Of cats and circuses
In Japan, where many people live in apartments that don’t allow pets, cat cafés are big business. Over the past ten years, a huge number of these places have sprung up. Some don’t allow you to touch the animals – the cats are just decoration. Others are gloriously hands-on.
I love cats. My wife hates them. So cat cafés are the only outlet for my feline fixation.
There’s one just around the corner from our house in Tokyo. Here I can sit and relax, drink coffee, and read magazines, all in the company of a roomful of cats.
The reasons people come these establishments are as various as the people I see in them. Some adore cats but can’t own them, or have lost their own. For some, cats remind them of childhood. For others, a quiet hour stroking a cat is as therapeutic as a visit to the massage parlor or hot spa.
Some I see are young courting couples, and there’s presumably a kind of seduction taking place. More than just the cat is being made to purr.
Some, like myself, first visited a cat café to introduce their young children to cats, to watch how they react to contact with animals, to instill a love of the natural world in them, and to see if it’s advisable to get a cat of their own.
Our local café is special. Its cats are damaged, physically or psychologically. Whereas most cat cafés charge by the hour, this one simply asks for a donation at the end, and all its cats are available to take away by anyone with a good home to offer.
These are cats rescued from the ruins of devastated cities – cats whose original owners were some of the 18,000 people who died in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Cat cafés are just part of the paradoxical relationship Japan has with its animals. For example, a few weeks back, I dropped into our cat café for an hour’s feline pampering before heading off to the circus to watch performing bears strapped to metal wheels.
Yes, this was a traditional big top circus, held fittingly in the cavern of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, whose famous suspension roof is reminiscent of the draping walls of a tent.
The bears spun, horses cantered in circles, dogs jumped through hoops, and cats – more cats – refused to do even the simplest tricks.
The circus was the Russian Bolshoi Circus, out on its annual highly successful tour of Japan. I’m not going to talk about its treatment of animals, as I’m sure it takes meticulous care of them. The sturdy metal rods the animal handlers all carried were painted bright colors, so you hardly noticed their purpose. There was no abuse I could see. And yet it made me feel queasy, as Japan’s interaction with animals often does.
The place was packed. Our son loved it, as did everybody else. I sat through it stoically. My Japanese wife, who had organized the trip without my knowledge, saw no problem, even when I told her this kind of thing was widely condemned in my home country and was about to be banned outright. She simply couldn’t see the problem.
And there’s Japan in a nutshell. This country is blessed with some extraordinary wildlife, including monkeys, bears and wild cats. Japan has at its core a nature-worshipping religion called Shinto, which doesn’t prevent it needlessly slaughtering dolphins, or fishing with cormorants which have nooses tied around their necks to stop them swallowing the fish they catch.
Japan adores cuteness. On any street, you’ll see young women carrying around pampered little dogs in their handbags. Let’s hope they don’t grow larger, since the lakes in Tokyo parks are full of terrapins that outgrew their terrariums or their owners’ interest, and were quietly slipped in the water.
Not far from our home is Zoorasia in Yokohama, one of the best zoos I’ve ever seen. We have some great photos of our son being eaten by a camel there. Meanwhile, bug-catching kits are perennially popular among Japanese kids. Our son seems fearless of insects that make his father shudder, manfully picking up dead cicadas that to me look like giant flying cockroaches.
Like cuisine the world over, the more expensive your meal in a Japanese restaurant, the more likely you are to eat something disgusting. Here that means fried insects, whole baby octopuses, water snails and, of course, sliced raw horsemeat.
To me, the most disgusting delicacy is sea urchin, which I was once memorably forced to eat by a gleeful chef during a romantic trip to Hakone. The only edible part is the reproductive organs, which means the dish is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. It wasn’t.
Then again, I adore sashimi. The very best is filleted from the sides of still-living fish. And I have an aquarium in my office at home. So my interactions with animals are every bit as paradoxical.
I grew up in a farming community in the English countryside, where fox hunting was a common sight at weekends, and where I would often help herd the cattle across the valley to the abattoir. I don’t have a romantic view of the food chain or of our need to parade our superiority over other predators in our environment. And yet my stomach is turned by footage of the red waters off Taiji.
Of all the abominations that the civilized world uses to berate modern Japan, the worst is whaling. This yearly slaughter horrifies me, as does the triumphal way it is reported in the Japanese media, which always presents Greenpeace as the villain.
And here’s where things get really sticky. For all its good intentions, Greenpeace is actually perpetuating the slaughter. Whale meat is not popular in Japan, and mercury poisoning makes it dubious nutrition. The Japanese continue to hunt whales because they refuse to be told what to do by foreigners.
The more Greenpeace protests, the more Japan stiffens its back and decries foreign attempts to meddle in its traditions. Make no fuss at all, and Japanese whaling would probably have died off long ago.
Instead, Japan’s mountain of unwanted whale meat continues to grow. It is very likely my son will grow up eating the stuff simply because the government, desperate to find use for whale meat, is now pumping it into school meals.
There’s one more irony about Japanese animals, and it comes back to cats. Though there’s a species of bobtailed cat here, most of the pet cats you see in Tokyo are ordinary moggies that are missing the last half of their tails.
Why? It’s said that pet shop owners dock them when they’re kittens. Apparently they’re cuter that way.