Japan has many areas with unique populations of peculiar-behaving animals, such as the tame deer of Nara or the hot spring-loving monkeys of Nagano. No place has quite captured the imagination of popular culture so much as the island where cats outnumber humans six to one, however. Let’s look at the history and current state of life on Aoshima, the Japanese island that has been taken over by cats.
History of Cat Island
Aoshima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea. It is part of the city of Nagahana-cho Ohsuji, which is in the Ehime prefecture of southern Japan. The island has historically been, and to a certain extent remains, a fishing community. As recently as 1945 the one-kilometer island had a population as large as 900 inhabitants.
However, the end of the Second World War marked a period of migration for many rural Japanese communities into urban centers where employment opportunities were plentiful. By the turn of the century the population had dwindled to only about 50 residents. When the island captured the imagination of the internet, only 16 permanent residents remained on the island – most of them pensioners over the age of 75.
Cats Take Over Aoshima
As the human population of the island dropped, the feline population boomed. The cats, like their human neighbors, arrived in support of the island’s fishing industry. The first feline pioneers were introduced to fight the rodent infestation that was plaguing fishing vessels.
There are no natural predators to threaten the cats on the island – not even a single dog to bother them. The cats make their homes in the many abandoned houses across the island and are generally free to do as they please.
Discovery of Cat Island
The island became the phenomenon that it is today beginning in 2014, when news of the island spread across the internet and social media, going viral before it finally made it to national Japanese television.
Japanese cat culture was already at a fever pitch at the time thanks to the cultural institution that is Hello Kitty. The idea of an island that could be visited where cats roamed free struck a chord with many young Japanese people living in cities like Tokyo, where dense living quarters and strict housing codes restricted many people from owning pets. After all, Tokyo was already the home of cat cafes, where people could go visit with the various cats who called these urban meeting points home.
Visiting Cat Island
So, what is it like to make a trip to cat island? There is one ferry that serves the island. It leaves from the Nagahama Port and takes about 30 minutes to reach the island. The cats have grown accustomed to the treats and gifts that came with the boom in tourism and have taken to greeting visitors right at the dock, much to the excitement of passengers.
While it is prohibited to feed the cats food you have brought to the island yourself, there is a nearby community center just three minutes away from the ferry dock where guests can feed the cats. While it is requested that guests feed cats only a small amount at a time for the health of the cats, if guests time their visit correctly, they may have the opportunity to see the feast of fish the cats receive once per day. Visitors will have the unique experience of seeing dozens of hungry cats swarm their dinner, a sight not soon to be forgotten.
Future of Cat Island
Cat Island has no modern conveniences for visitors. There are no restaurants, shops, cars, or even vending machines available, and there are no plans to develop any. The few residents who call Aoshima home live in comfortable peace with the cats around them, gently shooing them away when the cats disturb their garden while doing their best to ignore the tourists that flock the island every day.
There has been discussion about spaying the cat population to keep it from expanding to an unhealthy level. Already some cats have been neutered, which means cat island may not always be so entirely the domain of cats. But for now, Aoshima remains a cat lovers paradise and a unique place to visit the next time you make a trip to Japan.