No country loves cats quite as much as Japan. One look at Japanese art, literature, or media, and you’ll see just how true this is. From cat-human hybrids in manga and anime to cat cafes and islands filled with cats, the feline influence is found throughout the entire country. But why do the Japanese love cats? Let’s take a deep dive to learn more about this obsession.
Why & How Do We Know Japanese Love Cats?
There Are Cat Islands
Aoshima, more affectionately known as Cat Island, is found in the Ehime Prefecture. As you may have assumed by now, the island is well known for its large cat population. Cats on the island outnumber humans between 6:1 and 10:1; however, as the elderly residents of the island have begun passing away, this ratio is potentially as high as 36:1 now. Those numbers might sound staggering, but only five call the island home as of May 2023.
Cats were originally introduced to Aoshima to control the rodent population on fishing boats. However, they remained on the island long after the fishing boats left and, without proper veterinary care, reproduced in vast numbers.
But it’s not just Aoshima that’s known for its cat population. Tashirojima, a small island in the Miyagi Prefecture, is also known as Cat Island, thanks to its large stray cat population. There’s even a cat shrine in the middle of the island.
They Have a Cat Temple
Nyan Nyan-Ji, which translates to Meow Meow Temple, is a sanctuary for cat enthusiasts. This cat-themed “temple” in Kyoto has real cats that “work” as priests who interact with visitors and is full of feline figures and objects. The temple is more of an art gallery-cum-cat café as they also serve kitty-themed food and drinks.
Cat Cafes Blossomed in Japan
A cat café is a themed café whose main attraction is—you guessed it—cats. Customers typically pay a cover fee, generally by the hour, and are welcome to visit and play with the cats while they enjoy a coffee.
The world’s first cat-themed café opened in Taiwan in the 90s, eventually becoming a global tourist destination. However, it wasn’t until the first cat café opened in Osaka, Japan, in 2004 that the concept blossomed into what it is today. The country has taken the idea to a whole other level, with some cafes only offering specific types (e.g., black cats) or certain breeds.
The popularity of cat cafes in Japanese culture may be due to the fact that many apartments forbid pets. The cafes then provide a place for people to interact with kitties if they are not permitted to have them in their homes.
Kawaii Culture Loves Cats
Kawaii is the culture of cuteness in Japan. Kawaii can refer to pretty much anything cute and childlike, including products, anime, characters, handwriting, and more. Though the kawaii style has been around for decades, modern kawaii has played a huge role in popularizing the country’s love of cats. Small, cute, and fluffy animals that rely on their keepers for love appeal to this subculture that focuses heavily on anything cute.
Practicality Dictates Cats as the Superior Pet
Animals being kept as pets and considered part of the family is a relatively new concept in Japan. Pet ownership used to serve a predominantly utilitarian function, but now, pets are more fully incorporated as part of the family unit.
Japan is one of the most densely populated nations, with apartments being the most common dwellings in many urban areas. In fact, nearly 70% of all Tokyo residents lived in apartments in 2015. These dwellings don’t have sprawling layouts like we’re used to seeing, with most being in the 700-square-foot range. As you can imagine, there isn’t much space for dogs unless they’re cat-sized breeds. So, for practical reasons, cats are the perfect pet companions as they don’t require as much space and don’t need outdoor spaces as part of receiving adequate care.
Additionally, Japan’s demanding work culture places much emphasis on working overtime and skimping out on taking vacations. Cats are much more independent and self-sufficient than other types of domesticated pets, making them an ideal companion for overworked Japanese families.
The 3 Prominent Cat Figures Originating in Japan
1. Hello Kitty
Hello Kitty is probably one of the most instantly recognizable characters in the world. This fictional Sanrio character, also known as Kitty White, was created in 1974 and remains an icon to this day. She is the second most valuable media franchise after Pokémon and is worth over 84 billion dollars.
Maneki-Neko is a Japanese figurine believed to bring good luck to the owner. They are often seen in shops, restaurants, laundromats, casinos, hotels, and many other businesses. Some have a mechanical paw that moves up and down.
Doraemon is a popular Japanese manga series released in the late 1960s. It centers on a robotic cat named Doraemon, and like his Hello Kitty counterpart, Doraemon has spawned a media franchise consisting of all the merchandise you could possibly think of adorned with the robot cat’s face.
Cats are no doubt a staple in Japanese culture. They represent good luck and fortune but also play important roles in media and are seen on merchandise everywhere. Cats make practical pets, and who could say no to their sweet, adorable little faces? Certainly not the Kawaii lovers in Japan!
Featured Image Credit: FOTOGRIN, Shutterstock