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What is Japan's "Cat Island"? All about Aoshima

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

A tiny fishing village in Ozu, Japan may seem like a strange tourist destination. There are no shops or hotels, and ferries only come twice a day. The majority of the buildings on the island are abandoned and untouched. There is an old school with its entrance roped off, and a dilapidated wooden farm shed resides behind broken, cracked cement. So, what makes this island so enticing to foreigners and Japanese people alike? Put simply: Cats.

Aoshima has been nicknamed “Cat Island,” as the furry creatures vastly outnumber the island’s human residents. Cats were originally let loose onto the island to control its rampant mice population, but due to the lack of natural predators, the number of cats kept growing. At its height, upwards of 800 people lived on the island; however, that number has vastly decreased over the past 70 years as younger people moved away, sardine fisheries depleted and closed, and jobs moved to the cities. In 2015, one hundred and twenty cats resided on the quiet island alongside only twenty-two elderly residents. But by 2019, the human population had declined even more, to only around 9 people.

In the past few years Aoshima has become a tourist attraction, gaining attention from the media for its odd demographic. The sudden influx of tourists quickly overwhelmed permanent residents, and the ferries have had to limit the number of visitors per day to Aoshima. As of 2019, the ferry only brings thirty-four tourists onto the island each day, once in the early morning and again in the afternoon. After a 30 minute ride, the cat-ridden docks come into view and visitors are free to explore the island at their own leisure.

The cats are fed by tourists and residents alike, as well as looking for food on their own. For some Japanese people the carefree nature of cats is appealing, as it differs so drastically from their own busy lives. About a dozen other cat islands also exist in Japan, sprawling from Kanagawa to Saga. On each of these islands the cats are celebrated and looked after by residents and visitors alike. This may be because cats are considered lucky in Japanese culture, symbolizing good fortune and possessing protective powers. This celebration and honoring of cats can be seen even in Japan’s bustling cities- store owners will place maneki neko, or beckoning cat statues, in display windows and outside their shops in hopes to draw in customers.

In an attempt to control the cat population in Aoshima a handful of cats were neutered; similar measures have been taken on other cat islands. However, on one particular island, Umashima, foul play seems to be involved. Once teeming with nearly one hundred cats, in 2019 only thirty remained. Fish covered with a blue pharmaceutical product were found in multiple locations on Umashima, indicating someone had specifically targeted the cats. A local farmer was accused of purposely harming the cats. When questioned, he told Japan’s RKB News he was trying to keep crows from eating his potato plants and was not intending to harm the cats, however his honesty was questioned by locals. Head of Taisetsuna Nekotachi Project, Masami Takeshita won’t hesitate to involve the police in order to protect the remaining cats on Umashima. Like many Japanese people, Takeshita treasures the wild cats. “I want to protect these little lives that are cherished by the community in any way I can,” she said.


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