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Why Japanese loves cats?

I've always been a cat lover, and my love for them have started very early. Growing up, my grandmother had a cat named Tomi who was incredibly loyal and always by her side. Although my mother wasn't keen on pets, my brother and I loved them, often bringing street kittens in our home. For 13 years or more (lost counting), I had a white cat named Persi, who was a cherished member of my family. She passed away recently, and I miss her deeply. Persi was a soothing presence, and just thinking about her soft fur and wet nose helped me relax during many long flights home. She had an incredible knack for comforting us during tough times, like staying by my mother's side when she was recovering from surgery.

My affection for cats helped me realize that this feeling is universal, transcending cultures and borders. Here in Japan, it's common to see cats in old homes, cared for by loving obachans (grandmothers), or even lounging around temples. There's even an island called Aoshima, known as 'Cat Island,' indicative of the country's love for these creatures. This widespread adoration has inspired me to explore why cats hold such a special place in the hearts of the Japanese.

Around 2015, the pet population in Japan, which included roughly 20 million dogs and cats, surpassed the number of children under the age of 15 (approximately 16 million), sparking an unprecedented pet boom. In recent years, the ownership of cats and dogs has leveled off, and images and videos of charming cats have surged in popularity on social media. However, this pet and cat boom appears to be linked to deeper societal shifts.

For instance, as Japan's birthrate continues to decline and the traditional concept of family shrinks, people are increasingly seeking companions to whom they can extend their affection. Additionally, with the rise of dual-income households and a trend towards urban living, cats have become particularly appealing pets. They are quieter than dogs and do not require daily walks, making them more suited to the urban lifestyle.

Cats are inherently independent creatures, not prone to the same type of attachment as dogs. Regardless of how much love and care an owner pours into their pet, there's no guarantee of reciprocal affection. Yet, there's something deeply rewarding about this one-sided affection. The joy I find in those rare moments when a cat shows a bit of fondness (even if it’s just seeking its own comfort) is immense. This unrequited love, so unique to the bond between cats and humans, might just be a poignant reflection of modern societal relationships—where the joy of giving often stands independent of receiving.

We are entering an era dominated by cats. With the proliferation of cat cafes, books about cats, and cat-centric content on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, there's a veritable flood of feline-focused material both online and offline. Statistically, the number of pet cats is on the rise, even surpassing dogs, traditionally the most popular pets. Recently, the term "catnomics" has emerged to describe this phenomenon. It's estimated that cats contribute approximately 2 trillion yen to the Japanese economy, making them significant economic drivers. I cannot believe I'm saying this buuut, it seems that cats, are not just pets but pivotal players in enriching Japan's economy!

Historically, cats were not always as beloved as they are today. In ancient times, and well into the Edo period, dogs were the preferred pets due to their long-standing role as companions and helpers in tasks like hunting. Cats, on the other hand, were valued for protecting rice stores from rats but were also feared for their nocturnal habits and eerie, narrow, shiny eyes. They were often portrayed as supernatural creatures like 'bakeneko' or 'nekomata', more feared than loved.

By the late Edo period, this fear turned into outright dislike. A notable example is the "Cat/Dog Theory" by Rai Sanyo, a historian of the time. He argued, "Dogs are loyal, but cats are ungrateful. Despite this, they manage to endear themselves to humans with their cute looks and sounds, feeling good about their own cunning." He viewed cats as selfish and morally inferior to dogs. Despite his criticism, the independent and free-spirited nature of cats eventually won people's sympathy and affection, shifting cultural perceptions over time.

During the Meiji era, when loyalty was highly valued, different textbooks depicted cats as 'immoral' and elevated dogs as 'paragons of virtue'. This sentiment was widespread, with Emperor Meiji favoring dogs and Saigo Takamori's pet dog commemorated in a bronze statue.


Below photos are cats painted in ukiyou-e!

Attitudes towards cats began to shift during the mid-Meiji era, as reflected in Natsume Soseki’s seminal work, "I Am a Cat," which started serialization in 1905. This is one my favorite novel!

The novel humorously explores the changing perception of cats, with the protagonist, a cat, cleverly noting, "Everyone picks up every mouse they catch and takes it to the police box. The police box doesn't know who caught it, so they give me five sen each time." This shift marks the beginning of the rise in the popularity of domestic cats in Japan.

In the story, a black cat describes how humans profit by taking the mice it catches to a police box for a reward. During this period, Japan was grappling with a plague epidemic. To combat the spread by rats, the government encouraged cat ownership. The Ministry of the Interior even issued notifications urging all prefectures to promote cat breeding, and police officers visited homes to encourage people to keep cats. Consequently, the demand for cats surged as they not only helped control the plague but also provided a way for people to earn money by catching mice.

Until that time, cats were mostly strays, but on September 22, 1908, a morning newspaper announced the establishment of a pet cat sales office in Asakusa, Tokyo, with prices rising from 5 yen to 10 yen each. This shift, spurred by an infectious disease outbreak, transformed cats from being viewed as immoral to being seen as valuable.

By the 1970s, owning a cat became fashionable, sparking a major cat boom. The launch of "Cat Life," a magazine filled with information on celebrity cats and shows, highlighted their popularity. High-end Western breeds began appearing in specialty shops in Tokyo, complete with beauty sections, signaling a new era where cats were not just pets but also a luxury investment.

Masayuki Manabe, a historian and professor at Waseda University, known as one of the "Three Wise Cats," observes a shift in Japanese values post-war. He notes, "After the war, values like 'freedom' began to be cherished. People found the independent nature of cats, who approach when they need something, to be endearing. This shift in perspective is a key reason for the increased affection towards cats." According to Professor Manabe, the cat's symbolism of freedom resonates deeply, but the transformation in people's lifestyles also plays a significant role in their popularity.

Not only this, but he noted that from the period of high economic growth, Japanese homes transitioned to concrete and prefabricated structures, creating closed spaces that naturally kept outdoor cats away. This architectural change likely reduced concerns about unwanted visitors, such as thieves or stray cats. As Japanese values and lifestyles evolved, more people began keeping cats indoors. By the 1980s, the rise of private car ownership led to an increase in cat-related traffic accidents, prompting a shift towards indoor living for safety reasons. This closer living arrangement helped strengthen the bond between people and their cats, with many beginning to view them as family members.

Another professor's insight comes from Yoshiko Saito, Associate Professor at Sophia University, who observes, "Cats are forever babies. They retain a youthful appearance, which is appealing to many. Unlike dogs, whose noses elongate as they age, cats' faces remain relatively unchanged into adulthood. This phenomenon, known as neoteny, means they maintain juvenile characteristics even as adults, which contributes to their cuteness."

Professor Saito's research also highlights that cats can clearly differentiate between their owners' voices and those of strangers.

"Cats understand what their owners are saying," she explains. "However, understanding doesn't necessarily translate to obedience. They often choose to ignore calls, even though they're aware of them." I guess that is why we love them.

Reference:

Natsume Soseki: I am a Cat

Bunshun Online: Article on Japanese Culture

The Atlantic: A Visit to Aoshima, a Cat Island in Japan

NHK: Blog Post on Cat Culture in Japan

Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art: Exhibition on Cats in Ukiyo-e

Toyo Keizai Online: Article on the Economics of Cats in Japan

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