people at work.

Namely, loneliness. "I don't want a family, I want to continue to work hard. I don't need help, I don't need a husband. I have a lot of free time, I can do everything by myself," eye surgeon Toshiko Horikoshi told Reuters in 2007. "But sometimes I feel lonely, and now when I come back to my apartment, I can see [my teacup poodle and Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix]."

The surgeon's well-looked after apartment-dwellers are just two in the burgeoning number of dogs custom-built (quite literally) to impress the neighbors while, as a happy aside, fill in a bit of the emptiness in the lives of their owners.

Puppy mills churn out purebred pets just as fast as the animals can be pushed to make them, also often inbreeding their dogs (say, mating a dog with its daughter, and then its successive granddaughter) to bring out recessive genes responsible for, say, an odd curl of tail, an extremely delicate size or a particularly interesting variety of fur color. It's not just a "dog" people are buying, after all; there is a lot of social standing wrapped up in that half-million yen ball of fuzz. Think about it: when was the last time you saw someone here with a mutt, or simply even an average-looking dog?

Twentieth-century psychologists like Manny Rosenberg and Carl Rogers spelled out what poets like Virgil were writing about way back in 30 BC: everyone wants that tiny bit of treasure or glory that may make them look a little better in the eyes of their peers. Coupled with a plummeting birthrate and what some term the nation's unfortunate habit of groupthink, and it may be no wonder that everyone and their mother (or maybe, every- one who isn't a mother) has a purebred, perfectly coiffed dog to dote on and accessorize with goods from boutiques like Dog & Life and Fifi and Romeo.

The problems that have arisen from all this are sometimes obvious and horrific (the heinous genetic defects that occasionally show up in purebred dogs due to inbreeding), sometimes more subtle (if someone pushing around a Pomeranian - in children's clothing - in a carrier that looks like a baby stroller isn't cause for speculation, then nothing is).

The saddest bit, however, may be the fact that like all faddish status symbols, everything eventually declines in popularity. "Japanese are maniacs for booms," Azabu University veterinary medicine professor Toshiaki Kageyama told The New York Times in 2006. "But people forget here that dogs aren't just status symbols, they are living things."

Just like the US dog pounds that took in abandoned Dalmatians after it turned out that the dogs were much harder to take care of in real life than there were in the 1996 live-action film 101 Dalmatians, today's stroller-drawn Pomeranian may well be tomorrow's pet store refugee, as owners move on to the next cuter, shinier thing. Although Americans may now be abandoning their status symbol du jour in record numbers, Hummers don't get lonely if they're resold and taken back to the lot.

Text: Jeff Lo • Photos: Ascente

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