TOKYO, March 20, 2007 — -- Japan is a country best known for its groundbreaking technology, its unique sense of style and the wildly popular animated white cat called Hello Kitty. But are the Japanese now saying farewell to Hello Kitty? Not quite, but a growing number in this country welcome a different kind of four-legged, furry friend into their lives -- dogs.
Man's best friend is quickly becoming a must-have companion for people in Japan, and one entrepreneur has pounced on the trend. Manabu Araki is now a top dog in the Japanese rent-a-dog business, and he said he recognized the opportunity a few years back.
But it's not only renting that the Japanese are interested in. Record numbers pay up to $10,000 to buy a pooch of their very own.
Some are searching for companionship in their old age. For others, dogs are a substitute for children. Whatever the reason, the appeal of dogs has exploded in Japan. There are now more than 15 million pet dogs in the country -- that's more dogs than children under the age of 13.
And these dog owners are not afraid to spoil their new companions. One dog, Angel, was decked out in cashmere and pearls, and dined on designer pizzas with other dogs. Her owner was wearing complementary gear.
"We always wear matching outfits," the owner said, "but we really love pink, and pizza."
This obsession with pampering pooches has become a $9 billion business in Japan, and it goes way beyond the usual pet store fare.
There are now doggie delis dishing up homemade goodies. Japan's technology has even caught up with the trend -- one couple had a video phone that allowed them to see and hear the puppy left at home in real time. They can even use the phone to remotely trigger an automatic food dispenser.
And then there are the personal care products available for the animals, including paw moisturizer. There are even doggie spas, where pampered pooches go for pain relief. One dog, 13-year-old Shu, has herniated discs, but her owner said she doesn't mind dishing out $50 a visit for her twice-a-week spa sessions.
Even visits to the vet have taken on a new-age quality in Japan. Acupuncture for dogs is the treatment du jour. Veterinarians said they are now expected to treat the same ailments that face aging humans.
For pets that don't survive a trip to the vet, the Japanese can prepare owners for the animal afterlife. Pet funeral parlors now provide somber Buddhist services. Grieving families can even buy personalized crypts in a pet mausoleum to store the ashes of their loved ones.
And for others who know a dog departure would be too much to bear, there are always those rent-a-dogs to fill the void.