Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

September 15, 2016

Cats are Coolest (Again)

Robert Campbell / Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo
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Robert specializes in Japanese literature, but he writes and speaks in the media on a wide range of cultural topics. On NHK WORLD, he hosts Face To Face.

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Alley cats in Tokyo face tough competition. Their tamed cousins rule the land: at urban "cat cafes" where guests line up to sip tea and pet the pussycats, on each page of every book sold at "cat book shops" in the Jimbōcho district of Tokyo, cats raised indoors take pride of place. Or they can be found, cuddled and carried away from any of the hundreds of pet shops scattered around the megalopolis.

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If you need a break from urban cat-mania, you can travel to Aoshima, a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea inhabited by about 100 feral felines delighting scores of mainland cat buffs who disembark there every day. Visitors to the island take dozens of photos. Photos get posted. Cats are fed. The 15 or so remaining villagers claim the cat population took off after human occupancy decreased to about 50 or below. Declining population is a problem all over Japan, but few municipalities, including the one Aoshima is part of, have the courage to invest in "cat tourism" as a way of boosting tax revenues.

In fact Aoshima has no inns or restaurants, no convenience stores, not even a single vending machine for buying drinks, so visitors are cautioned to bring their own food, beverages, wet-wipes and parasols for summer heat. Those who ferry out in the morning are asked politely to return home at night, on boats that exist mainly to serve non-residents who turn up every day to play with and (most importantly) disburse cat food at one designated spot. Aoshima, by the way, is only one of several cat-biosphere islands spread across Japan.

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The past two years have seen an amazing surge in the number of cats raised as pets. Explanations for the shift in tastes away from dogs and toward cats usually point to two developments: a rapidly aging population (elderly folk prefer pets who require no walking and cost less to feed); and difficulties urban pet owners inevitably face whenever they try to cohabit with their dogs (a good proportion of landlords and condominium councils forbid canines). Another factor may be the recent rise in the number of single-member households (cats, unlike dogs, are perfectly happy to fend for themselves while owners work overtime).

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One simpler reason, though, may be that the Japanese have always embraced the feline within them. Cats vastly outnumber dogs in the canon of old ghost stories; geisha and their culture have long been described as cat-like; and visual arts such as ukiyoe are crowded with cats and cat motifs. True to its title, Natsume Soseki's first novel I Am a Cat (1905-6) is narrated by a feisty but loveable blackish male who (spoiler alert!) ends up drowning in an urn of rain water, bringing the story to a rapid end. The cat-boom now upon us connects all these threads with the larger social shifts occurring in Japan. Also, cats make for better Instagrams, and never complain when owners head off alone in search of Pokémon monsters.

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Robert Campbell
Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo

Robert Campbell, Ph.D., is a professor of Japanese literature in the Department of Comparative Literature and Culture, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo, Japan. Born in New York City, he studied in the Departments of Economics and Oriental Languages, University of California-Berkeley, and in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Graduate School of Fine Arts, Harvard University. Campbell moved to Japan to study Edo literature as a research student in Kyushu University, eventually joining that department as assistant professor, then moved on to the National Institute of Japanese Literature, Tokyo. He relocated to the University of Tokyo in 2000 and has taught there as professor.
Robert Campbell's research centers on the sinological literature, art, media and intellectual discourses of late Edo and early Meiji period Japan. Besides editing and contributing to numerous volumes on Japanese literature, art and drama, he is active in the Japanese media as television host, news commentator, newspaper columnist, book reviewer and radio personality.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
31 years
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
In order to study Japanese literature
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
The older residential neighborhoods southwest and west of central Tokyo.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
My Suica pass, earplugs for the subway and a folding umbrella.
(Suica is a prepaid e-money card for mass transportation and shopping.)
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
"Itsumo no," meaning "the usual"
(When a customer orders his or her favorite dish at a restaurant frequently visited, they use this phrase.)

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