Fed up with long working hours, minimal job security and paltry remuneration in Japan’s depressed economy, maneki neko cats all over Japan are going on strike.
“I don’t know where the hard-working, beckoning cat image comes from,” said one battery-enhanced cat who agreed to be interviewed while on the job, sitting near a cash register inside a local store. “If you look at most felines, all they do is lie around and sleep. Believe me, the last thing cats are interested in is profits.”
The cats, many of them immigrants from China, have been working their whole lives in restaurants and shops in Japan while suffering in silence. And although they once made a decent living by bringing in luck and profits for their Japanese bosses, these days they’re finding it harder and harder just to make ends meet.
“I have RSI in my left paw,” laments Izzy, a calico izakaya cat, who like most cats goes by only one name. Izzy has “beckoned” for customers for over a decade for her Japanese restaurant. “It’s worse than a baseball pitcher wearing out his arm. At least a pitcher can rest; we can’t.
“Everyone thinks we’re cute,” says a feline figurine named Goldie who works in an upscale restaurant. As a gold maneki neko cat, she has attained the highest status of the so-called lucky cats. “But the truth is that no one looks after our needs.”
No time off, long hours and little to no access to medical care are frequent grievances among the working cat community. Most have no medical insurance, and, perhaps more surprisingly, even with insurance they must pay the full price for a CAT scan or PET scan.
“Eight hours or more of work per day is really long for cats, who are biologically programmed to sleep 20 hours a day,” says local pet psychologist Mrs. Katayama, who offers free counseling to the community’s cats. “It’s difficult enough for a cat to sit up in the beckoning position, let alone for hours or even days at a time.”
With the continued moribund economy, the cats are being forced to work longer hours for even less pay. It’s no wonder the rate of “catoshi” (feline death from overwork) is increasing.
“As a society, we have to start thinking of the mental health of our animals,” says Dr. Kataoka, a local veterinarian. “Japan is behind in this area compared to other developed countries,” he says. Kataoka supports the recently formed Feline Union fighting for a more feline friendly work environment.
The union is demanding an eight-hour work day with less beckoning time and more breaks. They want four curling up sessions of 30 minutes each, one hour of flat-on-the-back, paws-in-the-air relaxation, and a two-hour lunch that includes a full stretch and sleep. They also want batteries turned off after eight hours. Although setsuden (power saving) has added some feline felicity this year, the cats still have to be at work all day, even if they’re sitting there doing nothing.
The union is also pushing for more ergonomic conditions. Until now, the figurines have had to sit on hard, wooden shelves with no cushion under them. Others are unthoughtfully positioned near noisy cash registers or drafty entryways. Yet others endure work inside loud pachinko parlors.
Some cats have become so desperate, they have done what was previously unthinkable — become noraneko (stray cats). With so many defecting to the streets, the population of street cats in Japan is now at crisis levels. “It’s possible to live on human subsidies of table scraps,” said one cat, who goes by the name of Tomu. But street life is tough and most have to battle for territorial rights. The winters claim several thousands of lives a year.
“As in most cases like this,” says Katayama, options are fewer for female felidea. Once they end up on the streets, they have litters of kittens and they find it very difficult to feed their families.
If the Feline Union’s demands are not met, some immigrant cats are considering going home to their roots — China. “Most of the new generation of maneki neko cats were born in China,” explains Katayama. “While the older generation of cats happily immigrated to Japan to enjoy a higher standard of living, these days it’s tough for the average cat to make a living here. With the Chinese economy doing so well, many younger cats would like to return.
But going back to China isn’t easy either. In addition to coming up with the finances to return, they have to face China’s strict Feline Border and Migration Control which includes a one-month quarantine. But that may be changing. Recent rumors are that as of January this year, quarantine times for pets going to Beijing have been reduced to just seven days. While this is good news for made-in-China cats, they still need a passport-holding human sponsor to enter the country.
The group Green Paws and Veterinarians Without Borders are working to free immigrant cats from poverty and workaholic bosses. “Many Japanese people don’t understand the plight of our precious maneki neko cats,” says Katayama. “Instead, they turn a blind eye to this minority group.”
One reason may be that Japanese who keep cats see their pets spending most of their time sleeping, not beckoning for customers and money. The cats people see most — on TV and movies — are only a small segment of the cat population. Working class cats found in cafes, restaurants and on the streets are not doing so well.
Tomu, that cat living of table scraps, revealed to me how he became a street cat. “I used to serve as a family bank,” he said fondly, revealing a slot in the back of his neck. “For years I sat on a shelf and saved coins. But one day, the family’s 10-year-old emptied out all the coins into his pockets. My entire life’s savings was gone. With no pension to fall back on, it’s truly a catastrophe.”