Photo/IllutrationA cat that has the tip of its left ear clipped as an indication of having been spayed or neutered is dubbed a “sakura cat” (cherry blossom cat) because the shape of the ear looks like a piece of a cherry blossom. (Ai Tanabe)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGASAKI--Instead of bird watching, a walking tour here is on the prowl for another of the city’s many wild inhabitants--stray cats.

The “nekosaruku” events, held about six times annually with 15 participants, for people who enjoy hanging out with cats, are popular. “Saruku” in the Nagasaki dialect means strolling around town.

“People who have participated in the event have been amazed because they encountered 30 to 40 cats in a span of about two hours,” said Noriko Jintoku, 47, a staff member of the Nagasaki cats club and a planner of the event.

The city’s distinctive geological features are the major reasons why Nagasaki is a paradise for cats. Thanks to the many slopes, trails and stairs in which automobiles cannot traverse, felines can live safely in peace without worrying about being struck by a vehicle.

In the city with a tangle of narrow streets, it is easy for cats to find nooks and crannies for raising their kittens away from the peering eyes of humans.

Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, described in his novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” set here, where he was born, that there are many stray cats in Nagasaki.

Sprinkled with designs, ubiquitous "yuru-chara" (local mascots) and grocery stores featuring felines, Nagasaki promotes itself as a town of cats.

Fukuoka-based radio personality Toggy described how cats have contributed to the city, saying, “The comfortable distance between humans and cats enhances the appeal of the city as well as communication among residents.”

However, the large numbers of stray cats sometime cause problems among residents.

The Nagasaki cats club consults with residents and supports operation fees for cats to be spayed or neutered. It recommends activities to jointly manage stray cats in each community as community cats.

Such efforts have made a difference in some districts of the city. For example, in one of those areas, residents used to suffer from the stench of about 20 to 30 stray cats’ feces, which used to hang in the air on the streets.

Due to such related problems, the relationship between residents who love cats and those who dislike them is strained.

However, after residents decided to set up spots for feeding and litter boxes for the stray cats and started to clean up after the cats, a new community was born where residents interact with each other through the felines.

In Nagasaki, visitors can also spot many cats with a clipped ear, which is an indication of having been spayed or neutered. Because the shape of the ear resembles a piece of a cherry blossom, the felines are called “sakura cat” (cherry blossom cat).

“Even those who dislike stray cats can have a gentle heart toward the felines when they identify the sakura cat as one having been spayed or neutered by the mark on their ears,” Jintoku explained.

The kink-tailed cat, which is a byword for Nagasaki, have varied tails including round tails like panda, and thick and short tails, as well as tails with one or more kinks.

According to a study by Ken Nozawa, a professor emeritus at Kyoto University, kink-tailed cats account for 40 percent of all cats in Japan, while about 80 percent of felines in Nagasaki Prefecture are kink-tailed.

The ratio of kink-tailed cats that account for the total number of cats in particular areas increases in countries farther south in Asia.

In Indonesia, there is a district where 90 percent of all cats in the area are kink-tailed, according to Nozawa.

The Nagasaki kink-tailed cat association, which comprises managers and writers in the prefecture, believes the kink-tailed feline has its roots in trade in Nagasaki during the period in which Japan adopted a policy of national seclusion, forbidding Japanese citizens from traveling overseas and foreign nationals from entering Japan.

The association drew such an inference based on historical context, as the kink-tailed cat can be seen in Japanese paintings from the Edo Period (1603-1867).

In addition, ships of the Dutch East India Company, which had branches in Indonesia and were involved in Japanese trade with a few foreign countries in the 17th and 18th centuries, appeared to have carried cats aboard ships to eradicate rats.

“We want the cats (having tail with one or more kinks) to be called 'Nagasaki cat,' not kink-tailed cat, as the land of the roots (of the kink-tailed cat in Japan),” said Shigeo Takashima, 66, the head of the association and a cat coordinator.

The association also aims to promote kink-tailed cats as a regional resource by offering association-certified sticky labels to be placed on kink-tailed cat-related items.

While cats are popular here, on the flipside, they are a major headache for Nagasaki Prefecture because so many have to be euthanized.

Nagasaki Prefecture has constantly ranked as one of the top prefectures with the largest number of cats euthanized in recent years. In fiscal 2016, 2,740 cats were euthanized in Nagasaki, the most of any prefecture.

From this fiscal year, the prefecture has implemented measures such as substantially increasing the number of cases to subsidize the entire costs for stray cats to be spayed or neutered.

Hiroshi Yamashita, 77, who runs the Kanzaki Shokudo restaurant, which is one of the stops on the nekosaruku walk, and his wife, Hiroko, 70, are ardent cat lovers.

The couple doesn't have the heart to ignore abandoned cats, so they solicit donations from feline-loving customers to spay or neuter stray cats and look for homes for them.

Countless felines have been protected and saved by the couple so far.

“Not only humans but also cats should be happy,” Hiroshi said.