Visit the “Cat Islands” of Japan, Where Felines Outnumber Humans

The world has heard much about the aging and shrink­ing of Japan­ese soci­ety, a process that has cre­at­ed ghost towns like those we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. But how­ev­er seri­ous­ly Japan’s pop­u­la­tion may be con­tract­ing, its love of cats abides undi­min­ished. Hence the replace­ment of peo­ple by felines — effec­tive­ly, any­way — on the island of Aoshi­ma, vis­it­ed in the CBS Sun­day Morn­ing seg­ment above. “Here, cats out­num­ber humans more than ten to one,” says cor­re­spon­dent Seth Doane. Its “tiny fish­ing vil­lage once had a pop­u­la­tion of 800 peo­ple, but the sar­dine fish­eries deplet­ed, jobs moved to cities, and human res­i­dents left the island.”

Such is the way, it seems, of any post-indus­tri­al soci­ety — but as always, Japan has ways of set­ting itself apart. On Aoshi­ma, Doane says, “the big moment of the day is when the tourist boat shows up. It’s 45 min­utes of bliss for all involved,” includ­ing the cat-lovers bear­ing treats as well as all the peck­ish ani­mals await­ing them at the dock. But Aoshi­ma is only one of ten such “cat islands” around Japan. The much larg­er (but still small) Tashiro­ji­ma boasts not just over 100 res­i­dent cats, but also Neko-jin­ja (猫神社), lit­er­al­ly “Cat Shrine,” one of a host of such feline-ded­i­cat­ed reli­gious sites in the island’s Miya­gi Pre­fec­ture.

Whether Japan’s atti­tude toward cats amounts to wor­ship remains a mat­ter of debate. But the fact remains that cats have proven to be the sal­va­tion of more places in Japan than a few of its islands: take Tama (lit­er­al­ly “ball,” but the Japan­ese equiv­a­lent of “Kit­ty”), a cal­i­co whose assump­tion of the posi­tion of “sta­tion mas­ter” brought a train stop in Wakaya­ma Pre­fec­ture back from the brink of clo­sure. In the old days, Japan­ese cats did the dirty work of killing rodents that would oth­er­wise infest fish­ing boats and destroy silk­worm farms; today, their ances­tors drum up tourism. The Japan­ese may love cats with an enthu­si­asm unknown in the rest of the world, but clear­ly they still expect them to earn their keep.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Cats in Japan­ese Wood­block Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Ani­mals Came to Star in Its Pop­u­lar Art

Insane­ly Cute Cat Com­mer­cials from Stu­dio Ghi­b­li, Hayao Miyazaki’s Leg­endary Ani­ma­tion Shop

Japan­ese Researcher Sleeps in the Same Loca­tion as Her Cat for 24 Con­sec­u­tive Nights!

Two Cats Keep Try­ing to Get Into a Japan­ese Art Muse­um … and Keep Get­ting Turned Away: Meet the Thwart­ed Felines, Ken-chan and Go-chan

In 1183, a Chi­nese Poet Describes Being Domes­ti­cat­ed by His Own Cats

Dis­cov­er the Ghost Towns of Japan — Where Scare­crows Replace Peo­ple, and a Man Lives in an Aban­doned Ele­men­tary School Gym

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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