Writer Gideon Brower visited Tokyo recently and brings us this story of Tokyo’s Animal Cafes.
The Hapineko Café, in Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya shopping district, isn’t really much of a café. With its low couches and colorful baskets of toys, it looks like the playroom of a small nursery school. There’s no food on the menu; just tea, coffee, fruit juice and soft drinks. But people don’t come here for the food. They come for the cats.
Hapineko is a cat café, one of dozens of establishments around Tokyo offering visitors light refreshment in the company of small animals. For a fee of about $12 per hour, you can put on some cat-embossed slippers, sanitize your hands, and settle in to watch about a dozen cats do what cats do: nap, look out a big floor-to-ceiling window, groom themselves, and generally ignore you.
Cat cafés have been popular in Japan for about ten years now, and their success is often attributed to the no-pet policies of many Japanese apartment buildings. But Lorraine Plourde, a SUNY Purchase anthropology professor who has studied Tokyo’s cat cafés, says there’s more to it than that. For one thing, some regular patrons do own cats. For them, visiting the cafés can be seen as “cheating” on their pets at home. “One of the café owners framed it in very anthropomorphic terms, using the term for flirtation,” says Plourde. “The patron will spend time with one particular cat. And then they’ll go home and their own cat will recognize the scent of that cat, the café cat on them. It was very cheeky terms, the way he put it.”
Plourde says that Japanese “salary men,” white-collar workers in their 20s and 30s, make up the biggest single demographic of cat café visitors, though many women and dating couples are patrons also. She sees the cafés as part of a larger trend of marketing domesticity, intimacy and social contact as commodities for sale to those in Japan who can afford them. What’s it like for the cats? The ones at Hapineko had the bored demeanor of employees stuck in the same dull office job for life, and Plourde says that characterization isn’t that far off. “They’re really viewed as workers, in a sense,” she says. “As laborers. Even in the language they use in the cafes, they refer to them as cat staff.”
A human staffer at Hapineko says the popularity of cat cafés has declined a bit in the last five years, as new establishments have sprung up offering trendier dining companions: reptiles, hawks, rabbits, goats and—most popular of all—owls. That’s the attraction at Akiba Fukurou, a small, curtained storefront in the Akihabara district. Unlike the spotless Ikea playroom vibe at Hapineko, this owl café has a kind of gauzy, boudoir aesthetic. There’s soft lighting, crystal chandeliers and harp music dribbling from overhead speakers.
The 16 or 17 owls housed at the café range between the size of a beanbag and a large throw pillow. If the cats at Hapineko seem bored and indifferent, the owls exude a kind of long-suffering dignity, watching with giant unblinking eyes as they’re plopped onto visitors’ arms and photographed. They don’t hoot or make much other noise other than an occasional ruffling of feathers. After an hour of what the staff calls “dreamtime,” visitors are ushered out with a souvenir photo in hand.
Health codes that bar animals from spaces where food is prepared have slowed the spread of cat cafés in the U.S., but lately they’ve popped up in New York, Oakland, Denver, and other cities. The American cafés differ from the Japanese model in that they’re affiliated with animal shelters that supply cats that you can adopt and take home. That’s the model for a cat café planned for Los Angeles, too. Which means that soon you may not have to travel far to enjoy a snack in the company of a happy, or not so happy, professional cat.