If you're a cat lover like me, you've probably heard of Japan's "cat islands" (猫島; nekojima) — places inhabited by a small human population and dozens, sometimes hundreds, of cats. Islands like Tashirojima, Aoshima, or Sanagishima are all ubiquitously known as cat islands. There's about eleven or so cat islands in Japan, but Aoshima in Ehime Prefecture is probably the most well-known. As of 2018, the feline population exceeded the human population by a ratio of 33 to 1 — in layman's terms, there are about 33 cats for every one person. That's a staggering number of cats.
Perhaps inevitably, this "cat heaven" — in reality, the result of unchecked breeding — attracted worldwide attention. Tourists started to overwhelm the island's human inhabitants, bringing cat food and business to these normally isolated communities. Videos on YouTube show throngs of cats crowding the docks, begging tourists for food and attention. These cats are literally everywhere, and it's an astonishing sight to behold.
While an island teeming with cats sounds like absolute paradise to some people, there are some serious concerns that don't seem to be talked about much. Are these cats really happy and healthy? Are any of the cats spayed or neutered? Who handles the cost of veterinary care if a cat gets sick? Do the residents care if a cat gets sick? How did the cat population grow so large in the first place?
The sad reality is a lot of the cats are largely left to their own devices. If you look closely at some photographs or videos of these cats, you'll see some red flags. Runny noses, sneezing, raspy breathing, and crusty eyes are all indicators of upper respiratory infections, a common occurrence in cats exposed daily to other cats. Dull or patchy fur signify a lack of proper nutrition or other severe medical conditions. And if you look at some of the cats' behinds, you'll see a lot of balls, which means few, if any, of the male cats are neutered. Sick cats who haven't been sterilized or vaccinated continue to breed more sick cats, and the population explodes, straining both cat and human lives. It's a horrible cycle that needs to be stopped. Fortunately, many Japanese people and organizations have taken steps towards bettering the lives of stray and feral cats. Unfortunately, it is very slow going, especially in rural areas.
A Look at TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Efforts in Japan
In cities and towns all over the world, there are areas with a high concentration of stray and feral cats, and a group of cats who call one specific place or neighborhood their home are known as a colony. Some of these cat colonies are maintained by a few dedicated community members who pay everything out of pocket, while others are directly managed by an NPO or a local rescue. The main component in controlling these colonies is the implementation of TNR (trap-neuter-return).
In a nutshell, TNR involves humanely trapping a cat; taking it in for vaccines and spaying (for females) or neutering (for males); and returning the cat to its original colony or territory. Depending on the cat's medical condition or friendliness around humans, some cats are taken in to shelters or foster homes and put up for adoption. TNR has proven again and again to be one of the most successful methods in managing a cat colony's population while ensuring health and happiness for the cats.
The concept of TNR originated in the UK in the 1950s, and migrated to the US in the 1970s, but the practice wouldn't start to gain headway in Japan until the '90s with the formation of the Japan Cat Network. Soon groups and organizations were adopting TNR in mostly metropolitan areas, like Fukuoka and Kyoto.
(JP) Link: Chiyoda-ku: The City Ward That Doesn't Kill Cats. How Did They Achieve That?
It's well known Tokyo in particular has a stray cat (野良猫; nora neko) problem. Even the city's governor Yuriko Koike has expressed her awareness of the problem, and announced her plans to reduce the number of cats killed down to zero by the time the 2020 Olympics roll around. One of the most notable humane efforts in controlling the stray cat population takes place in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. In 2001, the Chiyoda government health center announced that they'd managed to reduce the number of stray cats euthanized down to zero. In 2015, that number hit zero once again. TNR played a huge part in achieving that number, along with people volunteering to foster cats and kittens.
(JP) Link: About Cherry Blossom Cats and TNR
さくらねこ♥ＴＮＲとは – どうぶつ基金
The organization Doubutsu Kikan has also made great strides in educating people about TNR, and has helped sterilize thousands of cats over the years. Most cats who've been successfully TNRed are known as "cherry blossom cats" (さくらねこ; sakura neko) due to the petal-shaped ear tips made prior to their release. It's cute and memorable, something Japan has a habit of excelling at, but the TNR movement has yet to wholly reach remote areas like the cat islands.
Why Isn't TNR Happening on Cat Islands?
