Japan Is the Cat’s Meow for Feline Fans

The cat stretched out across the floor, his clipped ear twitching as two high school girls cooed about his cuteness and snapped cellphone photos. The other cats in the coffee shop, also showing that telltale sign of once being a stray but now neutered or spayed, ignored the people sipping coffee and trying to get their attention. 

Save Cat Café in Osaka, Japan, is a bit different from the other 149 or so sprinkled throughout the country. The cats here were street cats and available for adoption, but many of the other cafes populate their places with stunning purebreds.

Close up of cute kitten luxuriates in a Tokyo cat cafe./Shutterstock

Cat cafes started in Taiwan and have gained traction in the United States, but the Japanese have embraced them with vigor, in part because many people can’t have pets in their apartments and work hours are too long to be a proper pet parent.

Japan boasts that it has more cat cafes than any other country. That’s no surprise because Japan has a cat culture found nowhere else in the world.

Japan’s history of cat fancying

Gotokuji Temple in Japan, is one place credited as the birthplace of the beckoning cat (photo at top of story)./Shutterstock

Cats in Japan have a long history, although no one knows exactly when the first feline put its paws on Japanese soil. Even from those early days, however, they had jobs that involved more than looking cute.

Historians have estimated that cats came from China with Buddhism, as the protectors of sacred scrolls. Their job: Keep destructive mice away from the texts. This theme of “working cats” continued through the years, even to modern times.

Initially they were pets of the wealthy, often kept on leashes so they wouldn’t run off, but the government declared that cats must gain their independence to help keep the rodent population down. Hungry mice could destroy crops or silk cocoons, devastating the economy of the region. These employed animals of farmers were life (or crop or cocoon) savers, and as a result people became fond of them and their antics. 

A new player n the cat story

Woodblock print in which nekomata lurks in the background./Wikimedia Commons

Folklore and mythology grew as cats became more common. One of the more famous of Japanese cat mythology focused on nekomata, the story of a regular cat that morphed into a supernatural rat-destroying monster who sometimes killed a few humans. He was revered and a bit feared.

To show respect, Nanbu shrine in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture, placed a large statue of him at the front of the building. People gathered at the shrine to show their respect to all cats, not just Nekomata , in hopes that they would protect the crops.

You can find other shrines and temples praising felines throughout Japan. For instance, Gotokuji, a Buddhist temple in Setagaya ward of Tokyo, is everything you might expect of a temple: a peaceful place where lush green plants surround the building and seasonal cherry blossoms swirl in the air in spring. 

Here, the story goes a cat lured a man from outside into the temple just before a storm. He was so happy with the luck the cat brought him that he donated money to have the temple. The temple master, in return, dedicated a shrine to the cat. He created a miniature cat statue, one paw in the air, to be placed in the shrine and named it manekineko, the beckoning cat (photo at top of page)

Most people today know the statue as the lucky cat waiting for good fortune. The thousands of replicas populate cafes, bars, homes and even pachinko, a type of gambling gaming parlor. 

On the other side of Tokyo, near Asakusa Station, another shrine called Imado Jinja, claimed it was the originator of manekineko

No matter which location tourists visit, they will find plenty of cat statues and imagery. As a bonus, they will see living, breathing cats doing what cats do best: looking cute.

A cat as a station master? But of course

Tama, in stationmaster garb, is so popular that a book was written about her./Tama photo by Sanpei at Japanese Wikipedia

Japan’s respect for cats doesn’t stop with shrines, trinkets or lucky beckoning cat statues. Because its society values productivity, they put cats to work. 

A cat has various options for employment: café cat, rat catcher, guardian of the port, actor in commercials, priest, TV star or train station master. Wait, train station master?

Kishi train station has been known to employ cats as station managers and assistant managers. This small station. nestled in Kinowaka City, Wakayama Prefecture, surrounded by fruit orchards and mountains.

Despite a steady population of about 60,000, the ridership at Kishi station dwindled, and the train line was in danger of bankruptcy. Locals begged the company to keep the station open, and they reluctantly agreed. To save costs, the station staff was let go.

Before this happened, the president of Wakayama Electric Railway stopped in to check out the feral cat colony that had taken up residence there. He locked eyes with one calico cat, stunned by her seriousness and sense of purpose. An idea formed. Tama, the calico cat, would become the station master, and the other cats her assistants. She would wear a special hat and greet customers. 

Word of a working station cat spread, and Tama’s popularity grew not only in Japan but also worldwide. Visitors increased and infused much needed money into the region and the company. 

The cat theme extends to Kishi train station conveyances./Wikimedia Commons

When Tama died in 2015, 3,000 people attended her Shinto funeral, and a shrine was built and dedicated to her. Nitama, meaning Tama the second, was promoted to station master, and currently serves. New employment opportunities also have come her way and she accepted. She is now the priest of the Tama cat shrine. Her days at the station will be limited, and Yontama  (Tama IV) will fill in when she’s absent.

Kishi station can be reached from Osaka, about a two-hour train ride on Wakayama Electric Railway. 

Taking home souvenirs of feline friends

Seeking souvenirs? Try the Yanaka district./Wikimedia Commons

Once the cafe cats were petted, the themed train ridden and shrines visited, one step looms: buying cat-themed souvenirs. You’ll find cat-themed items everywhere, from the DIY store Hands to such high-end department stores as the Takashimaya.   

The Yanaka district, a five-minute walk from Tokyo’s JR Nippori station, has retained its old-town charms. Narrow streets twist and wind, leading to rice cracker shops and cafes. One can lounge at the coffee shops with its cat mugs, statues, and photos adorning the walls. Vendors sell sweets shaped like cat tails, and if it starts to rain, there will be at least one shop selling an umbrella that depicts prancing cats.

Japan is, indeed, a cat lover’s paradise.