Japan's Cat Island

by AFP/Miwa Suzuki, Jan 3, 2009 | Destinations: Japan

Tashiro Island, December 30, 2008 - The elderly residents of a small Japanese island swarming with cats are hoping that their trademark animals will attract something they've been missing for years -- people.

The fishing village of Tashiro, known as Cat Island, has shunned dogs for centuries in the belief that cats invite a big catch.

The island's 100 residents, most of whom are aged well over 70, are hoping that cats will become a drawcard in a campaign to attract tourists and, hopefully, people who want to settle down here.

"You may think this place is so peaceful. But if there's a fire, there is nobody who can help put it out," said Yutaka Hama, 49, who leads the Tashiro tourism promotion group.

"I want young people to come. There are folks here who would teach them fishing," said Hama, who moved to Tashiro a few years ago and is now an inn operator and fisherman.

Hama's wife, Aiko, is by far the youngest woman here at age 37, with the second youngest woman in her 60s.

Besides dogs, there are lots of common sights in modern Japan that are absent from this island, from all-night convenience stores to traffic signals and children.

The human population has fallen ten-fold since 1960 as many moved to cities.

But a couple of years ago, Tashiro became famous as Cat Island when a television network introduced one of the moggies -- Jack the Lop Ear, a shabby white-and-black tom with a drooping left ear -- to the nation.

Jack is now a celebrity in the town, with his slowness compared with other cats only adding to his popularity.

"I'm so happy to see Jack," said Shiho Amano, an 18-year-old cat lover who came from the central city of Nagoya to see a photo exhibition arranged by residents promoting tourism here.

"I want to live here after I retire," the student said, showing the screen of her cellphone which had snapshots of the cat.

Jack is not the first cat to become a national idol in Japan, nor to help revive the fortunes of an area aching for life.

Tama, a tortoiseshell stray, was last year named "master" of Kinokawa railway station in western Wakayama prefecture and given an official cap to go with the job. Her presence has led to a tourist -- and financial -- boom for the small city.

In the face of the apparent success of the campaign to use the cats to draw visitors, Tashiro's cat opponents have conceded defeat.

"I must say I appreciate them as they bring people here," said Mitsue Tsuda, a 65-year-old avowed cat hater, who complains of cats sneaking into her house.

"They don't wipe their feet even when it's raining," she said while admitting that the cats do look cute in the exhibited pictures.

Tashiro fishermen traditionally give part of their catch to cats, which are spotted everywhere on this 3.14-square-kilometre (7.9-square-mile) island 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) off the port city of Ishinomaki in northern Japan.

Kazuko Hatakeyama, 69, does not fish but some 20 cats "commute" each day to her house, a result of her twice-a-day feeding for decades.

"Since they come to my place and plead for food so much, I don't have any other choice. Whenever I go out, they follow me," she said as she fed the cats raising their paws and mewing loudly towards her.

The ferry between the island the mainland used to have only 10-20 passengers a day on its three daily trips after the summer season. But by September this year that number had roughly doubled year on weekdays and more than tripled on weekends.

"We see more people carrying cameras and food rather than fishing rods," said an official of the Ajishima Line ferry, adding that tourists were still coming despite the winter weather.

* * * * *