So, what's actually stopping people from enacting a TNR program on a cat island?
The following is speculation on my part, but one main reason could be access. Most of the cat islands are fairly isolated areas. A one-way ferry ride to Tashirojima takes about an hour. Transporting veterinarians, the necessary personnel, volunteers, and medical equipment for a TNR operation costs time and money, especially if the island residents are footing the bill.
Another huge factor is money. In Japan sterilization surgeries cost around ¥25,000 ($223 USD) for females, and ¥15,000 ($134 USD) for males. Getting all the proper vaccinations as well can cost a pretty penny. Like in the US, though, there are low-cost options available for financially strained pet owners. Government subsidies is another option as well, but the amounts vary by city and prefecture — some cover the entire costs, while others only cover a small fraction of the costs. Island residents may not have the means to pay for a cat's medical care, especially if they aren't one hundred percent responsible for the cat's well-being.
On the flip side, the residents may be reluctant to discourage tourists from visiting because of money. For normally reclusive communities, the tourist boom, while unexpected, is bringing in money that may be hard to turn down. Some islands have jumped on the bandwagon and now provide overnight accommodations for cat-loving tourists, even building cafes catering to cat lovers and posting signage about the cats. Unfortunately, it seems some islands focus all their energies on the tourists, rather than the health of the cats attracting tourists in the first place.
Below: A Twitter user captures some pictures of Aoshima's cat chaos.
猫島。今回自分が行ったのは愛媛の青島というところ。本当に猫だらけで猫好きには堪らない場所だった。ある程度管理されているとはいえ基本的に彼らは自由で野生なので家族構成が垣間見えたり、仔猫が多かったり、喧嘩が起きてたりwそのあたりが猫カフェや飼い猫とは違って楽しめた。また行きたいな〜 pic.twitter.com/BVSPcl5qSb— キヨ (@kiyo3555) September 26, 2016
Another reason could be the residents' perspective on their relationship with the cats themselves. The cat-loving TNR advocate Kitten Lady visited the cat island Ainoshima in 2016 and spoke with a concerned Japanese cat lover who said, "The cats [have] a disease, but this is natural, so they [the residents] don't think it's necessary to try and solve the problem." To some of the Japanese residents, the cycle of life and death for these island cats is viewed as a "circle of life" kinda thing. Because the cats themselves are part of their everyday landscape, trying to change their lives may be seen as disrupting the natural order and upsetting the balance.
While here in the West some of us are inclined to do all we can to change a helpless or sick animal's circumstances, that sentiment isn't shared by all, especially in Japan. Working with people who are resistant to change is a struggle, and in this case, the island cats are suffering as a result.
A Sign of Progress
There is some hope for these cats, however. Earlier in October 2018, a group of volunteers and veterinarians from Doubutsu Kikan traveled to Aoshima and successfully sterilized and vaccinated all of the island's 210 cats in two days. But this wasn't just a spur of the moment act — this operation was five years in the making, involving tourists, residents, government officials, and animal rights advocates. Finally, on October 3, after having been delayed by the recent typhoons 24 and 25, Doubutsu Kikan landed in Aoshima and changed the lives of both cats and residents for the better.
(JP) Link: A Population of 6 People and Over 200 Cats! Performing Free Sterilization Surgeries on Seto Inland's Cat Island Aoshima
An Aoshima resident who takes care of the island cats had this to say about the TNR operation:
"This will help. There are people who have opposing views of the surgeries, so it's really difficult. The cats are miserable as it is. The kittens die quickly. The males bite them to death until only their heads or limbs are left. I don't want to see such things anymore.
With the females, the males surround them and continue to attack them to the point they're unable to eat food. So I'm happy if they have surgeries, if that stops the males and the fighting. I've lived for 70 years and today is the happiest day of my life. I'm truly thankful.
Aoshima is now a cherry blossom cat island, and that's a good thing. There won't be any more dying kittens or territorial males bothering the females. While tourism may still have some negative impacts on the cats, they'll be happier and healthier in the long run. Let's hope this success story will inspire others to take action for cats on the other cat islands.
Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance Japan and mental health content writer living in Chico, California with her partner and one cat. She graduated in 2015 from Willamette University with a B.A. in Japanese Studies and continues to improve her Japanese language skills. She is also a published poet and fiction writer. You can check out her freelance writing work at The Japanese Pearl.