Loosening up on animal cafes

Every country has its own cafe culture, but Japan’s may be the most regulated in the world. Recently, cat, dog, rabbit and bird cafes, where customers can sip a cup of tea or coffee while watching, photographing or playing with animals, have caught the attention of authorities.

Meanwhile, the police and government have moved to control the cafes, in one more example of over-regulating the everyday pleasures of the Japanese people.

The animal cafes provide a comfortable and fun atmosphere for people to unwind after a long day’s work. However, recent restrictions by police and government officials have sought to restrict operating hours and impose new ordinances.

The regulations of the Animal Protection Law, which have begun being strictly enforced only since January, are intended to ensure that animals have proper care and humane treatment. However, excessive interference in the cafes means one less healthy, relaxing activity for a hardworking populace.

One of the main areas of the clampdown is the operating hours of cat cafes. With some 150 or so cat cafes nationwide, and an increasing number of rabbit and bird cafes, their attraction is clearly more than just a fad. Allowing the cat cafes to remain open 24 hours seems entirely reasonable, given that cats are instinctively nocturnal creatures, just like many urban residents.

For workers too busy to keep their own cats, the cafes are a great place to take it easy, calm down and even socialize with other patrons. Few other kinds of cafes could be rightly associated with such a family-friendly atmosphere. Since the mental health benefits of interacting with animals have long been established, the government should be encouraging animal cafes as another iyashi or healing therapy.

Certainly protecting the animals from exploitation is a serious concern. No animals should be mistreated simply because of the Japanese fondness for anything cute. Humane treatment of the animals must be maintained. However, to over-regulate these positive and healthy cafes, while under-regulating more potentially harmful ones, such as those in the sex industry, is absurd.

This over-attention to animal cafes also is connected with regulations recently imposed on Internet cafes. Claiming that sexual assaults and other crimes take place in Internet cafes, the police in Osaka imposed a ban on closed rooms.

Tokyo has not yet demanded that all rooms install see-through doors or remove floor-to-ceiling dividers, but the companies that operate the 2,481 Internet cafes nationwide have been forced to comply. As with cafes of any kind, safety is paramount. Clearly, though, people crave both the privacy of Internet cafes and the relaxing atmosphere of animal cafes. Neither should be unreasonably restricted.

Of course, sensible guidelines would help. Exhausting or over-stressing the animals must be avoided. Extra care should be taken with animals that are not as attuned to humans as cats and dogs, such as rabbits or birds. The cafe owners would do well to organize themselves and draw up a list of industry-wide guidelines to ensure that their animals are treated well. Cleanliness is essential.

Most cafes have rules on not bothering sleeping animals and advice on how to pick up and handle the animals. These cafes can also teach people important lessons about taking care of animals. Every year, 80,000 dogs and 200,000 cats have to be destroyed by authorities after they are abandoned. A few of the cafes have already helped give homes to animals that would otherwise be destroyed, and in this respect they are setting an excellent example for their patrons. This potentially educational aspect of the cafes should be understood and developed.

Animal cafes allow people to play with animals without having to buy them unless they are ready to take responsibility for them. Most animals in Japan do receive good care from loving owners. However, the fact that large numbers of animals are abandoned every year suggests that changes in the relationship between humans and pets are needed.

Bureaucrats should be encouraging, not controlling, the cafes. With regard to the treatment of animals, reasonable steps should be taken in the form of practical guidelines, not top-down restrictions. The government can work together with whatever association of cafe owners is established to bring about sensible, protective and compassionate guidelines. The Japanese Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should also get involved to be sure that the cafes meet guidelines and that people understand the best ways to interact with animals.

Cafes are one aspect of the quality of life. So are domestic animals. All urbanized countries have developed cafe cultures, and Japan is no exception. Cafes provide important spaces for leisure and work time. Rather than clamping down on another place where urban dwellers search out a few moments of comfort, the government should focus their efforts on abandoned animals and unscrupulous dealers who mistreat animals.

The historical relationship between humans and domesticated animals is a long one with mutual benefits to both sides. That interaction between species is not likely to change, and the cafes are one way in which it can be improved.