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Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Dogs in Japan bow-wow before masters


Stray cats can be seen all over Japan: under parked cars, in alleyways, or in the parks being fed rice by "o-baa-chans." But you never see stray dogs. Why not? Is it the fault of Viagra? Cats are getting it but not dogs?

At first I thought that dogs were just smarter than cats and had emigrated. After all, there are no fire hydrants in Japan.

Where would they emigrate to, you ask? To the many little dog havens throughout the world where dogs live happy lives of self-rule. In these special places, dogs are free to laze around all day and are rewarded with head pats and are hand-fed by passersby, usually tourists. Take Pompeii, Italy, where the dogs lie around the ruins letting the sun-baked stones warm their bodies. It's as if they are there to protect the souls of the dead. Go to any of the plazas in South American cities and you'll see dogs gaily trotting around in small groups, noses to the ground as they sniff out their next meal. They dine on popcorn, ice cream drips and anything left under a park bench. In Bali, dogs along the road are as common as chickens. They lie and watch the world pass and, come evening, rummage through the leftovers of five-star hotel restaurants. It's a dog's life!

A look around any neighborhood in Japan will show you that dogs in Japan are not a natural part of the surroundings. Instead, they are status symbols. A certain type of dog, such as the golden retriever or Chihuahua, becomes the "in" dog, and everyone gets one. You won't find these dogs wandering the streets or copulating freely in the gutters at night.

On the contrary, you can spend many sleepless nights listening to cats "getting it on" right under your bedroom window. Dogs would never be allowed this. Dogs in Japan do not have sex, unless under supervision such as for the purposes of breeding.

In addition, the Japanese have strict birth control for dogs: the leash. Anywhere you go in Japan, dogs are always on leashes. Even on my island, on the deserted beach, people walk their dogs on leashes. Dogs are never allowed to run loose to kick up their paws.

Westerners tend to feel pity for a dog on a leash. But the Japanese don't want their dogs to cause problems for other people around them, so they keep them on a leash. Westerners think of the dog, Japanese of the people around them.

So we can correctly hypothesize that dogs on leashes do not reproduce. "It's a dog's life." Yeah, right. While each of us humans may enjoy our 15 minutes of fame in life, dogs will never enjoy even 15 minutes of sexual pleasure. Which is why dogs can be very, very unruly on leashes. "Don't even think of it, Fido!" you repeat your mantra on your daily summer evening walks. You yank on his leash as he starts drooling at the mere sight of another dog, male or female. Dog days of summer? Very sterile days indeed!

But the best environment for a dog, free or not, is one in which he is loved. While the Japanese may not let their dogs run free outside, many do let them live inside the house. And dogs, if given the chance, will always remodel the inside of a house to better suit their needs. The result is a unique form of dog interior redesign: chewed door frames, masticated chair legs and always a fresh, saliva-covered door knob.

One of my friends has even given his dog the family car. "Eddie's car," says Mr. Akiyama as he chauffeurs his dog around. Eddie is a black Labrador retriever named after Eddie Murphy. Eddie is straddled with back legs in the back seat and front legs on my lap in the passenger seat. I cup my hands under his mouth to catch the drool. We careen down the street among swirling clouds of dog hair inside.

But we understand this dog behavior because in exchange, dogs have given up their basic rights: fire hydrants and sexual freedom.

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