Caturday felid trifecta: Why cats are revered in Japan; why cats seem to be psychopaths; cat dies defending human family from venomous snake; and lagniappe

May 27, 2023 • 10:00 am

Yes! An article about cats in the New York Times, which has at last found a theme to unite all good people. This one is about why the Japanese revere cats, as we all know they do. Japan is the home of Miss Kitty, there are dozens of cat-themed retail objects, and Japan has several “cat islands” that you can visit to see gazillions of felines.  The article in fact begins with the author’s planned trip to Aoshima, a cat island, a trip that was sadly aborted by severe currents, making the author, Hanya Yanagihara, distraught. Click to read:

Some excerpts:

“You don’t need to see those cats,” Mihoko [Yanagihara’s companion] said. “Aoshima isn’t the only place in the country that has a lot of cats.” We were eating dinner by that point: My despair had lasted from brunch at an American-style coffee shop, the kind that no longer exists in America but became popular here after occupation; through a visit to Matsuyama Castle (built in 1627), one of Japan’s dozen or so extant castles; a stop at an orange juice bar (where you could order juice squeezed from different local varietals, some sweet, some tart); and, finally, dinner at a restaurant where we both ordered gyu, thin slices of grilled marinated beef, served rare over rice with grilled burdock and leeks. Throughout the day, as I sulked and broke into intermittent rants at the gods, the weather and the harbor master, Mihoko patiently pointed out cats — here was one licking itself near a makeshift shrine; there was another, staring at us through slit eyes — and fed me cat trivia: Natsume Soseki, perhaps Japan’s greatest modern writer and the author of “I Am a Cat” (1906), a satire of early 20th-century society narrated by a cat, had once taught English to middle schoolers in Matsuyama; earlier, at a gift store, we’d seen cookies stamped with an image of his face.

My desperation was, I could sense, beginning to perplex Mihoko. To her, Japan itself was cat obsessed. After all, cats were so elemental to the country that it had popularized the cat cafe, where you can pay to have a coffee and hang out with cats. So who needed Aoshima when you could get your fix right here in Tokyo? Who needed to travel to an island full of cats when you were already on an island of cats? To be in Japan is to be surrounded by cats: All you had to do was realize that.

(from the NYT): Naoko Kamimoto, Aoshima’s youngest resident, who’s in her 70s, tends to one of the cats.Credit…Kyoko Hamada

Here are two cat icons you surely know:

The country’s two most enduring feline icons were born centuries apart. Hello Kitty, created as a cartoon figure in 1974, became the ambassador of first-wave kawaii culture, her image printed on erasers, aprons and sanitary pads and shipped around the world (according to her official origin story, Hello Kitty doesn’t even live in Japan but in a London suburb and, according to her creator, is a human, not a cat). But long before her, or her cartoon predecessor, Doraemon, a blue, earless, grinning cat-robot, there was the maneki neko, or “welcoming cat.”

The maneki neko is a blank-eyed cat figurine — usually white, often ceramic, its expression inscrutable but benign — with a bell around its neck and one paw raised near its ear as if in greeting. You’ve probably encountered one in your local Japanese restaurant; in Japan, they’re so ubiquitous that the eye stops registering them after a while. A few days after returning from Matsuyama, I met Mihoko for a trip out to Setagaya, a district in western Tokyo, where there was an Edo-era temple, Gotokuji, dedicated to the maneki neko.

Here is a maneki neko that I keep in my office:

A maneki neko store I photographed in Hong Kong (the Chinese go for them, too). Of course I bought a few:

And Hello Kitty:


Anyone who’s been to Japan knows that virtually every neighborhood in every town has at least one Buddhist temple and one Shinto shrine. Most of these places are humble: a clean-swept yard and a darkened main building, opened only on New Year’s Day. But some are rich: their gardens well maintained, their trees trimmed, their bamboo fences fresh and green. Gotokuji is a rich temple; in the middle of the central walkway, we encountered a large, spectacular iron incense brazier with Ii’s mon, or family crest, an orange blossom, stamped in gold on its base. It’s rich because cat-loving pilgrims have come here for decades to make donations and ask for good fortune, and because (like many other savvy temples) it sells irresistible merchandise, in the form of ceramic maneki neko, which were offered in five different sizes. The largest was about a foot high; the smallest, just an inch.

