A Year Later – The Japan Disasters and the Surviving Cats: Part 2 – Cultural Reality

Given the media’s propensity towards the clever, chic, hip, and trendy, it is no wonder the story of the numerous charming cat cafes in Tokyo, the reverent worship of the Maneki Neko (a cat sculpture known as the “Beckoning Cat” that is said to bring good fortune to the owner), the infamous “Cat Island,” and cats dressed up in designer outfits is so popular with mainstream social outlets as to how the love affair between the Japanese people and cats are portrayed. Truth be told, it makes great copy and what cat lover wouldn’t want to visit a cat café or an island of cats? Disaster and tragedy, however, is not glamorous and the public can only tolerate the brutal images and reality for so long before they change the channel or turn the page to something lighter and less mentally taxing.

These perennially endearing little Neko sculptures can be found in any number of retail shops in Japan.

That is why the aftermath of the Japanese disasters of last March 11th is such a complex and difficult story to tell – it just does not make sense that so many cats were homeless and abandoned in a nation of such devoted cat loving people. As I continued my interview with Japan Cat Network (JCN) volunteer, Jennifer Koca, the only thing that remained clear, was that nothing was black and white, simple, or easy to understand, especially when it came to this sensitive issue.

First of all, according to Jennifer, there is absolutely no doubt that many, many people who were affected by the disasters loved their pets dearly and made every effort possible to be with them. But, as mentioned in part one of this series, the disasters happened during work hours and many pet owners were not home to tend to their animals. Many more pet owners died as a result of these disasters, leaving pets orphaned, and a lot of the pets that were tied up outside or put into carriers, were done by obedient people as a result of evacuation orders with the assumption that they would be back shortly to tend to them. Nobody fully understood the magnitude of what was unfolding around them and fleeing to safe grounds was the only concern.

According to Jennifer, this ancient Japanese proverb continues in current Japanese culture as a reminder that nonconformity and individuality is not acceptable.

The complexity of the Japanese government and the cultural upbringing of the Japanese is by far the most difficult task to comprehend on the surface and it will be discussed in greater depth in future interviews to come. Suffice it to say, as an opinionated, strong-willed, and stubborn female born and raised in the United States, my unique creativity and outspoken thoughts  were embraced, nurtured, and encouraged. Any personal struggles I carry are not based on a firmly rooted cultural idealism that openly shuns individuality. A disaster hits with evacuation orders, my cats are coming with me and that is the end of the discussion.

This cannot be said of the Japanese. While Japan is a country full of rich tradition, technological genius, educational achievement, and integrity, their perceptions of cats, especially that of northern, conservative, rural Japan where the disasters struck, is quite backward in thinking. Most of the cat population lives outdoors and they are seen as “community animals,” rather than pets. Spaying and neutering cats to control the population is very rarely considered by the Japanese and the need for education and public awareness is glaringly obvious.

Because of this, most human shelters set up after the disasters were NOT equipped for animals and owners were FORBIDDEN to bring their pets. Many owners who did try to bring their pets, would be openly ridiculed by those who did not appreciate these animals in such cramped quarters, and even worse, many owners who were on evacuation buses to shelters did try to bring pets, only to be forced to let them go before they arrived.

A local woman feeding one of the many wandering homeless cats...

The pressure of conformity, complacency, and dignity is ingrained in the very mold of their society and the owners that dared to fight for the lives of their pets, put their own lives in jeopardy. Story after story is told of owners living in cars with their pets in the parking lots of the evacuation shelters. Their homes have been completely wiped out and they had nowhere else to go. In extreme instances, some pet owners have died of blood clots because they had been huddled into a small space for long periods of time without properly stretching their legs.

It has to be understood as well, that long-term shelters such as JCN are a relatively new concept for Japan and are typically run by foreigners. Most of the organizations that exist are based on animal control and have a strict 72 hour euthanization policy. When you factor in that most owners did not have Internet, phones, or the ability to travel, they had no means of researching humane facilities where they could bring their pets until they could safely come back for them. For many people, in the long run, letting the animal go seemed the most humane choice in light of the severe consequences, a most probable euthanization. Clearly it was done with deep regret, remorse, and tears…

Many cats were left abandoned in old farmhouses because pet owners could not bring them to evacuation shelters. The owners come by when they could to feed them, but because these cats were not sterilized, kittens have now been born and that is why creating public awareness about spaying and neutering is so critical.

That is how and why Jennifer and I become involved. Before the disasters struck, the streets were already overrun with stray and feral cats. After the disaster, every outside cat became a homeless street cat. I had done a story on the misconceptions of feral cats here in the United States that outlined how difficult it is on the surface for someone to determine if a street cat is stray, feral, or a lost or abandoned socialized pet. Incorrectly labeling a cat into the wrong category in a shelter can mean life or death to a cat and I had recommended two excellent articles from the Alley Cat Allies site entitled “Feral and Stray Cats – An Important Difference” and “Faux Ferals: How to Soothe a Scared Stray to Increase Her Chances of Adoption.” In a nutshell, a stray cat or socialized pet cat who is frightened might act like a feral cat when trapped and could mistakenly be brought to a kill shelter. Both in the United States and in Japan, we have a long way to go insofar as not using euthanization as a method of controlling the feral population, so it is critical that cats have several days of observation after being trapped to determine what type of cat they are, and even then, the methods are unfortunately not foolproof.

