Do you know Japan’s Cat Island?

By Kazumi Ishimaru : nonfiction writer
March 06,2015
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All photos by Kaoru Nasukawa

Cats become much less active when the weather turns cold. However, cat-lovers find a certain charm in their lazy winter lifestyle, and enjoy seeing them curl up together to keep warm (in Japanese, this is called ‘cat dango’, a ‘dango’ being a round-shaped traditional Japanese confection).

There are many small islands in Japan, including Ao-shima off Aichi prefecture, Manabe-shima island in Shizuoka prefecture, and Taketomi-shima which is part of Okinawa. However, there is one remote islands in Japan that is famous among cat-lovers for its large cat population, and is known as ‘Cat Island’.

‘Cat Island’ Tashiro-shima: still recovering after the 3.11 disaster

The cats come running almost as soon as you get off the ferry. They know that women in particular tend to pamper them.

Tashiro-shima ‘Cat island’ is in the far north of Miyagi prefecture, located approximately fifteen metres southeast of Ishinomaki Port. Even in winter, the climate is comparatively warm. After the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake (3.11), a support foundation ‘The Nyanko Project’ (currently ‘The Republic of Nyanko’) was established for the island. The foundation managed to collect its target donations of 150,000,000 yen within three months and became quite famous.That money is now being used to look after the stray cats on the island, including the cost of their food and medical bills. In addition, it is also funding the construction of facilities such a public toilets (which were destroyed by the tsunami) for tourists who visit the island and support its economy.

As expected of a place called ‘Cat Island’, we were surrounded by cats as soon as we got the ferry. Apparently, women are more likely to come to feed and play with the cats, and the cats are aware of this. As such, they were particularly friendly towards a group of women who got off the ferry with us.

However, the one type of person the cats like even more than women is fishermen who have just come back from the sea. When fishermen return to the port, a huge number of cats come from all directions to ask for their share.

Walking up a hill away from the beach, we encountered an older resident of the island who told us:

“The cats who come to the port are the ones who live on the beach. Cats on the island can be divided into two groups: those which eat raw fish, and those who live in the mountains catching small animals and receiving food from people.”

In her hand, she was holding dish filled with cat food.

‘Beach cats’ and ‘mountain cats’

The ‘beach cats’ and ‘mountain cats’ live as separate communities, each group having its own territory. However, in mating season tomcats will cross between territories. The close nature of their breeding pool is evident in the number of cats that have fur of the same color and pattern.

Whether you go to the shore, village, or even more isolated parts of the island, you can find large numbers of cats anywhere that people are living. A distinguishing feature of Tashiro-shima is that you are far more likely to encounter a cat than you are a person.

There are two villages and two harbours on the island, in the northeast and in the southeast. They are located two kilometres apart on the same road. Near the center of the island is the ‘cat shrine’, where the guardian spirit of fishing for the island, the ‘Cat God’, is enshrined. This spot is also very popular among tourists.

The ‘Cat Shrine’ located in the center of the island. There are no houses in the area, so the cats do not come this far out.

People draw pictures of cats on rocks as offerings to the Cat God, and you can see many of them placed about the shrine.

The bringing of dogs onto the island is prohibited, because people on the island believe that they are natural predators of cats. While this is not technically true, it shows the extent to which the people of the island care for the cats.

Incidentally, it is said that approximately one-hundred people live on the island, but the population has actually decreased slightly since the 2011 earthquake. Currently, there are roughly sixty permanent inhabitants, with over half of them being elderly people. There are no children living on the island, and both the primary and junior high school have already been closed for good.

While there are no exact figures available, it is said that there are a minimum of one-hundred cats on Cat Island, meaning that the cat population supersedes the human one on Tashiro-shima. Generally speaking, there is a belief that cats like to be looked after by older women, because they’re caring and don’t make sudden movements. Their lifestyles fit together, as both tend to enjoy taking it easy.

“After the island was featured on a TV program, the number of female visitors increased dramatically. I still can’t believe that they come so far just to see cats.”

The cats seem to only have had positive encounters with people, are friendly and will let you pet with them as much as you like. This island is truly heaven for cat lovers.

This article is originally published by Toyokeizai Online,and edited by Ignition Staff

As a matter of fact, recently the cat population on Aji-shima Island to the southeast of Tashiro-shima has also increased. It is a much larger island than Tashiro-shima, with just under five-hundred inhabitants. Thanks to the white-sand beach in the north, the island attracts younger people coming to swim in the summer. In fact, it is the only place in Miyagi prefecture with a white-sand beach, and so has a number of small resort hotels. The area is bustles with people in the summer months.

“There is no vet on the island, and we don’t sterilize the animals either. Since there are mountains here, there are small animals inhabiting them. The cats catch them, for which we are very grateful. We have a codependent relationship, so we care for them, petting them and brushing their coats. Recently, visitors are not just coming for the beach in summer, but also during other seasons to see the cats.”

Perhaps this is the development of a ‘New Cat Island’ for cat-lovers.