The temple maintains a series of shelving units to hold the thousands of maneki neko that visitors have bought, scribbled their names and wishes on and left behind for luck. . . . There were, I noticed, no actual cats at the temple, presumably because they would have knocked over the maneki neko.

A photo of the temple:

Shintoism is no doubt also one of the reasons places like Aoshima exist. In Japan, there aren’t just (11) cat islands: There’s a monkey island. There’s a rabbit island. There’s a deer island (and deer cities, too, most notably Nara, Japan’s eighth-century capital and home to more than a thousand sika deer, who dominate the main park and occasionally try to butt visitors, who are warned by signs not to antagonize them). The Nara deer are exciting to encounter until they begin chasing you but, in general, the attitude in Japan seems to be that the animals are there to stay and, despite some annual culling, it’s our job to accommodate them.

Yanagihara never made it to the Cat Island, but there are plenty of pictures, including some of the five humans who inhabit the mile-long island and feed the cats:

(From the NYT) Aoshima has a designated area where tourists can give cats food. Credit: Kyoko Hamada

There’s a lot of cat history I’ve omitted (it’s a long piece), including the ambivalent relationship of Buddhism and of Shintoism to cats.

(from the NYT): A resident of Aoshima eats tangerines as cats snack on niboshi (small, dried fish).


Here’s a piece from The Atlantic (archived) in which Sarah Zhang explains why people think cats are psychopaths, even though they aren’t. They’re just “aloof little jerks”.

An excerpt:

Cats, she pointed out, simply don’t have the facial muscles to make the variety of expressions a dog (or human) can. So when we look at a cat staring at us impassively, it looks like a psychopath who cannot feel or show emotion. But that’s just its face. Cats communicate not with facial expressions but through the positions of their ears and tails. Their emotional lives can seem inscrutable—and even nonexistent—until you spend a lot of time getting to know one.

D*gs, on the other hand, have “learned to mimic humans”, imitating smiling, expressions of guilt, and appealing raises of the brow.  Feh: they’re sycophants! And their independence is one reason people think they’re “psychopaths.” But they’re not: they’re just CATS!

A common charge against cats is that they do not care about their owners as anything more than a source of wet food. In studies of pet-owner relationships, scientists have found that dogs are more “attached” to owners. These studies frequently rely on protocol called the Ainsworth Strange Situation, in which the pet explores an unfamiliar environment alone, with its owner, or with a stranger. Dogs are more at ease with their owners rather than with strangers. Cats can’t seem to care less about the human there.

Maybe this says something about pet-owner attachment, but Delgado noted that dogs are used to their owners taking them to new places. Cats are territorial, and they might only leave the house to go to the vet, so what looks like indifference to their owners might just be overwhelming anxiety about a new, strange environment. Plus, the Ainsworth Strange Situation was developed by Mary Ainsworth to study parents and infants—another example of us judging cats on human rather than cat terms.

And the closing:

Talk to experienced cat owners, of course, and you’ll quickly find that psychopathy, or something that looks like it, is hardly a dealbreaker. When the subject came up in the office, my colleague Rachel Gutman launched into a tribute to her childhood cat K.C., who terrorized everyone but her immediate family members and, for some reason, Carmine the electrician. He’d bite anyone who dared to pet him. He’d attack her grandfather’s ankles. He’d pee in her grandmother’s bed when she came to visit. “In conclusion,” she said, “he was the best cat, and I miss him every day.”

A (non-psychopathic) cat from the article.


This is a very sad story of an Australian hero cat who saved his human family by attacking a venomous snake. I’ve put the end of the story below the picture, or you can access the Facebook entry directly by clicking here.

killing the snake. Unfortunately, in the process, Arthur received a fatal envenomation snake bite. In the chaos of getting the children out of the yard, no-one saw the actual bite, but Arthur collapsed and quickly recovered like nothing was wrong not long after. Collapse events like this is a common symptom of snake bites, although not a well-known symptom amongst pet owners.
The next morning Arthur’s hoomans found him collapsed again and unable to get up. They rushed him to our Tanawha hospital. Unfortunately, Arthur’s symptoms were too severe to recover. It was with the heaviest of hearts his owners had to leave Arthur after he gained his angel wings.
His family, understandably devastated, remember him fondly and are forever grateful he saved the children’s lives. Arthur was always getting into mischief; he had previously visited us before having been in accidents and was very much loved by our team.
Rest in peace Arthur, our little hero.
Love from the Animal Emergency Service Tanawha Team ♥️
You can read about the Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) here; it’s the world’s second most venomous land snake.


