Great Escapes

09.05.13

Cats Rule on Japan’s Tashirojima Island

Watch out humans, the cat invasion has begun. On one island off the coast of Japan, four-legged felines outnumber residents and are driving the tourist trade. Nina Strochlic reports.

On one idyllic Japanese island, there's no such thing as a dog person.

Tashirojima is a dwindling two-port, 100-person fishing community where cats outnumber humans many times over. It's a real-life cat haven, where dogs are reportedly banned from entering and monuments to the feline overlords are plentiful. The story goes that cats first prospered on the island back when occupants raised silkworms and enlisted their four-legged friends to help keep the destructive mice away. Later in the 1800s, when Tashirojima's fishing grounds became popular, fishermen came to believe that the island’s cats gave hints about weather patterns and the day's catch. They doted upon the strays that would wander into their inns and thought that feeding them would guarantee prosperity.

A few years ago, a documentary crew filmed a TV segment on the cats of Tashirojima, focusing on one black-and-white male with a droopy ear. He was dubbed Jack the Lop Ear and has become somewhat of a local celebrity. Not long after, the famous feline residents found themselves attracting a much-needed rush of tourism to the island, drawing in curious camera-and-treat-wielding visitors on the slow ferry that connects Tashirojima to the mainland. The cat population has inspired novelty souvenirs, including calendars.

For visitors who want to stay awhile, the island boasts red-and-white vacation homes that were designed by famous manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori that are shaped—and often decorated—like cats. There are also numerous cat shrines around the island, covered with feline figurines and talismans. One such shrine is Neko-jinja, which, according to legend, was built by a remorseful fisherman who accidentally killed a stray while collecting stones for his net.

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A lodge, designed by manga artist Tetsuya Chiba, located on the Island. (Sankei/Getty Images, Sankei)

In March 2011, Japan was hit with a historic 9.0 magnitude earthquake, and the Miyagi prefecture, where Tashirojima is located, was badly shaken by the tsunami that followed. Luckily, the famous island emerged unharmed and the cats were spared. "The people and cats are safe but short of food. A volunteer looked into transporting food by boat, but there is too much debris in the water," the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support group wrote in a statement. "The army will probably get a helicopter ready soon so we are looking into the possibility of asking them to take cat food too."

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A cat walks in the sunrise at Nitoda Port. (Sankei/Getty Images, Sankei)

The cats of Tashirojima are well cared for, but the humans have a less certain future. It's unclear if the community will last as the population continues to age—there's reportedly only one resident under 45, and the majority are pushing past their 70s. But one thing's for sure: these cats will continue to thrive.