Tama the cat – remember her? Tama the station master. A female calico stray born in Kinokawa, Wakayama Prefecture in 1999, she took to hanging around the local Kishi train station. Passengers liked her. They fed her. Some went out of their way especially to see her.
When, in 2006, budget constraints had the Wakayama Electric Railway Company mulling cuts that included the closure of Kishi Station, someone had a bright idea: Suppose we keep the station and appoint Tama station master? No sooner said than done – and no sooner done (in January 2007) than Kinokawa, formerly an obscure backwater, found itself on the tourist map. People came from all over Japan to ogle Tama in her station master’s cap. While in town they spent money – 1.1 billion yen altogether, says one estimate.
Tama died in June 2015, worn out by her labors, but the cat boom she spawned lives on, so vibrantly indeed that Spa! (March 1) wonders: “Can nekonomics save Japan’s economy?”
“Neko” means cat, and everyone will recognize the snide poke at “Abenomics,” the economic revival program launched by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that, after three years, seems to be foundering against stiff challenges from unforeseen global developments.
Japan is a booming country in one sense at least – “booms” come and go, boom following boom; one fades, another rises. Exit dog boom; enter cats.
Japan’s swelling cat population, now roughly 9.87 million, looks poised to surpass the number of dogs, currently 11.5 million and falling. How much do cats pump into the national economy? It’s guesswork, of course, but, Spa! says, if you factor in everything from cat food to cat festivals to cat tourism to TV commercials and smartphone games featuring cats, it adds up to a vast sum – 2.3 trillion yen or thereabouts.
Cat tourism? Wakayama’s Kinokawa is not the only municipality alert to its possibilities. To cite just one other example, consider Tashiro Island – aka Cat Island – off the coast of Ishimaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Here cats outnumber the 100 or so human residents. Japan’s depopulating, economically depressed countryside has little enough going for it these days. A demographic like Tashiro’s – there’s even a cat shrine on the island – draws thousands of money-spending tourists a year.
It’s as pets, of course, that cats make their most significant mark. They have many advantages over dogs. They are quiet and independent. Dogs need constant attention. They must be walked and bathed. Cats can be pretty much left to their own resources. They’re with you when you want them, quietly content without you when you don’t. No wonder so few cats are put to sleep – a stark and encouraging contrast to the hundreds of thousands of dogs destroyed each year at the behest of owners who realized only too late that the demands they make on your time and patience soon overwhelm the innocent cuteness of their all-too-brief puppyhood.
In a sense, says Spa!, the shift from dogs to cats says something bleak about Japan: the struggle for existence has intensified to the point of leaving no time for things like pet care. Another ominous note is sounded by actress Aya Sugimoto, who operates the animal protection group Eva. In the West, she says, cat lovers typically procure pets from animal shelters. In Japan the tendency is to rely on breeders – who, she says, easily forget that they’re dealing with living creatures, not mere merchandise. It’s something would-be cat owners should at least be aware of.© Japan Today