For young females looking to while away an evening with a cappuccino and a flock of felines, Tokyo’s “neko cafes” are an oasis that allow their clientele to unwind and soothe their stress.
“After a long day’s work, all I want to do is to pet cats and relax,” said Akiko Harada, a saleswoman and regular customer at such establishments. “I love cats, but I can’t keep one at home because I live in a small apartment. I started going (to cat cafes) because I really missed stroking and having fun with cats.”
For Harada and others who share her predilection, Tokyo’s neko cafes, and the cats in them, offer customers a temporary release from daily pressures — although they charge a premium for the coffee served.
Animal rights campaigners, however, have started targeting the establishments for allegedly exploiting — and profiting from — the animals, which activists also claim are subjected to extreme stress in their unnatural habitat.
Cat cafe foes have welcomed a new ordinance that will ban them from displaying the animals in public after 8 p.m. The law will enter into force later this year.
The measure was drawn up by the Environment Ministry, after it received more than 155,000 requests from concerned citizens demanding it end the “exploitative” practices of cat cafes — an unusually strong response given the public’s frequent ambivalence on such issues.
The law primarily targets businesses in Tokyo’s entertainment districts that display pets in cramped glass tanks, including cats and dogs, until late at night in dazzlingly bright shop fronts, a sales ploy that regularly raises eyebrows among Western visitors.
But Shinji Yoshida, who manages a neko cafe in the capital, said the new regulation would also apply to his business, which will be forced to close earlier in the evening, his busiest time, and hurt his bottom line.
According to Yoshida, about 80 percent of his customers are salaried employees who drop by to relax after their daily grind before their long commutes home.
“If I have to close my cafe at 8 p.m., I’ll go into the red,” said Yoshida, 32. “It is a huge blow to cat cafes, and the new law has nothing to do with protecting the animals’ health.”
Yoshida said the 13 cats at his establishment in Ikebukuro, a teeming commercial and commuter hub, are free to roam and jump around to their heart’s content, adding they can also clamber all over a large artificial tree.
“As you can see, the cats are free to happily walk around and play. I also ask customers not to disturb the cats if they are sleeping, and at night we dim the lights,” he said. “And cats can also rest during the day.”
His patrons also hit the new law.
Ayako Kanzaki, a 22-year-old office worker, said she began visiting cat cafes three years ago because she loves the animals and her apartment is too small to keep a pet of her own.
“I like to do things at my own pace, and I must say that I am not a very social person. So I come here alone, because I want to focus on the cats,” she said.
“During the day, the cats are mostly sleeping, and even if they are awake, they often don’t pay any attention to the customers. But in the evening they are very lively, and it’s more enjoyable.”
Harada, the saleswoman, feels equally strongly. “If cat cafes are shut down at night, I won’t have many opportunities to visit them any more,” she said.
But animal welfare activists continue to push the government to act against such businesses, which one, Chizuko Yamaguchi, accused of stressing out the cats due to the sheer number of customers seeking their attention.
“From morning till night, these cats are being stroked by strangers,” Yamaguchi said. “For the animals, that is a real source of stress.”
But Fusako Nogami, who heads the ALIVE animal rights group and who acknowledged the new law is a positive step, said cat cafes in themselves are not the real problem.
The commodification of animals, which often results in pets being viewed merely as fashion accessories rather than animals that require special care and treatment, is the fundamental issue the public and government must address, Nogami said.
“What deserves more public attention is the way pets are currently sold in Japan,” she said. “We need to ban trade in newborn kittens and puppies, which businesses profit from because they are considered cute and sell well.”