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Thursday, Nov. 23, 2000


Nurturing respect for all creatures great and small

Staff writer

For anyone with a passing knowledge of animal rights, or even a concern for the humane treatment of animals, Japan can seem a cold and uncaring place.

Miserable-looking dogs chained outside houses, kittens abandoned in parks, starving sickly cats roaming the streets, mutilated puppies, ducks pierced with arrows, wild animals shot on sight -- cases of neglect and cruelty toward animals are all too common, and though one may protest that Japan is no different from anywhere else, one soon feels especially powerless here, where laws to protect animals are virtually nonexistent.

For many foreigners, the response is one of outrage. Can't anything be done? Doesn't anybody care? Anger often turns to despair.

President Fumie Hattori (seated left) and volunteeers for JAVA

One group that does care is JAVA, the Japan Anti-Vivisection Association, founded in 1986. JAVA concerns itself with all aspects of animal welfare in Japan, and while it lobbies for stricter animal protection laws, its main efforts are aimed at educating people, in order to prevent problems before they occur.

The biggest obstacle, according to association president Fumie Hattori, is a lack of awareness, not compassion, on the part of the average Japanese citizen. "People don't know about the issues. Because they don't know they can be silent about them. When they do learn what's going on there's often a good response," she says.

Lack of awareness

As its name suggests, one of JAVA's main concerns is animal testing and trying to end the needless suffering carried out in research laboratories in the name of progress. More often than not the testing is carried out not for progress but for profit. "With this issue we concentrate our efforts on what people know. Since a big culprit is the cosmetics industry we aim our campaign at the women buying the products," Hattori explains.

Many European countries have laws against animal testing for cosmetics or laws against trade with companies that test on animals. In the United States, most manufacturers have voluntarily stopped testing. Japan lags far behind. "Japanese don't even know the testing is being done, or if they hear about it, they have a preconceived notion that it must be necessary," Hattori says. "In Europe, consumers simply won't buy the products if they know animals were used in testing."

Important allies in the battle for change, allies invaluable for exerting pressure on companies, institutions and government bodies, as well as for raising public consciousness, are animal protection groups from overseas. JAVA works closely with many such groups, and is often asked to help out on issues pertaining to Japan as well.

One example Hattori gives is the plight of hundreds of bears in kuma bokujo throughout Japan, especially in Hokkaido. A French group brought this problem to JAVA's attention.

The bears, captured then confined to narrow concrete enclosures, are kept hungry so they will stand and "beg" on their hind legs for food, to the amusement of paying visitors. The farms brought outcry at Japan's treatment of wild animals after the French group filmed the bears and aired the footage in Europe.

"For many Japanese, it is only after hearing outside criticism that they begin to take notice. For others, it's the first time they even think of something as cruel or wrong," Hattori says. "Pressure from outside is often the best way to make changes in Japan."

Government inaction

Whereas the foreign media are often a great whistle-blower, the Japanese media rarely are. Government pressure, Hattori says, is often behind the silence. One tragic example she cites came after the eruption of Hokkaido's Mount Usu earlier this year. The evacuees, believing they would quickly return home, didn't hesitate to leave their pets when they were told to do. Days turned into weeks, however, and nothing was done to feed the animals. No one was allowed access to the sealed-off area. The result -- over 300 pets starved to death.

"The only ones who had a chance were the ones people turned loose to fend for themselves. This was kept out of the papers. The local government knew the animals had been left behind, but didn't move to do anything," Hattori says. "If anything, people should learn to take responsibility, because the government is not going to help out when it comes to animals. Awareness and concern may be low among the general public, but it's even lower in government circles."

Another case in point is the thousands of animals (over 700,000 dogs and cats in 1995) put down every year in pounds nationwide. The usual method is death by oxygen deprivation, a slow, painful death by asphyxiation. The method is used because of the sheer numbers involved, a number that could be greatly reduced if unwanted kittens and puppies were not born in the first place.

And yet, Hattori says, the government does nothing to educate people on the importance of neutering pets. The little subsidy for veterinary costs that was available in Tokyo has been cut out in most wards. "It's really pretty amazing. Private citizens' groups are trying hard to do something about problems but the government doesn't help," she says, shaking her head.

Against the odds

Currently, JAVA's members number just under 2,000. The office in Tokyo's Minato Ward is staffed by 11 workers, all volunteer, most of whom hold down jobs and help out in their free time. A number of people work from home as well, with writing, translation, correspondence, organizing demonstrations or panel exhibits. Information panels are available to anyone who wishes to borrow them and organize an exhibit, as is literature. "Our big concern is how to raise awareness on an extremely limited budget. What we'd like to do is take out newspaper ads more often," Hattori says. "When we do that, we get an enormous response. But we can't afford it very often."

JAVA has won numerous battles in the war for animals. The flush of success, however, pales in the face of a never-ending onslaught. But JAVA members are a tenacious bunch, the kind of people to have on your side when despair threatens.

How can people help?

"We need more members. We need financial help too," Hattori explains. Members (a regular one-year membership is 6,000 yen) receive the association's quarterly magazine as well as the latest news concerning issues demanding action. "We have a lot of action-minded members, people who write postcards, gather names for petition, set up panel exhibits, distribute pamphlets, or make phone calls. But, because awareness is still low, so is support.

"The problems are not going to be resolved overnight. The only thing we can do is keep at it, for years and years if need be," she says with quiet determination. "To do that we need more people. We need people to help and people to spread the word."

JAVA can be contacted at (03) 5419-8106, 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; fax: (03) 5419-8107; e-mail: java@blue.ocn.ne.jp; or see the Web site at www.enviroweb.org/java/indexJ.html Anyone with comments or knowledge of people working for the good of animals can contact Barbara Bayer at bbayer@news.email.ne.jp (Japanese or English).

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