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The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"More and more pet shops are offering the rental service"
 real 56k

Monday, 9 April, 2001, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Japan's pet-friends
Mongrel dog with stick
Pets any bigger than hamsters are forbidden in most Japanese apartment buildings
By Charles Scanlon in Tokyo

The Japanese economy may be heading back into recession, but one line of business is doing very well despite the economic gloom.

In Japan we take our shoes off when we go inside. We never used to consider allowing pets into the house

Pet company spokesman Tsutomo Hirano
Pet shop owners are enjoying a bonanza as the Japanese turn to dogs and cats as an antidote to all the stress they are suffering.

The declining birth-rate has also helped fuel interest in pets as families get smaller and the growing number of elderly people look for companionship.

Overcoming the problems associated with pet ownership in crowded Japan is big business.

Rules against pets

At most apartment blocks in Tokyo it is forbidden to keep a pet larger than a hamster.

But at one block in the north-east of the city big dogs are not only tolerated, they are specially catered for.

Aibo ERS-210, the second-generation of the Sony popular pet robot Aibo dog
Big in Japan: The robot pet dog
In a communal grooming room, a Dalmatian gets a blow dry after his shower - an important requirement in hygiene-obsessed Japan.

He then boards a lift treated with insecticide and a warning light lets other residents know there is an animal on board.

The flats are proving popular and company spokesman Tsutomo Hirano says many more are planned.

"In western countries there's a big yard and a big house and the dogs come and go as they please - there's no barrier," Mr Tsutomo says.

"But in Japan we take our shoes off when we go inside. We never used to consider allowing pets into the house. But now families are having fewer children and there are more elderly people and so there's growing demand for pets as family members and we're trying to accommodate that."

Special parks

But the problems do not end once you ha've found a place for your dog to live. A specialised dog park is one of the few places in densely packed Tokyo where dogs are allowed to run free, off the leash.

We can't keep a dog in our apartment so we've decided to try to make friends with a hired dog

Frustrated Japanese pet lover
It is the idea of a company eager to capitalise on Japan's pet boom and entry to such a sanctuary of course comes at a price - the equivalent of $12 a time. But the customers seem happy enough.

"Our dog can't get enough exercise here during the week so we bring him here at the weekend to get a full run around. That keeps him happy and he doesn't need to get out so much afterwards," one pet owner said.

The dog park is barely 50m square and it quickly gets crowded at weekends. But some of the visitors travel an hour by train just to get there.

The director of the park says the company has ambitious plans to take over the sites of bankrupt companies.

There are 10 million dogs in Japan and the number is growing all the time as society ages. The company intends to franchise another 20 dog parks this year and after that a thousand or more across the country.

Dogs for hire

For many, the obstacles to dog ownership cannot be overcome - but even for them there is hope.

A long-haired Dachshund has been rented by one young couple - a real bargain at just 500 yen or $4 for a leisurely walk around the block.

"We can't keep a dog in our apartment so we've decided to try to make friends with a hired dog. But I'm not sure if it's a good thing for the dog because lots of different people come here and he has to go out with the new people all the time," one dog hirer says.

Still the dogs at this shop look eager enough to get out and appear none too fussy about who takes them. More and more pet shop owners are offering animals for hire. It might just be the solution for Japan's hard-pressed dog lovers.

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