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Society, No.40  Jun. 19, 2017

Cats and Japanese People

Cats have lived alongside people for more than ten thousand years. A comfortable society for cats is a comfortable society for human beings.

This, they say, is the age of cats. Each year, the number of pet cats in Japan increases and is now approaching 10 million. On the other hand, the number of pets dogs has dropped from a one-time peak of over 13 million to less than 10 million.*

As Yamane Akihiro, an assistant professor of animal ecology at Seinan Gakuin University explains:

“I think that behind this affection for cats is the way that present-day Japanese society makes people feel trapped. People are controlled by a results-driven system, and companies are restructured. People can’t live their lives freely and as they wish. Perhaps that is why they are so attracted to free-living cats.”

Cats are attractive for their suppleness, beauty and distinctive behavior, side-products of their nature as hunters, able to strike down their prey with a single blow.

“Their large beautiful eyes evolved as a result of them being nocturnal hunters,” says Yamane. “Their eyeballs became as large as possible in order to gather in light during the dark night. They groom themselves to remove unwanted scent so that prey will not notice their presence.”

The fickle and capricious personality of the cat, so different from the loyal and patient dog, is also said to come from its hunting behavior.

“Apart from the lion, all members of the cat family hunt alone,” says Yamane. “They creep up on prey, lie in wait, then when prey comes close enough, they finish it off at a stroke. Much of their muscle is white (fast twitch) for short distances; it can provide explosive instantaneous force, but has no endurance. When a cat’s prey runs away, it soon gives up. This is the physiological reason why cats seem capricious and fickle.”

The dog family on the other hand has lots of red muscle, well suited to running continually over long periods, while they patiently hunt their prey in packs.

Commentary: YAMANE Akihiro, Associate Professor, Seinan Gakuin University

Born 1966 in Hyogo Prefecture. Graduated from the Kyushu University Faculty of Science. Gained a Doctor of Science. Specializations are animal ecology and population genetics. Took up his current post after working at the National Institute for Environmental Studies, the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute, and as curator of the Kitakyushu Museum of Natural History & Human History. His publications include Cat Secrets.

Over ten thousand years living alongside people

Modern cats were domesticated by humans from African wildcats. This happened ten thousand years ago in the grain producing regions of Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq).

“African wildcats entered human society and drove out rats that had come for the grain in human settlements. They came by themselves to live besides humans.

The domestication of cats was completed in ancient Egypt. There, humans raised up and worshiped the cat goddess, Bastet.

By the ancient Roman period some two thousand years ago, cats were commonplace. It was around this time too that cats were brought to East India and China.

Cats were thought to have entered Japan from China together with Buddhist texts sometime between the Nara period (710–794 CE) and the start of the Heian period (794–1185). Yet, bones that appear to be from cats have been found at the Karakami archaeological site in Ikishima, Nagasaki Prefecture, which is from the Yayoi period (300 BCE–300 CE); so there were cats in Japan approximately 2,100 year ago.

Today, however, the popularity of cats has led to problems with urine and droppings from strays, and whether or not to deal with them through euthanasia. Yamane explains:

“Approximately 100,000 stray cats are exterminated in Japan each year, and the main reason for that is excessive feeding of stray cats. When cats have plenty of food they go into heat numerous times during the year. That leads to the tragedy of cats having to be exterminated.”

One initiative to try and avoid this tragedy taking place in various locations in Japan is so-called “community cats”: cats that are looked after by the community. Locals also see to neutering the cats, organizing their food and water, and disposing of droppings and urine.

Yamane has been researching the ecology of stray cats in Ainoshima, an island in the Genkai Sea. He says that the relationship between the cats and locals offers a suggestion as to how humans and cats can live together.

“Three hundred fishermen and one hundred stray cats live together on Ainoshima. The cats eat fish leftovers thrown away by the islanders, and their population is limited by that food supply. The cats breed once a year. Many of the kittens die, but that is down to nature, and the islanders don’t get involved in whether the cats live or die. The cats on this island lead relaxed lives of little stress.”

“It is 10,000 years since cats first appeared, and cats are essentially unchanged; it is humans that have changed. A society that is comfortable for cats is one that is also comfortable for humans.”

* Japan Pet Food Association data (2015)

Translated from “Neko to Nihonjin (Cats and Japanese People),” SERAI, March 2017, pp.30-31. (Courtesy of Serai, Shogakukan Inc.) [March 2017]