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Japanese 'Pet Parks' Provide Relaxation - 2002-01-17

People in Tokyo have the opportunity to enjoy the company of cats and dogs without keeping them as pets. A group of so-called pet parks are attracting thousands of animal lovers.

In a central Tokyo neighborhood, on the eighth floor of a busy department store, about 20 customers are gathered in an unusual section where there is nothing for sale.

They are visiting the store's pet park, where shoppers can take a break from shopping and play with live cats. The business is called Nekobukuro, a play on the words for cat and the name of the local neighborhood.

Inside Nekobukuro, an American Shorthair cat cavorts as a little girl teases him with a toy. A man in his thirties cuddles a kitten. A rare Sphinx, sitting in a display area, meows to an approaching couple.

Since its opening about a year ago, Nekobukuro has attracted 70,000 customers, each of whom pay around five dollars to play with the animals. Up to 400 people come each weekend. Most customers are young singles or families with children, but the elderly are also frequent visitors. During the week, neighborhood office workers drop in when they have spare time.

Makoto Suematsu is vice president of the company that owns Nekobukuro and other pet parks in Tokyo. He says the company motto is relaxation through contact with animals.

He says, people have little opportunity to touch cats. When you see them on the streets, they run away because they are not used to people. We want people to know that pets can give us a moment of comfort.

Animals have been the Suematsu family's livelihood for decades. His father opened a pet shop about 30 years ago. In 1993, the son opened the company's first pet park, where people do not buy cats but play with them. Mr. Suematsu later opened parks featuring dogs and ferrets. Today his four parks are thriving.

The parks may be popular because most Japanese city dwellers live in small apartments and do not have pets.

An officer worker says she visits Nekobukuro because she loves cats but her landlord does not allow pets.

But visitors also include pet owners. Ten-year-old Yui Akasaka sas she regularly visits the company's dog park in Tokyo, even though she has a dog at home.

Ms. Akasaka says she comes often with friends after school and on weekends.

Japanese animal rights activists have complained that gathering pets for human amusement is cruel. But Mr. Suematsu says activists are generally satisfied when they see that the animals are well treated and receive regular health exams.

In recent years, robotic animals have become increasingly popular in Japan.

These man-made pets, produced by electronics companies such as Sony, contain computer chips and sensors. Their programming is sophisticated and they appear to develop personalities and attachments to people. But Mr. Suemtasu says that in his opinion, there is nothing like the real thing.

I think robotic pets are interesting but they are no substitute for real animals. Machines cannot replace hearts, she says.

Given the popularity of the pet parks, the Japanese public appears to agree. In the coming year, the Suematsu company plans to open another park in Tokyo and eventually hopes to expand to other parts of the country.