By Yuhei Matsumoto
The Yomiuri Shimbun
OZU, Japan — About 13 kilometers (eight miles) off Shikoku in the Sea of Iyo, there's an island whose feline population exceeds that of the human islanders by five times.
Aoshima, an island spanning 1.5 kilometers (about .9 miles) from east to west and just 500 meters (about .3 miles) from north to south in Ozu, is called the "island of cats," as more than 100 cats live there, while there are only 15 people.
In late September, Aoshima became a focus of attention on the Internet, drawing a number of visitors from all over Japan. The island, which doesn't have accommodations, restaurants or even vending machines, has become a paradise not only for cats, but also for cat lovers.
The 15 non-feline residents range in age from their 50s to their 80s. Four of them are fishermen, and most of the others are pensioners. During World War II, the island's population increased due to an inflow of evacuees and peaked at 655 in 1960. Since then, the majority have left the island to find jobs.
Currently, a ferry — the only means of transportation — connects Aoshima and the island of Shikoku twice a day.
According to the islanders, about a decade ago, when the number of islanders fell below 50, the number of cats began to increase apparently due to abandoned cats breeding unchecked. There are many vacant houses that serve as their comfy hideouts. They are also free from traffic accidents as there are no cars on the island.
"They bother me because they sometimes sneak into my house. But there's nothing we can do about the increasing number of cats," said fisherman Hidenori Kamimoto, 63, taking a benevolent attitude.
On one sunny autumn day, dozens of cats were lounging behind walls. When people come around, the cats approach them for food. Pictures of such scenes were taken, posted on the Internet and re-posted on blogs.
Since then, the Ozu city government's Nagahama branch has received phone calls from those who are eager to visit the island.
In October on a ferry, I saw eight visitors, including a woman on a solo trip and a couple. They spent their day on the island photographing or feeding the cats.
Kafumi Munehira, 50, from Mihara, had spent the night in the city of Ozu to catch a ferry at the Iyo-Nagahama Port the following morning to Aoshima. She stayed on the island for nine hours until the evening.
"I'm overwhelmed by how many cats there are! There are nothing but cats here, and I don't mind that at all," she said.
Sayumi Nagamori, 23, from Sanuki, said, "I can observe their natural life here."
Ferry capt. Nobuyuki Ninomiya said, "I seldom carried tourists before, but now I carry tourists every week, even though the only thing we have to offer is cats."
Yuji Tsuzuki, 41, of the branch's regional promotion division, said he'd like to organize tourism with cats as a theme if the number of tourists continues increasing, but he hopes the tourists will show basic manners such as not feeding the cats too much or leaving garbage.
"Cat islands" exist in and outside Japan, helping to boost regional tourism. Tashirojima island in Ishinomaki is home to 86 people and about 100 cats. Fishermen there regard cats as the gods of a good catch, and there's even a cat shrine.
On the island of Malta, cats, which were aboard a ship to ward off rats, began breeding, and currently there are about 800,000 cats — double the population of islanders. Every year, about 20,000 Japanese visit the Mediterranean island, many of whom are said to visit to see the cats. The Malta tourism office in Japan hands visitors a ballpoint pen designed with Hello Kitty in an Order of Malta costume.
On the island, visitors can feed cats within a conservation area managed by a volunteer group.