I know using my own cats as a yardstick, if something that traumatic were to occur in our lives, it would be difficult to judge what type of cats they were under the circumstances. A couple of my cats are either so old or domesticated, that they no longer have any hunting or survival skills that I can discern and probably would not last too long on their own. Some are clear hunters with a high chance of surviving, but if a stranger were to approach them to try to pick them up to bring them to a shelter, I would wager they would think they were feral because I know they would react in a very unsociable and untrusting manner. Two of them, I think would probably be cautious and wary, but friendly enough that they would be recognized as pets and classified as such.

Jennifer holding one of the stray kittens that JCN found and rescued.

And so that is what Jennifer and the other JCN volunteers do when they find cats or kittens on the streets or abandoned structures. They try to determine if the animal had an owner and city offices near the evacuation zones post a “wall of lost and found pets” where there are books filled with photos of animals that have been saved in hopes that their owners will spot them and reclaim them when their lives are back in order. There is a photo of the cat, a description of where and when it was found, and what shelter it is at. Sick cats are treated for aliments, foster homes are found for cats that have been abandoned or relinquished by their owners, and feral cats are trapped, sterilized, and released with the virtues of TNR being spread to the Japanese people as best as possible.

One of the many walls of "lost and found pets" seen in city offices in evacuation zones

All of this will discussed in much greater length as I introduce you to Alex Lane, a veterinary technician who came in last May – December, 2011 from North Carolina to help the animals in the next of my series of interviews. Alex will bring us into the trenches so that we can really understand what a day in a life of a volunteer is like tending to these animals. While much of it is filled with sorrow and despair, there are also numerous stories of hope, reunions, and the possibility of a better day…

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  1. Ingrid King says:

    Wonderful article, Deb. Thank God for people like Jennifer, and all the other volunteers at JCN, who tirelessly work for these animals.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you Ingrid. Thank God indeed. So many of these volunteers are so dedicated and hard working for these animals, that I honestly don’t know if they have come up for air in the past year…

  2. Bernadette says:

    Deb, I missed the first part of this article, but thank you for the research and detailed account. I look forward to the rest.

  3. Thanks for revealing the complexity of the issues they’re dealing with over there – and for shedding light on this problem. Blessings to Jennifer for the work she does!

    • Deb says:

      Ryker’s – I really felt I had to. It is so easy on the surface to make a quick judgement when you hear about something that you don’t understand. The complexity stems from hundreds of years of a cultural upbringing and that has to be addressed and respected before real change can happen.

  4. I feel so hopeless when I read about natural tragedies and the animals left behind, esp. cats. I’m so glad there’s people like Jennifer who do such hard work in a complex situation. Japan will never be the same obviously and neither were the kitties. I don’t know how I would face the world if my kitties were hurt in any situation much less such a tragedy that Japan experienced.

    • Deb says:

      Sele and Miss Bella – I can understand you feeling helpless. I was the same way too. But now, by writing and sharing the story, I feel that there is hope to help these kitties.

  5. meowmeowmans says:

    Great article, my friend. We’re so thankful for the efforts of Jennifer and the other JCN volunteers.

  6. Carolyn says:

    It is certainly a very complex culture that we westerners have trouble in understanding. The work that Jennifer is doing is laudable for sure. Is she American? As I was wondering how she and JCN folk are received by the Japanese? very interesting post, Deb xx

    • Deb says:

      Carolyn – Jennifer is from Virginia. Many of the volunteers that have been helping are from the United States. Your question on how they are received by the Japanese is very interesting and I will be discussing it in more detail down the road. It is just one of the many complex layers that JCN has to face, but it is also one that I feel most hopeful about. Western culture is actually quite popular in urban Japan and some of the volunteers I am talking to, indicate that the younger students, in partiuclar, want to learn about TNR and spaying and neutering and see the importance of it. Right now, it is more of an issue of the Japanese people being willing to embrace the fact that the old ways are not always necessarily right…

      • Carolyn says:

        Yes, I understand! I did wonder how this very old civilisation would accept parvenues from another much younger culture? (I say that with tongue in cheek 😉 Will look forward to your subsequent posts x

  7. Deb, the Japanese culture is a fascinating one and your article touches on the changes needed to embrace the wholeness of loving cats. Shared with <3

  8. Dirk Bleys says:

    spread the word of Japan Cat Network great actions…..get the Japanese media involved (TV and newspapers)…the Japanese people need to know more about their rescuing operations of cats and dogs…

  9. Hi Deb,

    What a tragic mess. So sad.

    Praise be to Jennifer, Alex, and the volunteers.

    Japan is very modernized and cultured. I was surprised to hear about their attitude and rules against pets. The poor cat parents were undoubtedly heartbroken about it. Good for those who stayed in their car with their cat though.

    Disasters are bad enough when you’re prepared. But when unprepared the loss is even greater. It’s a good idea to have an evacuation plan for you, your pets, and your most important transportable items. Pet food, water, pet carriers, a get away plan and a few meeting places set up in case of emergency are a must.

    I keep reading about different country’s attitude and animal laws toward pets. Not liking what I’m finding. Even India, negatively influenced by the west, is quickly losing touch with it’s traditional reverence toward life in all it’s forms. They are now opening meat eating restaurants. Never thought that would happen.

    They used to feed flour to ants, feed rats, bathe cows. I’m sure some of them still do, but I’m also sure that is quickly on the way out.

    Thanx for the interesting albeit disturbing article. Glad some folks are over there trying to improve things.

    Looking forward to hearing about updates regarding Jennifer and Alex.

    =^-^= Hairless Cat Girl =^-^=