One of the first things I wanted to cross off my Tokyo bucket list as soon as possible, was spending some time in a cat cafe. I’m sure most people have heard of the concept before, but if not, it’s pretty much a no-brainer just by looking at the name. It’s a cafe where cats live. Simple, right? Well these types of one-note cafes don’t really need much description other than the name to get customers to line up in droves in order to spend a few hours relaxing and sipping on lackluster vending machine coffee and play with the likes of Candy-chan.
So inspired was I by my first cat cafe experience that in my comprehensive Japanese class, I chose cat cafes as my theme for a very detailed and involved semester-long project. Or as detailed as someone with a 4 year-old’s level of Japanese can get. I’ll be honest, after learning more about cat cafes (or neko kafe in Japanese), both my appreciation and disdain for them grew at the same time. I’ll explain my reasoning below.
1. Pet-friendly rental homes and apartments are non-existent in Tokyo
As one of the most populated cities in the world, space is limited (as evidenced by my tiny dorm room), and a lot of young people choose to live in “share houses,” a dormitory-style living situation with multiple rooms and one to two bathrooms and a kitchen per house. Limited space also means less opportunity to own your own property, so the majority of people rent, and turnover is pretty high. Basically, landlords don’t want their rentals flooded with pets, and more than that no one really has time to care for a pet. Tokyo is kind of like New York City in that it can be hard to get started here, especially if you’re a foreigner. Who wants to lug around kittens every three months to move into a better share house because the kitchen is slightly bigger and the view isn’t of a brick wall?
Myth: most customers go in order to relieve stress and to relax with cats
From my brief and labored (on my part) interviews with Japanese people, I learned that cat cafes really like to push and advertise the calming atmosphere of their store, how spending time with cats is akin to spending a day at the spa, but can cats really meow all your troubles away that easily? For some, yes, and it turns out those types of people, who genuinely need cats in their lives but can’t care for one for whatever reason, are the main source of a cat cafe’s income. At cat cafes you pay in chunks of time, usually 30 minutes to an hour, so the big spenders are the ones who will stay for hours on end on their days off. There aren’t many of these people. From what I gathered, most people who visit a cafe stay for 30 minutes to an hour, take a few selfies *cough* and leave. Just so they can say they’ve been to a cat cafe.
Also, living alone or not, having ever raised a pet/cat or not, from my questionnaires none of these increased the likelihood of visiting a cafe. Turns out you either really love cats, or you’re just looking for a new Facebook profile pic.
Above all else, a cat cafe is a business
Tokyo has so many dining options, and not just that, they’re really close together. And it’s not just restaurants and cafes, Japanese convenience stores (conbini) also sell drinks and food, and are a much faster option than ordering and waiting for a latte. Competition is tough, so how can we stand out from all those other plain Jane coffee places, what do Tokyoites want more than anything else in the world.. in addition to a coffee and snack?
Robots. Maids. Cats.
Three of the most iconic, in my opinion, types of specialty cafes in Tokyo, and out of these three if I had to choose, the cat cafe is probably the more.. honest? Less creepy of the three? The cat cafe can at least hide behind its façade of “healing people through the power of cats,” which is partly true, but the other two are just clearly out to get money. The cat cafe is also 100% for profit, but I take a little comfort knowing that there might be some people genuinely benefitting from them.
So as I’ve come to understand more about cat cafes, why the disdain that I mentioned above? Honestly, I think it was just the realization that I’ve spent way too much time thinking about cat cafes, and in Japanese to boot. Like I said, it’s a simple concept on the surface, but I’ve taken it upon myself to un-simplify it, and now the whole idea just exhausts me. Actually writing this was fun, I’ve never gone back and explained everything in English before, so this was nice. This was definitely easier to do in English, by the way, and when you’re learning a language overseas sometimes your only humor comes from being a derpy foreigner.