So it's no surprise that Pusuke -- a fluffy, tan Shiba mix -- made headlines nationwide in that country when the pooch -– the world’s oldest dog, according to Guinness World Records -– died this week at the age of 26 years and 8 months, after falling ill and refusing to eat.
It's also no surprise that Pusuke -– who lasted a human equivalent of well over 100 years -– lived in the nation with one of the world's oldest populations.
Last December, Pusuke made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest living dog, breaking the previous record of 21 years and 3 months, according to the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.
The Guinness record for canine long life is 29 years, set by Bluey, an Australian cattle dog who died in 1939. The average life expectancy for a dog is about 13 years.
Pusuke almost didn't make it into the record books. In 2008, the dog suffered serious injuries after being hit by a car, the pet's owner, Yumiko Shinohara, told the newspaper. Even though a veterinarian told Shinohara to fear the worst, Pusuke pulled through surgery.
But now there's only sadness at the owner’s home outside Tokyo. The dog's owner told reporters that Pusuke's condition took a sudden turn for the worse early this week. The dog did not eat breakfast, a first, and died quietly, surrounded by Shinohara and her family.
"I was with Pusuke for 26 years, and I felt as if he was my child. I thank him for living so long with me," said, Shinohara, 42, a housewife.
But Pusuke has to take a back dog seat to Japan's most famous canine: Hachiko.
Even today, the story makes many Japanese weep -– and not just them.
The dog, who died in 1934, was an Akita so devoted to his master that he waited for him each day at a Tokyo train station. After the man, a Japanese college professor, died in 1925, the dog continued his daily vigil for nine years until his death.
A series of newspaper stories eventually turned Hachiko into a national symbol for loyalty. Eventually a bronze statue of him was erected outside Shibuya station in Tokyo, in the very place where he had so patiently waited.
The statue is a popular meeting spot for young people in Tokyo. "Meet you at the dog statue" is a common refrain.
The story of Hachiko was made into a 1987 Japanese movie. In 2009, a U.S. version of the story moved the dog tale to a station in modern Rhode Island. The movie had its U.S. premiere last summer at the Seattle International Film Festival, and opened in Japan in August 2010.
Actor Richard Gere, who starred in the Western version, told reporters that he "cried like a baby" when he read the script.
"Hachiko: A Dog's Story" was so moving, Gere said, he would choke up when talking about it.
"I was telling people over dinner, and I could only get halfway through the story and I would start crying," the Hollywood star told a news conference after the film was screened out of competition at the Rome Film Festival.
The film never made it to the big screen in U.S. theaters, but it ran on the Hallmark Channel.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Yumiko Shinohara holding Pusuke in December 2010. Credit: AFP/Getty Images