Of course Japan has a “cat island” or “Kyattoshima.” If I’ve learned anything in the six months I’ve lived here, it’s that things such as cat cafes and Pizza Cats prove that Japan is kitty crazy. I may never leave.
While Hello Kitty and various other cat-themed accessories in addition to cat cafes and Pizza Cats are all most excellent parts of Japanese pop culture, some cat attractions (cattractions?) aren’t the result of the cute culture craze. Sometimes cats just happen.
Case in point: a tiny island off the southern coast of Japan where cats outnumber humans six to one. Welcome to your next vacation destination, Aoshima Island.
Cats were introduced there in the 1940s to deal with the fishing village’s mice. Today, more than 120 cats share mile-long Aoshima Island with about 20 humans who are between the ages of 50 and 80. While the island was home to 900 people in the 1940s, the only evidence of the human majority are abandoned buildings and the cats they brought over.
Cats now freely roam wherever they please — sometimes to the chagrin of the locals who have to shoo them out of their homes and gardens.
Needless to say, on Aoshima Island, cats rule, people drool (unless they’re handing out kibble), and tourists are the fools who surrender the occasional rice balls or sandwiches to the kitty overlords.
I’m all for not feeding cats human food, but if confronted by a hoard like this …
… you might offer up your ham sandwich too. (There are no restaurants or hotels on the island, so if you’re thinking of making the trip, be prepared with a snack for yourself.)
But don’t mewl for the cats of Aoshima. While the cats will beg, uh, DEMAND food from the recent influx of tourists visiting Aoshima Island (only a total of 68 are ferried over from Ozu-city daily), the cats are doing just fine, if not flourishing.
Not only do a few of the elderly residents feed the cats, specifically “village nurse Atsuko Ogata,” but the cats are mostly adept hunters and gatherers who catch birds and rodents, or pilfer fish.
As for the well-being of the cats beyond feeding and basic care, mainland vets visit the cats regularly to make sure the population is healthy. Of course, care of the cats also begs the question of whether anything is being done to ensure that the cats continue to flourish. In other words, is the population being controlled?
At this point, 10 of the Aoshima cats have been neutered via a TNR (trap-neuter-return) program. Though this is a small percentage of the cats on the island, it is part of the community’s effort to employ TNR programs, instead of capturing and/or killing the cats. On Japan’s other “cat islands” (there are 11!), the government is making efforts, albeit slow-going, to humanely control the cat populations. The goal is not to eradicate the cats on Aoshima but keep the number of cats balanced and healthy.
Most of Aoshima’s human residents want the best for the cats too. While life with more than 100 headstrong kitties can be trying at times (you know how your cat has the midnight crazies? imagine that, times 120), the residents seem more concerned with the tourists inundating their island home.
Fisherman Hidenori Kamimoto, 65, says, “If people coming to the island find the cats healing, then I think it’s a good thing … I just hope that it’s done in a way that doesn’t become a burden on the people who live here.” In my experience, that just might be the uber-polite Japanese way of saying, “Enjoy the island, but be respectful of our home.” Completely understandable when you consider that boatloads of tourists can triple the number of humans traipsing around Aoshima on any given day.
In planning a visit to Aoshima, remember it’s not a mere tourist destination but a community where cats and humans conduct their regular lives. With that in mind, it appears that the best approach to visiting Aoshima Island is to be respectful of the residents, tread lightly, and carry a big bag of kibble (or be willing to share your lunch, foolish human).
Hopefully, with a little sensitivity and care, Aoshima Island’s residents — human and feline — will welcome visitors for years to come.
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About the author: Louise Hung is a morbidly inclined cat lady living in Yokohama, Japan, with her cat, her man, and probably a couple ghost cats. She also writes for xoJane. You can follow her on Twitter or drop her a line at IamLouiseMicaela@gmail.com.