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Debunked: "OMG Japan prefers pets to children"

Pets in Japan

Kind correspondent D.H. points out (quite some time ago; my bad and my slow) another online article sporting culturologist silliness: "Why Japan prefers pets to parenthood" from Ruth Evans and Roland Buerk at The Guardian.

What's silly in there? Well, we immediately start with a bit of that most classic of delusions, the belief that my mindset equals my arbitrarily defined tribe's mindset:

"Japanese dog owners think a dog is like a child," says Horikoshi.

Ah, to be a self-appointed spokesperson for millions of people. But moving on:

Startlingly, in a country panicking over its plummeting birthrate, there are now many more pets than children.

Startlingly? Really? Well, it's somewhat interesting, in that most people have likely never considered numbers of children vs number of pets. But here's what would be far more interesting to know: Is it at all unusual that a society would have more pets than children? That is, is there really something "startling" here? Surely that answer is forthcoming:

While the birthrate has been falling dramatically and the average age of Japan's population has been steadily climbing, Japan has become a pet superpower. Official estimates put the pet population at 22 million or more, but there are only 16.6 million children under 15.

Uh, okay. That's the "startling" claim restated: More pets than kids. Got it. But is that unusual?

Tinkerbell and Ginger have their own room and a wardrobe full of designer clothes. They have jumpers, dresses, coats and fancy dress outfits, neatly hung on jewelled hangers; hats, sunglasses and even tiny shoes.

Right, fine. People are spending crazy bucks on pets. But we hear this kind of report concerning the well-heeled all over the world, from Manhattan to Tokyo to Paris to you name it. (Speaking of Paris, isn't Paris Hilton a one-woman pet consumer market on her own?) Again, is urban Japan unusual in this regard?

Japan has arguably the world's most pampered pooches.

I see! But... What's the support for said argument? Here I'll give up on the quoting, as what follows is yet more anecdotes and statistics, with no comparison with the rest of the world, even a simple one, that would make the case for the "most pampered" claim.

The Guardian then shifts the focus to Japan's low birth rate, complete with numbers on the state of sex in the nation, from a family planning researcher who says 70% of unmarried women have no boyfriend, and 32% of young men dislike sex (!). Hmm, that sounds dire, and perhaps is dire – but is it actually high by international standards? No comparison is offered.

From there it's back to more anecdotes of notably big spending by pet pamperers. It's a fun read (Aromatherapy! Manicures!), but one's left wondering whether typical Japanese dog owners lavish anywhere near that level of luxury on lil' Potchi the Poodle, and again, whether spending on pets – by both the typical owner segment and the extravagant moneybags segment – is actually high in comparison to elsewhere.

Well, if the article won't do the comparison, I'll give it a quick shot. First, an immediate roadblock: What exactly is The Guardian counting as 22 million "pets" in Japan? Presumably it's taking its number from the Japan Pet Food Association, which counts 12.3 million dogs and 10 million cats in Japan in 2009. Let's just go with the dog number, as the article focuses purely on canines. (Although I have have to wonder: Why does The Guardian include cats in its pet figure, when the article makes zero additional mention of our feline friends? Is this merely to enable the "OMG more pets than kids!" claim?)

Let's also look at number of dogs per child, and number of dogs per capita. On the spending side, I don't have figures for amounts spent per dog in Japan or the US. The best I can do is take the size of the overall pet market, which covers all pets, and divide by the number of dogs and cats, the biggest animal categories in the US (and presumably in Japan). This yields some measure of expenditure for each dog and cat, although it's obviously inflated (some of that money is actually going to birds, fish, etc.) and isn't terribly meaningful.

JAPAN

  • Number of dogs: 12.3 million
  • Number of children under 15: 16.6 million
  • Number of dogs per child: 0.74
  • Number of dogs per capita: 0.096
  • Value of pet industry: ¥1 trillion (about $12.57 billion)
  • Value of pet industry per pet (dogs + cats): ¥45,454 (about $571)
  • Value of pet industry per capita: ¥7,823 (about $98.35)

Now let's get the same figures for the US. From the American Pet Products Association, we find 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats (164.6 million total, 2011-2012 APPA National Pet Owners Survey). Demographic information, including number of children, comes from the CIA World Factbook.

US

  • Number of dogs: 78.2 million
  • Number of children under 15: 62.77 million
  • Number of dogs per child: 1.24
  • Number of dogs per capita: 0.25
  • Value of pet industry: $52.87 billion (estimate, 2012)
  • Value of pet industry per pet (dogs + cats): $321
  • Value of pet industry per capita: $169.68

So, what do we have? Color me not at all surprised, but: It's the US, not Japan, that has more dogs than children, and by a comfortable margin. On a per-capita basis, too, Americans keep over twice as many dogs as do Japanese. 

In other words, on the basis of a comparison with the US, The Guardian's title of "Why Japan prefers pets to parenthood" would have better been expressed as "Why Japan prefers parenthood to pets". Yep. The article's claim is wrong and its title is backward.

The only figure above that fits The Guardian's claim is spending per pet – though as noted above, I don't have a valid spending-per-dog amount and am using a loose proxy. If it is true, as my number suggests, that Japan spends about 50% more per pet, that's no surprise; with fewer pets (and kids!) per capita, there's more money available to spend on each pet (and on each kid too, probably, though that's a whole other topic).

But even if that lone, shaky figure offers support for The Guardian's conclusion, a firmer number does not. Per-capita spending on pets overall, expressed as value of the pet industry divided by population, again puts the US firmly in the lead as the pet pamperers: The average American showers pets with annual purchases just shy of $170, while the average Japanese scrimps on the same to the tune of under $100.

The Guardian's article is simply wrong in its conclusion, and cherry-picked anecdotes about poodle pedicures don't change that. Why is it so wrong? Because, like so many culturology claimants, The Guardian in this instance picks a tale that sounds good, and doesn't bother to check the facts. (What are we expecting, journalism or something?)

Or to more accurately label the common culturology problem: The claimant tells us that "cultural comparison" reveals a startling difference, but doesn't actually perform the comparison.

Unfortunately, the Web is now full of articles, in English and Japanese, spewing the same meme: "OMG Japan has more pets than kids! What's wrong with Japan!?" But take heart: not everyone reads with mind switched off. Writing up the above, I came across other voices critically dissecting the article ahead of me, such as "Japan Has More Pets Than Kids, but Does That Tell Us Anything?"  and "Japan Prefers Pets to Parenthood? Gag-worthy Journalism From Ruth Evans & Roland Buerk", each of which points to further mocking of The Guardian's article at Reddit.

Nice work, all! Looks like I could have just pointed to those sources and saved myself some debunking work – though I'm happy to add to the pile-on.

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The same thing is happeneing

The same thing is happeneing here in Australia, more women are waiting until their 30s and 40s to start having kids. Over half of all Australian households have pets, so it comes as no surprise that we also love spending money on them. More than half of pet owners spend more than $60 a month on their pups. From crazy dog collars to gourmet pet food.

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