A biting concern
Evidence of Japan's pet boom - particularly the popularity of puppies - is all around. Pet shops have sprouted up everywhere, even in some of the big chain stores, which often have more than 100 dogs, or devote large areas to all kinds of pet products. Numerous pet programmes have appeared on TV - such as Bragging about your Pet - while property dealers promote pet-friendly apartments.
Dozens of my neighbours take their dogs for walks in a nearby park, discussing training programmes and exchanging information about dog-friendly hotels and local breeders.
According to the Yano Research Institute, a Tokyo think-tank, the pet and pet-related market is now worth nearly one trillion yen (HK$7 billion) a year. The Japanese urge for companionship is growing stronger, it says, because families have fewer children and the population is ageing fast.
The trend is, however, worrying health officials, who fear a possible rabies outbreak. The last was in 1957. The number of puppies imported stood at 17,350 last year, a 40 per cent rise on 2002. They arrive from 90 countries, of which only 13 have never had an outbreak of rabies. The viral disease is believed to kill between 35,000 and 50,000 people worldwide every year. The toll is rising rapidly in Asia, particularly China, where about 1,300 people died during the first nine months of last year, the China Daily reported, up from 850 for the whole of 2001.
Japan's imports last year included 4,600 puppies less than four months old - too young for effective vaccination - 16 per cent of which came from 'at risk' countries.
Another threat comes from Japan's dog owners themselves, who are required by law to ensure their animals have an anti-rabies shot. Unfortunately, fewer than half have done so. Japanese have little sense of crisis about rabies, say experts, because they see it as a 'disease of the past'. Indeed, according to my own research, many of my dog-loving neighbours seem reluctant to fulfil the vaccination requirement, or are unsure whether their pet has had a rabies shot.
More alert to the reality, officials at Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries have devised a new set of quarantine measures, due to come into effect next year. For example, all imported dogs will be subject to two mandatory rabies vaccinations, one month apart, instead of just one. Importers will have to keep the animals in custody for six months - the incubation period for rabies.
Officials are also keen to have microchips embedded in puppies, which would contain all the animal's details. We can only hope that this is not extended to include humans in the future.