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TASHIROJIMA – THE CAT ISLAND OF JAPAN

 

Japan loves cats. Feline cafés, districts, festivals, temples, figurines, houses and even cat islands. It is hard to overlook such attractions while visiting Japan. The image of Hello Kitty or Maneki-Neko figurines are basically ubiquitous. The Japanese faith in feline luck is so strong that they even have a Cat Island – with more cats than people.

Legend of Tashirojima – the Cat Island 

Tashirojima is a Cat Island where it is hard to arrive at a precise number of those animals. Some claim that it may be inhabited by 400-600 stray cats. When it comes to people, the population is just 100. Some locals own even a dozen feline predators. No wonder, since the majority of them is over sixty and their only activity is fishery. Young people have abandoned the island, especially after the 2011 Tsunami. This is why Tashirojima is called a “terminal village” (限界 集 落 genkai-shūraku), at the verge of extinction. Cats, however, are in no way endangered. The inhabitants take good care of them, and the increasingly frequent tourists bring them various treats.

The history of the island is connected with the manufacture of silk. In the past, local people bred domesticated silkworm (butterfly), whose cocoons can be used to make silk. However, the butterflies often fell prey to mice and rats. This made cats indispensable ad they were brought to the island in large numbers. No one was concerned with sterilisation at that time, until the situation got out of control and the clowder took over Tashirojima.

Japanese cat temple 

Cat-shaped shrines, statues or other props are scattered all around the island. This way the Japanese pay tribute to the animals as they believe to receive good luck in return. The tens of sanctuaries and temples on the island are accompanied by a considerable number of rocks and small statues with feline faces. The tradition is also cultivated in other parts of Japan. This is connected with one Japanese legend. A certain fisherman was said to be picking up rocks for his fishing net when he accidentally dropped one of them on a cat. Sadly, the animal did not survive. There is a belief in the Country of Cherry Blossoms that hurting a cat brings a curse. So to atone for his sins, the fisherman erected a temple for the cat. 

Japanese fortune cats 

Many other inhabitants of Tashirojima followed the example of the fisherman and built other places of feline worship, having faith in the good fortune they would bring. Furthermore, the Japanese believe that feeding and taking care of cats brings double luck. So there is no way that the cats inhabiting the island will disappear any time soon. Local people recognise the good fortune that cats have brought the island. It is due to them, that the situation of the place has improved. Tourism traffic on Tashirojima has increased significantly. This is one of the key landmarks for cat lovers and curious tourists.

The Japanese bobtail breed is particularly interesting. Its characteristics include a short tail, and the cats are usually peaceful, quiet and devoted. If cats have fur in three colours, they are considered a symbol of ultimate luck in Japanese culture. The Maneki-Neko figurines put to this day at restaurant entrance doors, in sanctuaries or simply in Japanese houses represent a depiction of Japanese bobtail cats. Depending on the positioning and colour, the statue may mean: greetings, fortune or protection from evil spirits. 

Friendship between fishermen and cats 

Tashirojima is said to be a place of special bond between local people and cats. It is very strong nowadays, as presented in Landon Donoho’s documentary entitled “Cat Heaven Island.” He presents the story and the daily life of the inhabitants of the island and of the local cats. The presence of the latter on the island and the synergy between them and the inhabitants in a way builds the identity of the local people. Their lives would be pointless without the cats.

Still, such strong connection was already nurtured much earlier. In the past, the fishermen inhabiting the island and those who moored near Tashirojima during their sea voyages, started to strengthen their bonds with the local cats. Smelling fish in the marinas and harbours, the animals would often approach people, who were happy to give them treats. When the cats became permanent residents in the lower part of the island due to food, men assigned certain significance to their behaviour. Feline movements were eventually read as the harbingers of weather or fishing success. 

Manga Island and cat houses 

When on the Cat Island, you can spend the night in a unique way on Manga Island – the hill in the southern part of Tashirojima. The hill was named like that because the houses were designed by the famous Japanese manga creators, including Shōtarō Ishinomori – the author of e.g. Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, or Machiko Satonaki – a graphic artist of coming books.

Scattered on the hill are red and white cat-shaped houses. They are available from July to October. Inside, they have all the necessary rooms, decorated with the images of cats. Erected nearby is a house with a tower resembling a feline head. Manga Island is a place where you can spend several exciting days on the Cat Island in the pleasant company of cats with a view of cobalt-blue sea. 

Japan – the home of cats 

The Japanese will not be offended if you call them cat lovers or if you refer to Japan as the home of cats. They associate cats with prosperity, happiness and good fortune. In the Country of Cherry Blossoms, the animals are a positive symbol. Unlike in Europe, where they are given negative connotations, or even the attributes of demons. Over there, they are associated with witches, dark magic and evil spirits. Especially if they are black. Europeans believe cat to be the carrier of bad luck, in particular if one crosses their path. The Japanese, on the other hand, see this as a sign of good luck. And even though there are plenty of cat lovers both in the Country of Cherry Blossoms and in Europe, the historical and cultural differences determine a different way of thinking about cats. After all, they are just animals, and when they are as friendly as those on the Cat Island, they must be happy. Perhaps it is a good idea to feed stray cats, get a Maneki-Neko figurine and see if the feline luck actually works?

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