Animal Care in Japanese Tradition: A Short History

By W. Puck Brecher

Cover image of Animal Care in Japanese Tradition: A Short History, by W. Puck Brecher

We are pleased to share this excerpt adapted from the newest Asia Shorts volume, Animal Care in Japanese Tradition: A Short History, by W. Puck Brecher (Washington State University). In this book, Brecher offers a brief overview of animals in Japanese culture and society from ancient times to the 1950s. Brecher questions common assumptions about the treatment and care of animals in Japan, correcting ahistorical understandings of the human-animal relationship that have gained widespread acceptance.

Learn more about Animal Care in Japanese Tradition and order your own print or electronic copy from our AAS Publications distribution partner, Columbia University Press.

Prince Shōtoku (574–622) is said to have erected a tomb and statue for his dog Yukimaru. The act of memorializing a beloved pet in this way was not unusual at the time, nor is it uncommon today. Such traditions, many contend, show that Japanese have always nurtured close bonds with nonhuman animals, an ethic of compassion that precludes any history of animal mistreatment in Japan. Deshima physician Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828) came to the opposite conclusion, noting the relatively weak cultural ties between Japanese and their domesticated animals. In contrast to Europe, Japanese did not raise sheep or pigs, and few interacted with cows or horses. It was little wonder, he reflected, that they knew comparatively little about those creatures. These opposing perspectives represent chronic confusion over the nature of Japan’s historical relationship with nonhuman animals.

The subject itself is fascinating in its own right, but learning about it carries an additional benefit: it helps us challenge two pervasive assumptions about Japan. The first is that Japan differs fundamentally from other, particularly Western, nations. This premise reinforces the view that cultural differences carry greater historical importance than similarities. The second assumption is that societal changes connected to Japanese modernization are of greater historical importance than continuities, a notion that foregrounds modern Japan’s departure from its native traditions and its assimilation of Western ones. This volume’s historical overview of Japan’s relationship with animals does not dwell at length on these points, but its discussion of traditional animal care does enable us to revisit and reassess these issues in a new light. It also allows us to scrutinize Japanese tradition and interrogate ahistorical claims about Japan’s culturally endemic “love” and empathy for the natural world. Departing from existing scholarship on the subject, the book discovers theoretical and practical commonalities between “Japanese” and “Western” approaches to animal care and shows how this partially shared tradition facilitated Japanese modernization.

The book’s six chapters examine the traditions and innovations that shaped the theory and practice of animal welfare from ancient times until the 1950s. The first two chapters consider how certain pre-Meiji religious views guided official policy over animal treatment, meat eating, hunting, and ritual worship. Buddhism made animal welfare a moral issue in theory, these chapters suggest, but few premodern Japanese considered noninjury to be a rigid moral mandate. Rather, they adapted the doctrine to affirm preexisting mores and then applied it to help meet ongoing material needs. Religious and political authorities also devised myriad loopholes and justifications that enabled them to mitigate the moral dilemmas posed by the continued exploitation of wildlife, livestock, and pets. Public practice thereby domesticated esoteric theory to accommodate nutritional and economic necessities. These cannot be considered distinctively “Japanese” traditions. In significant ways, they brought public ethics into philosophical alignment with the Western values Japan would encounter in the mid-nineteenth century.

The third chapter explores pre-Meiji knowledge of animal healing. Specifically, it uses several Buddhist and Dutch veterinary texts to examine the development of animal care as a proprietary field of professional knowledge. Chinese veterinary medicine had developed to care for economically or symbolically valuable livestock, particularly horses and cattle. Japanese students of this knowledge did not always value it for its efficacy. Hereditary schools guarded veterinary healing as esoteric knowledge, often protecting their own traditions by rejecting newer, more effective techniques. Functioning much like clerics, Japanese veterinarians used a combination of esoteric religious and medical learning to empower themselves as healers, formulating their craft as a mixture of imported empirical techniques and homegrown religious knowledge. In the process, they created new veterinary lineages—and thus new traditions—that mimicked esoteric religion. Their private management of learning also supported a parochial veneration of tradition. During the last century of the Edo period (1600–1868), these hereditary schools would encounter stiff challenges from the commercialization of veterinary knowledge and the discovery of Western techniques.

Chapter 4 examines pet-keeping practices in the Edo period. Conceptualized differently than wildlife and livestock, pets were exploited as sources of entertainment, companionship, karmic benefit, and prestige. Though prized in some contexts, in others they suffered worse treatment than other animals. In contrast to wildlife and livestock, pet exploitation was rarely justified in moral terms. Love did not necessarily engender compassion or moral custodianship.

The book’s fifth chapter extends these discussions through Japan’s first century of frantic, intensively state-directed modernization (1850s–1950s). It discusses the nascent animal welfare movement, revolutionary changes to the fields of veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, and pet keeping, and the ways these new forms of theoretical knowledge represented what some consider a triumph of modernity. It also finds many continuities in public practice, including the ongoing abuse of feral dogs, zoo animals, livestock, and wildlife that modernization theorists and Marxist historians alike have styled a failure of modernity.

From the premodern through the early postwar era, as the book’s final chapter concludes, theoretical knowledge like esoteric Buddhism and Western science only partially shaped public relationships with animals. Despite modern innovations in veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, and agriculture, exposure to Western thought often did not engender the extensive ontological shift that is generally assumed. Nor did it fundamentally alter many people’s preexisting conceptualization and treatment of animals. Attitudinal change was largely contextual, even among animal welfare advocates for whom animal well-being remained connected to practical, utilitarian concerns. Animals’ instrumental value to humans continued to eclipse their perceived intrinsic value. Despite broad insistence on the distinctiveness of Japanese tradition, therefore, Japanese and Western approaches to animal management have shared a great deal. Those parallels allowed for Japan’s relatively smooth adoption of modern (external) structures and technologies but also permitted the continuation of many preexisting (internal) patterns of animal care. These insights historicize and help explain the apparent contradictions and controversies that have confounded our understanding of this issue for so long.