Introducing the Unique Japanese Cat Islands

by Flora Baker

Japan is an animal lover’s perfect country. There are tame deer in Nara, snow monkeys cavorting in the hot springs at Jigokudani Park, and there’s even an island overrun with rabbits! But did you know that the country is also known for its cat islands? And there are not one, not two, but eleven of them? 

Cats in Japanese Culture 

First, it’s worth establishing that Japanese people just really, really love cats. These animals have inserted themselves firmly into all facets of Japanese culture, from themed food and clothing to toys and comics – after all, there’s a good reason Hello Kitty originated here. Black cats in particular are seen as extremely lucky, and the Scottish Fold breed are always in demand. 

There’s also plenty of Japanese folklore that involves cats – although these ones are somewhat more monstrous, terrifying and will potentially give you nightmares. Nevertheless, these folk stories are what lent the humble cat their protective powers in Japan. Still seen as a symbol of good luck and good fortune throughout the country, with people displaying their own ‘maneki neko’ or ‘lucky cat’ statuettes to wave at passersby with their one upheld paw.  

But while Japanese culture dictates a love of cats, there’s not so much of a focus on getting them neutered – which might be why there are almost a dozen islands in the country that have been more or less overtaken by the feline species. 

Why Are There Cat Islands in Japan? 

Along the coastline of Japan, and occasionally on inland salt water lakes, there are a series of small islands where the cat population outnumbers the humans. Though the definite origins of these feline visitors are lost to the mists of time, it’s generally assumed that cats were originally carried on fishing boats to combat any mice infestations. And as cats are so often wont to do, they immediately decided they liked their surroundings and called the islands home! At some point, the local belief developed that feeding these stray cats would bring even more good fortune, and so their population dramatically increased. 

As you might expect, it’s easy to tempt tourists to visit the cat islands throughout the year in search of the perfect cat selfie. Unfortunately, these cats aren’t your typical friendly, purring lap cats. Most are feral and untamed, and many are likely to have diseases like ringworm, so it’s not recommended to touch these cats. They’re not particularly keen on strokes and pets anyway! Luckily, the island cats are relatively happy to pose at a distance, which satisfies the multitudes of tourists that visit the islands. 

Visiting a cat island in Japan (and picking up some cat-themed souvenirs) means you’re helping out the community and supporting Japanese tourism. Plus you get to hang out with dozens of cats all day. What’s not to love?

The Top Japanese Cat Islands to Visit 

Though there are eleven cat islands in Japan, we thought we’d give you an insight into the most popular three that you can visit. 

Aoshima Island, Ehime Prefecture 

Perhaps the smallest island at 1.6km long, Aoshima is the most well-known cat island in Japan. It’s a tiny village mainly populated by aging fishermen, there are more than a hundred cats happily lounging and exploring: the ratio is currently about 36 cats to one human. Because of the older age of the residents, there are no tourist-friendly provisions on Aoshima; no restaurant or gift shop, and no hotel to stay the night. That said, there are ferries a short ride from the mainland.  

Tashirojima Island, Miyagi Prefecture

The fascinating cat history on Tashirojima stems from silkworms! Back in the late Edo Period, silkworms were raised here for making fishing nets – and the mice were extremely interested. When cats successfully chased off the rodents, they ended up staying. Around 80 people live here today, in the two port villages of Oodomari and Nitoda, accompanied by over 150 stray cats. Tourists can visit the Miyori cat shrine, the cafe and gift shop, and even stay in lodges which are obviously cat themed. 

Okishima Island, Shiga Prefecture

This cat island sits within Lake Biwa, one of the oldest lakes in the world and Japan’s largest freshwater lake. Around 350 elderly people live on Okishima and bicycles are the sole method of transportation – so there’s no chance of car/cat collisions. It’s a beautifully calm and slow-paced island and the cats follow suit: they’re unlikely to crowd around, but those you do spot are surprisingly friendly. 

If you love cats as much as we do, you have to check out Bokksu’s cat themed box. It’s the purr-fect present for the cat lover in your life!

Japan loves cats so much, they even put one on a 3D billboard!

Author Bio

Flora Baker is a writer, blogger and author based in London, UK. She runs the award-winning travel website Flora The Explorer and has written for Coastal Living, Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler.