Imagine stepping into a café on a cold winter’s day, ready for a coffee or a hot cup of tea, to be confronted by a crowd of cats wandering about the premises in search of human affection. This is not the latest Studio Ghibli creation, but a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence in cities across Asia.
Ever since the first so-called ‘cat cafés’ sprang up in Taiwan in 1988 the idea spread quickly, spawning similar places in Japan, China and South Korea. Tokyo alone now has over 40 of these feline hangouts and they are becoming increasingly popular with residents, as well as providing an impressive return for savvy business owners.
The idea is simple: patrons pay a time-based fee, charged at an hourly rate, to spend quality time with the cats. High returns make this a lucrative model, and drinks and food are also served to the animal lovers. For the cats, it’s a pretty good gig. They are cared for by the staff and have their fur stroked by the paying customers. And when they feel the need for a well-deserved rest, they can just doze off peacefully – most cafés have rules against disturbing a sleeping feline.
To those who live in the countryside or smaller urban areas, the whole idea may seem a bit odd: why not just get your own cat? In cities like Tokyo though, most residents live in small apartments where the landlord either forbids pets, or space is simply inadequate to comfortably accommodate one. Homes where animals are actually allowed tend to be prohibitively expensive. But it’s not just eager locals who flock to the quirky establishments; the novel concept has captured the imagination of many curious tourists too.
Because these aren’t any old tabbies; the café cats are specially selected to be playful and friendly with humans. There will often be catalogues or blackboards on the premises describing their stock of feline friends, complete with information such as name, breed and personality. Some establishments even cater to particular niches, carrying only one breed of cat or exclusively featuring stray cats rescued from the city streets. A few cafés have even started to breed their own kittens, sometimes allowing customers to purchase a cat they’ve grown particularly fond of.
The cafés are not universally admired though; some animal rights activists complain that the animals are subjected to unnatural trauma. “From morning to night these cats are being stroked by people they do not know. For the animals, that is a real source of stress,” campaigner Chizuko Yamaguchi told the AFP. Café owners respond with the assertion that they comply with all animal welfare laws to ensure the cats’ wellbeing. In Japan, recent legislation also states that cafés must close by 10pm to prevent overworking the animals.
Nonetheless, the success of the concept has already seen the start of its spread to Europe. Austria’s first Katzenkaffehaus, Café Neko, was opened last year by Japanese expat Takako Ishimitsu after three years of haggling with local authorities. So far the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. London, where a population of eight million faces the same pet ownership challenges as large Asian cities, expects its first café − Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium − in 2013. For now though, East Asia remains the cat’s meow when it comes to the peculiar feline haunts.