TOKYO >> Ritsuko Shimazaki, 58, occasionally takes a train ride to visit a coffee shop near the upscale district of Omotesando in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.
The cafe — seemingly just a trendy coffee shop — is the only public space where Shimazaki can cry over her lost dog without worrying about stares from other customers.
Pet Loss Cafe is the first place in Japan to offer a place for people who have lost their pets to gather and talk about their memories over a cup of coffee.
Dearpet — Japan’s biggest manufacturer of items for pet altars — launched the cafe inside its headquarters after their staff felt the need for a place where customers could talk about their late pets.
“Many customers who came to buy altar accessories said they felt more at ease after talking about their loss with our staff. However, often conversation (was interrupted) because staff had to attend to other customers. So, we decided to open a place where they can talk,” said Dearpet President Takeshi Nibe.
Shimazaki, who lost her 16-year-old Shih Tzu more than a year ago, was the first customer when it opened in February.
“I wanted to show pictures (of my dog) and talk face-to-face with others. When I heard the cafe was opening, I was really excited to come,” she said.
Shimazaki, a mother of two children, was in deep sorrow when her dog, Takeru, died of kidney failure and heart disease in March 2018. Although her husband and her children grieved as well, Shimazaki was the only one who could not get over the loss.
“During the first two to three months, I often cried in the bathroom alone. My eyes were swollen and an optic nerve was damaged due to too much crying. I had to keep seeing a doctor,” she said. “I could not believe that this happened to me.”
Even eight months later, she avoided the pathways where she strolled with Takeru every day, afraid of encountering other dog owners she used to meet.
“Takeru used to hang out with a wild cat called Saba in the park we always stopped by, but since Takeru passed away, I could not even face Saba. I could not touch other pets either,” she said, wiping away tears.
Shimazaki’s grief isn’t uncommon.
More than 18.55 million dogs and cats were raised as pets last year, according to the Japan Pet Food Association. That exceeds the country’s total population of children under 15 years old. Given the numbers, pet loss can be a big issue.
Megumi Kawasaki, a pet-loss counselor for more than a decade, said most of her clients were women in their 40s and 50s who regarded their pets as members of their family.
“In serious cases, some cannot leave their house for a year and consider ending their lives,” said Kawasaki. “(Losing pets) really is nothing different from losing your (human) loved ones, and sometimes it can be even worse for cat or dog owners who must face the sudden (absence) of a partner that used to stick with them all the time.”
Dearpet’s Nibe said that regarding pets as family is common today, but the situation was completely different when he started his company a decade ago. He even was criticized for treating animals like human beings.
“In Buddhism, some monks teach that it’s not appropriate to hold a memorial service for four-legged animals, and that might have triggered the criticisms,” he said.
In Buddhism, all living things are believed to circulate within six realms of existence — those of gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell. Animals, which are ranked lower than humans, have to be reborn as humans and train themselves to go to heaven, according to the book “Petto to Soshiki” (“Pets and Funerals”) by journalist-turned-priest Hidenori Ukai.
This belief differs among various sects, however. Some Buddhists believe animals can go to heaven. But the issue remains a hot topic among monks.
It was even brought to court when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government ordered Ekoin Temple in Sumida Ward to pay property taxes on a location where pet remains were entombed. Locations for religious uses are exempt from being taxed.
Ekoin, which has held memorial services for animals since the Edo Period (1603-1868), won the case. The Tokyo High Court in 2008 said that the temple, in providing memorial services for all living creatures, followed established religious rituals.
At Dearpet, a monk holds monthly commemoration ceremonies, and Shimazaki held a one-year commemoration for Takeru there.
“More than a year has passed, but I still cannot get over it,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I wonder if I can keep living like this.”