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Reuters/Eriko Sugita
Deer wander freely on Miyajima.
ANIMAL ISLANDS

Japan’s incredibly cute, free-roaming cats, deer and bunnies are fueling a tourism boom

By Ben Lefebvre

To an outsider’s eyes, Japan might appear to be uniquely infested with cute animals. Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites feature videos of tourists being (gently) chased by hordes of bunnies and mingling with friendly deer in the streets of Miyajima Island.

In many cases, these free-roaming critters provide a welcome chance for a country with a declining human population to continue attracting tourist dollars. But with radioactive boar on the prowl, there are some cases in which the animal takeover is less cuddly and more like a post-apocalyptic invasion.

On the adorable side, there’s Tashirojima, a small island off the coast of Miyagi in Japan’s northeast. The region was losing people even before it was devastated by the tsunami that swept the Tohoku region in March 2011. Miyagi’s population was 2.3 million people in April, down 10% from 2010, according to government data.

Over 100 cats are padding about the three-square-kilometer island of Tashirojima.

Meanwhile, the kitty community at Taoshirojima is booming. Over 100 cats are padding about the three-square-kilometer island, according to a spokesperson at Ishinomaki city, the municipality that governs Tashirojima. The felines now outnumber Tashirojima’s human head count, which had fallen to 82 people in 2015, down from 191 in 1990.

Fisherman living on Tashirojima first brought to the cats to feed on the mice that were destroying silkworms necessary to make fishing lines. The relationship worked out so well that the locals even built a shrine to honor of one cat that died in the line of duty.  

Now the cats are assisting Tashirojima residents in a whole new way. Many people in Japan’s urban areas live in condo-like apartments that forbid pets. The sheer number (and cuteness) of cats on Tashirojima started drawing tourists after the so-called “Cat Island” was featured in a few television specials in the late 2000s. The tourist trickle reached flood levels after a series of videos on the island island hit YouTube starting in 2014.

A little less than 40,000 people visited Cat Island in 2015, an enormous jump from just 6,262 the year before, according to local government spokesman Hiromichi Suzuki.

Enthusiasm for Cat Island has spawned a tourist trade of sorts, with cat-shaped homes on the island and a cat-themed NGO aimed at helping the island bounce back from the tsunami and earthquake disaster.

However, there can be too much of a good thing. Another cat island, Aoshima in Ehime prefecture, is actually trying to discourage tourism. Out-of-towners have fed the native cats so much that the feline population is interfering with residents’ daily lives. The local governments have said they have no plan to run any kind of tourism promotions of the island.

For those who aren’t really cat people, Japan has plenty of other options. There’s the hopping island of Okunoshima, where rabbits multiplied after residents abandoned it, and its resident chemical munitions plant, after World War II. Zao Fox Village, also in the Miyagi prefecture, is another increasingly popular destination. 

In Zao Fox Village, tourists frolic with foxes to their heart’s content.

Zao has been open since 1990. Tourists pay a 1,000-yen entrance fee, buy an optional bag of food to feed the animals, and then frolic with foxes to their heart’s content. The park’s proprietors ensure the foxes are fed, receive medical care and are properly merchandised in the gift shop.

“We had about 70,000 visitors last year, 30,000 the year before that, and it’s increasing,” a spokesperson for the park said. “The reason for recent increase is the strength of social media. YouTube videos, Facebook photos, etc., visitors post them up and then more visitors come here to see it in person.”

Zao is a breed apart from Japan’s largely accidental cat and rabbit islands. It’s more akin to the traditional tourist-trap animal parks that flourished during the country’s Showa period, from the early 20th century until 1989. Kyoto’s Monkey Park, atop the Arashiyama mountain, is another product of this era.

The newfound interest in places like Zao and Monkey Park has caught some Japanese by surprise, said Minako Aoshima, senior assistant manager at the Japan National Tourism Organization’s inbound tourism strategy department.

“Most of us just saw them as places that were popular in the Showa era but lame in our time,” Aoshima said in an interview. “Then foreign tourists found them fun places to visit, and guide books started to pick them up as must-go-to spots.

The most worrisome of such animal incursions may be the radioactive boar infestations in Fukushima prefecture.

“As for the ‘cat islands,’ most Japanese people didn’t even know they existed. But again, foreign tourists visited these island and uploaded things onto social media and then they also became spots to visit for domestic tourism.”

But some of Japan’s animal infestations are unlikely to elicit much cooing. Wild monkey, bears and boars are also multiplying in Japan’s countryside. The animals are increasingly traveling out of densely wooded hills to raid farmland left fallow as the human presence recedes.  

The most worrisome of such animal incursions may be the radioactive boar infestations in Fukushima prefecture. The prefecture’s wild boar population climbed to 12,000 in 2013, according to a 2015 prefectual government report (PDF, in Japanese). That was triple the boars’ numbers before the March 2011 meltdown at Tokyo Electric’s nuclear plant, which made the area uninhabitable for humans.

The boars have fed on radioactive plants in the area and spread out to cause all kinds of damage. Local communities are finding it hard to recruit hired guns to defend them from the animals. The number of licensed hunters in Japan has dropped by a quarter since two decades ago, and the vast majority of them are elderly.  

“The number of individual wild boar are rapidly increasing, and there is also the possibility of a significant impact on the entire forest ecosystem,” the prefectural government said in its report. “Managing the number of individual boars to the proper level is, from the viewpoint of conservation of biodiversity, a big challenge.”