Saturday, September 12, 2020


Hazuki Kajiwara, Surviving with Companion Animals in Japan: Life After a Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster. Palgrave Studies in Animals and Social Problems. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2020). 

Japan has the most unique history and profound understanding of any nation in the world when it comes to the potential of nuclear power to destroy life. Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though thinning, are still heard and on anniversaries of 1945 events remind the country of the devastation that occurred from nuclear bombs. What happened in 2011, when the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history shook the coast of northeastern Japan and led to a tsunami and partial destruction of the nuclear power complex at Fukushima, has an analogy in Chernobyl and rings a frightening note to residents of the west coast of the United States, always concerned about the potential for a devastating earthquake to break apart nuclear reactors. Such results, however, will for most American readers remain a distant horror story.

Cats and dogs were left to fend for themselves after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but even the worst weather disasters in the United States have shorter recovery periods than what followed with the hydrogen explosions in three of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima in 2011, with a complete meltdown at one, leaving some nearby areas largely uninhabited to this day.

The need to deal with pets after disasters became evident in rescue efforts following Hurricane Katrina, where rescue rafts were directed not to take pets on board. Subsequent political pressure exerted by pet owners in Louisiana and elsewhere, and by well-funded animal welfare groups, was sufficient to enact the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006. Whether U.S. governmental implementation of this legislation will be adequate in subsequent disasters to protect pets as much as possible has yet to be tested, but at least a framework has been put in place.

For a detailed and often gripping description of what happened with pets and their owners in northeastern Japan in 2011 and afterwards, we now have Surviving with Companion Animals in Japan: Life After a Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster, written by Hazuki Kajiwara. 

Unfortunately, unlike the United States, the Japanese government has continued to insist that its responsibilities only extend to humans caught in such horrible circumstances. If people have pets, the government encourages the owners to evacuate them when practical but does not recognize that the owners have any right to keep the pets with them in temporary, government-provided accommodations. Thus, another tragedy following the devastating events of 2011, according to Dr. Kajiwara, is that government policy regarding disaster response remains entirely anthropocentric, meaning that the same consequences for pets and their owners could very well happen again if, and more likely when, massive numbers of people must be relocated because of weather calamities, nuclear power failures, a biological or environmental disaster, or war.   

Dr. Kajiwara, a sociologist at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, places her analysis of what happened to people and pets following the fourth largest earthquake recorded since 1900 and the largest ever experienced in Japan, within the interdisciplinary field of Human-Animal Studies (HAS).She observes that how a society conceives the relationship between owner and pet “often reflects previously unconsidered aspects of a society, such as the way power is distributed and embedded in the daily lives of its citizens.” 

The book amounts to an indictment of a government that has ignored the significance of the human-animal bond that is so important to the mental health of a great many of its citizens. Deftly summarizing an extensive psychological literature, Dr. Kajiwara shows that pet loss often slows the process of recovering from a disaster. Similarly, for those lucky enough to keep or later be reunited with their pets, responding to the shared trauma often deepens the connection pet owners feel with their animals.

Dogs and cats, which make up most of the pets of Japan, have a long history in the island country. Dogs were present by the Jomon period (14,000-300 BC), and cats at least since the Nara period (710-794 AD). Dogs were used as hunters and guards, and cats as eliminators of vermin, though both also formed social bonds with the people they lived with. As in other countries, pets became members of families. By 2017, 34% of households in Japan had a companion animal, but only 23% of households had a child under 18 years of age, a gap that Dr. Kajiwara says will widen in the future. A 2018 survey determined there were about 8.9 million dogs in Japan and it has been estimated that there are nearly 10 million cats in the country. 

Until the mid-twentieth century, dogs and cats often lived most of their lives outdoors, but changes in population density and social acceptance began to shift in the 1970s and 1980s and most pets now live indoors. This led to pressures on real estate developers. Only 1% of apartments sold in Tokyo permitted pets in 1998, but 86.2% do now. Many more statistics are provided to give the reader a detailed window into the place of pets in Japanese society, something that is difficult to see on a vacation in Japan, such as this reviewer experienced for a month in November 2019. (In Japan I had occasion to meet Dr. Kajiwara and in a long discussion encouraged her to pursue turning her thesis into a book.)

Dr. Kajiwara goes into detail about the horrors of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, and subsequent nuclear meltdown, which brings into sharp focus the extent of the disaster with which the government was faced, with over 400,000 homes completely or partially destroyed. The explosions at Nuclear Power Plant One in Fukushima blanketed an extensive area that had to be kept free of nearly everyone. Eight years after the accident, only 23.2% of residents have returned to the most affected districts, and only 6.2% in towns close to Fukushima, and about 40,000 former residents remain in evacuated status. Between 10,000 to 20,000 pets were left behind by evacuated owners. Less than 1,000 were ultimately rescued. The government did provide for pet food to be taken into tsunami-destroyed and nuclear-contaminated areas, and set up facilities where animals could be tested for radiation. 