Lagniappe: A cool cat DNA tee shirt is for sale, and it’s not expensive ($17 from Quertee, item here). It appears to come only in blue, but there are both men’s and women’s sizes, and it’s a nice logo. (They also have a few different non-cat shirts on sale daily for $12).  This is a must for those who love genetics and cats.

Matthew, who fits that bill, tells me, however, that the DNA helix is twisted in the wrong direction! (It’s in the Z form—a left-handed spiral—as opposed to the more common B form described by Watson and Crick).

h/t: Karl, Barry, Malcolm

7 thoughts on “Caturday felid trifecta: Why cats are revered in Japan; why cats seem to be psychopaths; cat dies defending human family from venomous snake; and lagniappe

  1. The idea that cats are “psychopaths” is so alien to me. My first two cats could sense whenever I was sad and would immediately come to snuggle with me, as if they were trained emotional support animals. My newest cat was feral when we found her abandoned by her derelict family, so she doesn’t seem to have that same instinct, but boy does she love me. She won’t leave me alone any moment she’s awake, probably because I raised her in lieu of her pathetic excuse for a mother. And, when she realizes after several minutes of scratching at my leg and whining at me that I’m not going to play with her for the fifth time that hour, she sleeps at my feet until the moment I stand up, and follows me wherever I go. She’s much more like a dog than a cat in these aspects.

    My first two cats were very friendly to both the family and outsiders. It’s especially perplexing with the first one, as he somehow knew that any human or cat that entered the house was a friend, but, being an indoor/outdoor cat, he absolutely terrorized every cat and dog in the neighborhood. One neighbor complained once that he beat the shit out of their dog, but all we could do was apologize (animals tended not to fight him again after one ride on that merry-go-round of destruction). Chipmunks still whisper his name at night. If chipmunks have language and memory skills akin to humans, they speak of my first cat as Jews do of Hitler: he wiped out entire generations, destroyed families, and nearly wiped them from the face of at least a one-mile radius of our house. Of course, most of them were just gifts for us, along with moles, squirrels, and the occasional bird. He even killed a full-grown groundhog once, though he wasn’t able to drag it to the door; we just found it in the yard the next morning. But the second he stepped inside, he was the sweetest cat to anyone and everyone, stranger or servant, cat or human. Never once bit or scratched a single person or fellow cat (we had another one with him), and I literally mean never. Not even when we gave him baths (he spent half his time outside hunting and getting into scraps, so he’d get pretty dirty!).

    It’s been almost 20 years, and I still miss him every day.

  2. “A common charge against cats is that they do not care about their owners as anything more than a source of wet food. In studies of pet-owner relationships, scientists have found that dogs are more “attached” to owners.”

    No one told my porch cat this. He has gone from feral to cuddle buddy over the last year, after his former caretakers abandoned him (not having bothered to even try to socialize him– they were fine with him hissing, hiding, and, when pressed, striking out. They did feed him, all the same) He would rather follow me across the street to talk to a neighbor than eat, then, when I spend too much time, yell at me to go home so he can get fusses. He often doesn’t eat the provided food at all, as he holds the position of neighborhood rodent control officer, and is quite effective at it. The only time I have had mice since he showed up five or six years ago was the month he was being vetted last year. My boy was thrilled, as he got the the mice, eventually (he is indoor only and, at 12, no longer as agile as he once was).

    My boy has no use for the porch boy, though, and goes through a set of blinds roughly each month. He has also cracked two windows trying to attack. Sadly, porch boy must remain such for the nonce.

  3. Poor brave kitty, so sad…

    Re: cats are psychopath — I really do not get it! Cats express their wishes and moods very well, and they are very social — on their own terms of course. The author of this defamation piece is a psychopath herself!

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