Dogs in prams

Dog yoga classIt is not unknown for little girls to try and dress the family cat or puppy in baby clothes and wheel it about in a pram. Mostly they don't succeed but the instinct is understandable enough. A live pet is much more interesting than an inanimate doll, having the warmth, cuddliness and cuteness of a real baby, and it makes playing mothers so much more fun. It seems perfectly natural and predictable behaviour.

An adult woman trying the same stunt, however, raises questions about her mental health -- unless she happens to live in Japan. There, according to a Reuters story, a 46-year-old eye surgeon can spend the morning wheeling her miniature dogs around posh department stores and the afternoon removing cataracts, without anyone batting an eyelid, as it were.

We are not speaking here of a woman with a tenuous grip on reality -- a Hollywood airhead or an eccentric multi-millionairess like Leona Helmsley who left $12 million of her fortune to her dog, Trouble. No, Toshiko Horikoshi is a woman with a real, professional job and evidently doing it well, since she can make enough from working afternoons to support herself in style. She divorced her husband who wanted her to become a stay-at-home mother, choosing instead to pursue her career. She spends her money on travel, her black Porsche and her dogs.

When people grow afraid of having children they become like children
themselves, with an infantile appetite for baubles and new pleasures.

Nor is Toshiko alone in preferring little canines to kids; several of her married friends have done the same. In fact, dogs are so popular, and pampered, in an increasingly childless Japan that their doting human mothers can take them for parties at dog cafes, dress them in dog designer clothes and take them for holidays to hot spring resorts and spas offering massages and aromatherapy. Net result: dogs now outnumber children aged 10 and under. Japan's human population is shrinking but the dog population is growing.

Weird as Japan's dog mummies are at first blush, they are more to be pitied than decried. Have they no real friends to take them aside quietly and tell them how ridiculous it is for a grown woman to play mother to a dog? Society in general also has to take some of the blame. Japan boasts the second largest economy in the world, but its huge shadow has almost eclipsed family life.

Japanese men last century became the world's workaholics, wedded to their companies and spending more time away from home than in it. Women followed, defining themselves increasingly in terms of the workplace and their careers. Marriage is now delayed, on average, until the end of the 20s and a growing minority of people stay single. Marriage has become a partnership for meeting the couple's emotional needs, and the rising opportunity costs (for women) of having a child brought the birth rate to an historic low of 1.26 children per woman in 2005. It crept up to 1.32 in 2006. One in five Japanese is over 65, but more and more of the elderly live alone or in institutional care.

Much of this story is common to the rest of the industrialised world, but because of local peculiarities Japan is more exposed to unintended or unwelcome consequences such as accelerated ageing and population decline. At a personal level, the difficulty of finding the perfect soul mate to marry is aggravated by the reluctance of Japanese men to share housework and the country's late start on things like maternity leave, daycare and flexible working hours for parents.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and into the gaps left by a diminished family life have flowed carefully designed substitutes. Elderly women deprived of grandchildren can console themselves with robotic dolls which weigh the same as a small infant and respond in kind to words of affection. ("I feel so good, good night," says one doll before falling asleep if the owner pats it gently on the chest -- and that is only one of its repertoire of 1200 phrases.) And, as we now know, their childless daughters can find an outlet for maternal urges in the trembling vulnerability of a teacup poodle.

Two lessons (at least) can be drawn from this. One is that the consumer society is endlessly inventive in its project of satisfying every human need. The very conditions that should make Japan a saturated market -- low birth rate, rapid ageing and now shrinking population -- have opened up new market opportunities. There are more Fifi & Romeo dog boutiques in Japan than in the United States, says Yana Syrkin, the US founder of the celebrity dog fashion chain. "I've never seen consumption the way it is in Japan," she told Reuters. A Parisian dog boutique owner says that where Japan leads in dog fashions, the rest of the world will follow. We have been warned.

The second lesson is the flip side of the first. When people grow afraid of having children they become like children themselves, with an infantile appetite for baubles and new pleasures. In Japan, the standard of what pleases is "kawaii" -- cute -- and grown men and women embrace fads with the enthusiasm of teenagers. Some think the trend reflects the harmony-loving nature of the Japanese, and no doubt there are cultural influences, but one cannot help thinking that putting dogs in strollers is a step too far. It does nothing for the dignity of women, and nothing for the birth rate.

The Japanese government and industry are now taking steps to encourage women to embrace motherhood while maintaining their careers. Married women are essential to the workforce as the pool of younger workers is dwindling, but their willingness to have children is also essential to the country's future. It remains to be seen whether incentives ranging from baby bonuses to free mobile phones can persuade couples to open their lives to something more demanding -- though infinitely more rewarding -- than a Chihuahua.

At least the dog mummies don't mind pushing a pram. That's a promising sign. Maybe a carefully orchestrated campaign to remind them that babies are cute too would do the rest.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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