Though the very first cat cafés were Taiwanese, when Japanese entrepreneurs brought the idea of a café where visitors could relax with a drink and a cat nearby to Japan in the mid-2000s, the idea caught on quickly. The popularity of this new business model was tied to Japan’s iyashi, healing, boom, in which Japanese people turned to commercial businesses to meet their need for emotional and psychological soothing to help them deal with stress. People in Japan found that a stop at a café at the end of the day and the chance to relax and pet a cat is a perfect balm for a busy worker and these businesses have today become a popular part of Japanese life. After the first cat café opened in Osaka, Japan in the fall of 2004, it was followed quickly by cafés in Tokyo and other major cities, causing what the Japanese mass media dubbed a “cat café boom” by 2008. During the cat café peak, there were dozens of cat cafés in Tokyo alone. While the numbers have decreased somewhat from 2009, there are still roughly forty established cat cafés in Tokyo today [Figure 1].
Cat cafés have become so popular in Japan that many new types of animal cafés have opened over the last decade, capitalizing on the interest in unusual opportunities for human-animal interaction. The first rabbit cafés began to appear at the end of the 2000s [Figure 2], and the first owl café opened in 2012 [Figure 3]. Today, there are scores of cat cafés open throughout Japan, though they are most densely clustered in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. There are even reptile cafés or zoo cafés, which do not limit themselves to a single species. Both the popularity and public awareness of animal cafés has only increased in the last ten years, both inside and outside of Japan, as new cat cafés have begun to open across Europe and North America.
Animal café are spaces structured around the opportunity for intimacy with animals but in a public, communal setting. The experience is both relaxing and enlivening, as visitors get the opportunity to cozy up with exciting, new animals. About the size of a large studio apartment, painted in pastel colors, and filled with soft couches, most cafés are designed to look more like a comfortable home than a traditional café. Visitors pay for the time they are in the café, staying an average of one and a half hours, and they use that time to watch, play with, or even just relax while the animals that surround them [Figure 4]. There are bookshelves filled with books, magazines and manga (Japanese comic books) available for customers to entertain themselves with and most animal cafés also offer some food or drink [Figure 5]. However, visiting a café is about being with animals and other animal lovers, more than it is about having a good meal or enjoying other kinds of entertainment.
Most visitors come alone or with a single friend or significant other, and generally spend their time in quiet relaxation. Patrons chat occasionally with their companion or other people in the café, but primarily just enjoy the atmosphere. There are no prescribed rules for how visitors should behave in an animal café, and visitors are encouraged to relax in and enjoy the space however they wish to do so. For some visitors, that means interacting with as many animals as possible, petting them or taking pictures, and then sharing those pictures with a friend while they chat together over a cup of coffee. For others, that means stopping by after a hard day at work and curling up in a corner with a manga, and a cat sleeping nearby. Animal cafés are flexible spaces, where customers who want to be alone can focus on quiet and relaxation, and those who want to be social can socialize with the animals or with other patrons or employees.
In order to keep the café from feeling overcrowded and losing the sense of intimacy, cafés only allow a limited number of visitors in at any one time, usually no more than a dozen people. In a cat café, these visitors are surrounded by the cats that live there; there are on average about ten cats, of a variety of breeds (Maine Coons, Bengals, and Munchkins are very popular). The cats roam freely throughout the café, sometimes stopping to be pet by visitors, but often curling up on high shelves or in cat trees. Rabbit cafés follow a similar pattern, but rabbits are more quickly overtired and so rotate between resting in cages and hopping around the café space. In contrast, owl and bird cafés keep the animals in areas separate from the café section where customers can handle them for short periods under the supervision of café staff. The animals at the majority of Japanese cat cafés are raised from a young age in the café, live there full time, and are not adopted out. Regular visitors often develop close relationships with one particular animal, who they see as “their” animal, and who they come to spend time with when they visit.
These cafés are structured to allow visitors the opportunity to remove themselves from the tensions of their everyday lives and relax in a pleasantly social setting, enjoying the benefits of social contact with animals. In addition to the cozy decorations, there are also at least two or three café employees, who bring drinks, but also chat with the clientele, answer their questions about the animals, and facilitate the interactions between visitors and animals by showing them how the animal likes to be petted or which toy is their favorite. Employees are trained to be attentive to the moods and needs of customers and be as interactive as the customer wishes, offering them a companionable ear or complete privacy [Figure 6]. The café owners who created these cafés, the employees who make visitors comfortable, and the animals who allow themselves to be petted and play with the customers all work together to create a refuge for visitors who come to the animal cafés to escape the stresses of everyday life in twenty-first century Japan.