Dr. Kajiwara, once a journalist and still a columnist for Tokyo’s Asahi Shimbun, has a novelist’s eye for detail and drama, particularly in the descriptions of what happened to people she interviewed extensively regarding their experiences with their pets during and after the disaster. She divides these accounts into two general categories, (1) those whose lives were altered by the tsunami, but who were generally outside of the nuclear-contaminated zones, and (2) those who were in the nuclear-contaminated areas.

For the nuclear-contaminated zones, Dr. Kajiwara examines the experiences of Hitomi Sato, a 56-year-old woman who lived in Fukushima. She does not jump immediately into Ms. Hitomi’s relationship with her cats and a dog but spends some beautifully descriptive pages letting us understand this woman:

Hitomi has lived with various kinds of animals in the farmhouse since she was small. Hitomi was brought up with warmed goat milk, drinking it through a straw made from a stock of the wheat because her mother didn’t have enough of her own milk. The family always had several cows and brought up their calves with great care and affection. Though Hitomi had a strong attachment to the calves, they were also an important source of income for her family.

Hitomi's evacuation had to be almost simultaneous, allowing her now time to search for her pets.  Returning while the area was still high-risk, Ms. Sato finds her dog but cries because she knows she cannot not take him with her. Anyone who entered the evacuation zone had to be screened for radioactivity upon leaving. Eventually the government allowed for the possibility of removing animals:

Owners leashed their animals to a secure anchor in front of their houses to later be picked up by a prefectural operative for radiation screening. Smaller animals were caged and placed in front of the house.  The animals were then brought back to their owner. When guardians were unable to live with their pets, the animals would be accommodated at the animal shelter run by the Fukushima Prefecture Animal Rescue Headquarters.

Hitomi was eventually reunited with her dog in this way, but in the next year had to suffer the agony of watching him die of cancer. She continues to search unsuccessfully for her cats.

The final part of the book reviews the theories that have been argued for creating a legal basis for guaranteeing the survival of pets and keeping them with their humans after a disaster. Dr. Kajiwara finds most of these theories inadequate to justify policy decisions. For instance, giving owners rights to the survival of their animals merely because they are owners of the animals, is entirely too anthropocentric and fails to consider animals as anything more than property, making rights as to them little different from rights to an expensive car or piece of art. She argues that instead “a right positioned between human rights and animal rights is required.” Therefore, she proposes a “bonding rights” argument, noting that animals could be regarded as members of society.

While Dr. Kajiwara promises to continue to flesh out the bonding-rights argument in future work, as a lawyer this reviewer was left with questions as to whether such a concept, as a basis for policy to create practical legislation and regulation, could work in practice. Ultimately, there must be a clear interface between policy and application, between theory and enforcement in the operation of government. How is a member of society that cannot speak the language of social governance to be given a voice? If the owner speaks for his pet, when is the owner replaced in this function if his or her decisions are in fact not in the animal’s interests? Is a separate group composed of veterinarians, shelter operators, and owners, and perhaps even non-owners, to be constituted to determine the best interests of the animals in any given situation, such as a disaster?  As Dr. Kajiwara points out, even veterinarians are often part of the commercial pet industry, a point she proves by noting that the Vice President of the Japan Veterinary Medical Association argued that the governmental recommendations regarding the evacuation of pets did not presume any right of pet owners to have a place to bring their pets if they could not find such a place on their own. Also, who speaks for the strays, abandoned animals, and animals that have lost their masters to the disaster?  Governmental operations and authority tend to break down in disasters and putting in place a system that would be complicated and difficult to implement even in ordinary times seems highly questionable as a policy recommendation. I eagerly await Dr. Kajiwara's elaboration of her solution.

Although most of the book reads well—often beautifullyit is an adaptation of Dr. Kajiwara’s doctoral thesis and occasionally suffers from maintaining certain thesis conventions. Some methodological and qualification paragraphs would have been best eliminated and do little more than tell the reader what is coming. While this can be justified in a scientific paper where the writer must detail the order of the evidence that will be presented, in a book for a general audience it is unnecessary. It would be best to just get on with it.  Still, there were only a few pages where this reviewer felt inclined to skip forward, and the overall presentation is effective and often captivating. 

Such quibbles are minor however and should not deter anyone interested in the impact of disasters on pets should be sure to put this wonderful volume in the reading queue. Anyone with an interest in pets, who is planning to travel to Japan for the Olympics or otherwise, will find much in the volume that will explain the place of pets in Japanese society.