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Japan to add teeth to pet cruelty law

Linking animal abuse to societal disfunction, activists press for more

In his work as a photographer, Mitsuaki Shiotsubo often examines relations between animals and people. Pictures shot in Mexico, published here as postcards, portray dogs hanging around market stalls, town plazas, parked cars. They're mongrels, animals that most people would avoid or overlook.

But Mr. Shiotsubo's work goes beyond images captured on celluloid.

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This small man with a trim head of silvery hair and an easy smile is the point man for a group of activists demanding tougher penalties in Japan's law on animal protection - a statute that animal lovers have called toothless and deficient since it was enacted a quarter century ago.

It seems very likely that Shiotsubo will achieve his goal this year, or perhaps next. Yet it is the death of a young human that has generated much of the political and public will to do more to protect animals.

Politicians are getting behind the revision mainly because of a grisly crime that took place two years ago in the port city of Kobe: the beheading of an 11-year-old boy by a 14-year-old known publicly only as "Boy A."

Boy A, who murdered his younger brother's schoolmate as well as an elementary schoolgirl whose death has drawn much less attention, had previously killed and disemboweled a host of small animals, especially cats. "If [the animal protection] law had been more strict in its definitions," says Tsuneo Suzuki, a member of Japan's parliament who supports the revision, "we can't help feeling we could have prevented that murder case."

The actions of Boy A continue to disturb many Japanese, who wonder what their society has come to. And some veterinarians and activists say an increasing number of animals are being mutilated or killed, perhaps by young people, in an expression of societal dysfunction.

"Children are committing crimes because they are feeling oppressed," says Mitsuyuki Maniwa, a sociologist at Otani University in Kyoto. "There is no room for individualism in this society," he adds. "People, even young people, want to be recognized. In order to do that, they might do something they aren't supposed to, like physically attacking, abusing, or hurting weaker animals."

Like other observers, he has no statistics to support his assertion.

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The campaign to pass the revision is also significant because it is another example of citizen-based politics slowly taking hold in Japan. This country's Constitution, drafted by US authorities after World War II, calls "the people" sovereign, but politically effective popular movements and activist groups are a recent phenomenon.

Mr. Suzuki, whose Liberal Democratic Party has managed Japan for most of the past four decades, credits Shiotsubo for bringing together small groups to push politicians toward action.

Sitting amid boxes of newsletters vying for space with dishes of water and cat food, Shiotsubo isn't the Birkenstock-wearing, sign-toting type. He seems like a gentle man, conservatively dressed in a short-sleeved dress shirt, an animal-patterned silk tie, and the bottom half of a glen plaid suit.

What he has in his favor is a huge well of motivation. He and his wife, Masako Yakuwa, campaigned for animal rights until she passed away last year. The couple - he with photographs and she with pen-and-ink drawings, words, and paintings - expressed their love for their cats and other animals in their art.

His drive to revise the law seems propelled by her memory and by his own experiences with his dogs and cats, some of whom have also passed away. "I cannot describe it very well," Shiotsubo says of his feelings for his pets, "but I do all this out of a feeling of thankfulness. I simply appreciate their being around us. They make us happy."

The couple was moved to activism when Tokyo municipal authorities decreed in 1979 that pet cats had to be kept indoors. Shiotsubo, like the owner of any cat who spends part of its time outside, knew better. "Cats want to have the freedom to go in and out," he notes.

With the help of some celebrity and public support, Shiotsubo's group quickly persuaded the city to rescind its order. But it has been a much longer struggle to get the national government to consider a revision to the animal protection law.

The statute is vague in its definitions of animal abuse and specifies a maximum penalty of just $250, even for the most heinous attack. Police and prosecutors have hardly ever used the law to go after those who killed, mistreated, or abandoned animals.

The revision details what should be considered abuse and specifies penalties of up to three years in prison and fines of up to $2,500.

Although the revision disappoints some activists because it doesn't address animal testing, Shiotsubo and politician Suzuki both say this omission helps avoid controversy that would delay any passage. Japan stands out among industrialized nations because it does not license companies that conduct animal testing, or require them to report their activities to the government. Instead, authorities rely on the companies to follow official guidelines.

Shiotsubo notes that the revision doesn't address whaling, a practice that Japan and some Scandinavian countries pursue, despite global criticism.

"We are hoping that whaling will be banned in the near future," he says.

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