ZAMA (Japan), Nov 14 — A traditional ceremony for children is catching on among pet owners in Japan, where dogs and cats are receiving ever more attention amid the nation’s plummeting birth rates.

Natsuki Aoki took her two Chihuahuas on a plane ride to Tokyo from the western city of Hiroshima so her fur babies could get a special blessing.

“There aren’t many shrines that welcome pets and allow them to walk inside, so I think it would be great to see more places like this,” Aoki, 33, said on Tuesday.

The Zama Shrine, which dates back to the 6th century and lies about 35 kilometres south-west of Tokyo, established a specific prayer site for pets in 2012. It now hosts Shichi-Go-San rituals where pet parents can pray for the health and happiness of their animals.

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The rite, which means Seven-Five-Three in Japanese, is traditionally celebrated in mid-November for children reaching those ages. Parents dress their girls and boys in kimonos and bring them to a Shinto holy place for the ceremony.

On Tuesday, numerous pet owners led their charges up the steep steps to reach the Inuneko Jinja, or Dog-Cat Shrine, to pray and receive a blessing from a Shinto priest. Six Shiba Inu dogs dressed in kimonos lined up for pictures at the event.

Japan’s birth rate declined for a seventh straight year in 2022 to a record low, while deaths increased to an all-time high.

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“The number of children is decreasing each year, and as a result, more and more people are pouring their love into their dogs and cats,” said Zama Shrine priest Yoshinori Hiraga.

“We want to offer the pet owners a place at Zama Shrine for them to thank the gods when their dogs and cats reach the age of three, five, and seven,” said Hiraga, 33, who estimated about 120 pets would be brought to the shrine this season.

Among them was Masayo Tashiro, who brought her terrier and Pomeranian to the site as she made offerings and prayers.

“They are very important to me, like my own children,” said the 53-year old caregiver. “I came here to pray that they will have a safe and healthy life with us together.” — Reuters