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The Cats of Kawasaki: Two Views on Caring for Some of the Most Vulnerable Animals in Japan

Animal rights activists and the industrial world disagree about what’s best for the feral felines. Should they be removed to protective new homes or allowed to live in the wild?

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Photo of cat said to be taken on Ogishima property JFE Steel, November 2021 (courtesy of Yuki Animals)

Industry has driven Japan’s rise to a global economic superpower.

During the early days of industrialization, the Japanese government set the country on a steady course for progress and success. Silk mills, light industry, railroads, and eventually heavy industry sufficient to support Japan through fifteen years of war. And then to rebuild after that war.

During the war, of course, the human costs of industry had mainly been visible in wartime destruction. Before the war, too, the price that human beings were paying for industrialization was mounting.

For example, the Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi Prefecture was the source of major pollution scandals and the focus of battles among locals, industrialists, and the government over how to protect people as Japan industrialized. After the war, the costs of industry to humans mounted. Mercury poisoning afflicted people living around Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture, in western Kyushu. In Fukushima, the fight continues over the disposal of treated tritium water used to cool the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, which was badly damaged in the Tohoku triple disaster of 2011. 

Like other industrialized nations, many in Japan have accepted that the environment should be included in business accounting ledgers—that people, in other words, should be protected. Today, Japan boasts an excellent work safety record after decades of continuous improvement. In 2016 Japan recorded 208 non-fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers—compared with Costa Rica, the worst in this category, with 9,421 injuries, and the Netherlands, the second worst, with 5,200. Japan has also been leading the way in environmental protection and sustainability

A lot of ground has been covered, in other words, since the early days and heydays of industrialization.

Cat with burn wounds on paws said to have been rescued from Ogishima, JFE Steel property, January 2022 (courtesy of Yuki Animals)

Blast Furnaces and Felines

Just as the full human costs of industry are becoming apparent, however, a new blind spot appears. Animals. What should be done about the non-human creatures who pay a price for industrial prowess and economic strength?

This difficult question is emerging in Kawasaki, an industrial city in Kanagawa Prefecture just outside of Tokyo. There, a major steel manufacturing concern, JFE Steel Corporation, operates blast furnaces and other kinds of industrial plant on Ogishima, a man made island in Tokyo Bay. 

The workers who operate the machinery and man the offices on Ogishima are not the only occupants of the island, however. In November of 2021, the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that “at least one hundred” cats were running stray on Ogishima. According to the Tokyo Shimbun, animal rights activists were pleading with JFE Steel Corporation executives to let animal shelters take in the felines, nurse them back to health after the difficult conditions on the heavily industrialized site, and find them adoptive homes.

Ogishima is accessible only by undersea tunnel and outside visitors are strictly denied entry to the premises, so the animal rescue groups could only look on from afar and approach JFE representatives about the animals’ plight.

The company, however, Tokyo Shimbun reported, was proceeding with separate plans, which the animal rights activists criticized as being insufficient to guarantee the animals’ welfare. So far, JFE Steel has not chosen to work with the activists publicly critical of its response to the feline problem on Ogishima. Instead, it is working with response groups recommended by the City of Kawasaki.

Map of Ogishima, Kawasaki (courtesy of Wikimedia maps)

View from the Corporation

I had heard of the Ogishima situation from a family friend who sometimes does volunteer work at a shelter for abandoned dogs in Ibaraki Prefecture. My friend shared some blog postings from one of the animal rescue organizations, Yuki Animal Support, which has been a vocal critic of JFE Steel’s response to the cat issue on Ogishima. In the blogs and calls to action the group has sent out, I learned that many of the cats which were allegedly being rescued from Ogishima (for example, by workers or delivery drivers who surreptitiously spirited the animals off the island) were arriving at the Yuki Animal Support office in very bad condition.

Some cats had burned and scalded paws and flanks. Other cats had injuries consistent with fights with other felines. There were cats with missing eyes, missing tails, torn ears, even missing limbs. Some were badly scraped and cut. Among the cats, Yuki Animal Support reported, some appear to have been crushed and killed instantly.

On December 21, 2021, this author called JFE Steel to find out what was really going on, speaking for more than half an hour with Yusuke Endo, a JFE spokesperson.

“About three years ago,” Endo told me, “the problem of [cat] urine and feces (funnyo) started to become noticeable. We began consulting [about the cats on Ogishima] with the City of Kawasaki in September [of 2021].

“Under the guidance of veterinarians working at veterinary hospitals affiliated with Kawasaki Juishikai [Kawasaki Veterinary Medical Association], and with the supervision of City of Kawasaki authorities, spaying and neutering are being carried out, and food is being distributed to the cats twice a day.”

In a later email, Endo shared with me a response JFE Steel provided to someone who had written inquiring about the feline problem on Ogishima. The response was lengthy, in which JFE Steel attested to there being thirty-two places around Ogishima where food and water were being provided to cats on a twice-daily basis.

Endo also disputed the assertions of Yuki Animal Support, saying that there was no proof that the burned, injured, maimed, crushed, and dead cats appearing in photographs on the Yuki Animal Support blog had anything to do with JFE Steel or the Ogishima facility.

I asked about the report in the Tokyo Shimbun in November, which included a quote from an unnamed source identified only as a “male in his fifties who is an employee of a company which works with JFE and who has access to Ogishima,” that there were “maybe a thousand cats or so” on the island.

“There is no evidence to support that claim,” Endo replied. “Ogishima’s grounds cover some 650 hectares. JFE has surveyed the entire area and found approximately one hundred and forty cats, which we have arranged to be spayed or neutered. We are doing all we can.”

Neighborhood Cats vs. Adoptive Homes

Approximately nine-month-old cat said to have been rescued from JFE Steel property on Ogishima February 1 2022 (courtesy of Yuki Animals)

Part of the problem appears to be a dispute over definitions. JFE spokesman Endo tells me that the cats on Ogishima are being treated as “chiiki neko” in accordance with City of Kawasaki guidelines.

A chiiki neko is a local cat or neighborhood cat. These animals are frequently encountered in parks, Endo says. I have also seen them in parks and other public areas. Under the chiiki neko model — which is not particular to Kawasaki but is used nationwide — local government authorities spay or neuter a stray cat but then allow it to remain in the neighborhood as a kind of outdoors resident.

This, in part, is what the animal rights activists wish to avoid. Animal rescue groups are not satisfied with leaving the cats in the chiiki neko state, and want to find homes for each animal so that they can be out of the elements and properly cared for and fed.

On December 29, 2021, I spoke for approximately an hour by phone with Akiko Yui, the head of Inu Neko Kyusai no Wa (Circle of Rescue for Dogs and Cats).

“There’s a way to solve this problem,” Yui tells me, “but JFE Steel just won’t let us do it. We have spoken with a man at JFE Steel named Mr. Goto. And we have offered to help in any way we can, but Mr. Goto has turned us down every time. I don’t understand why JFE Steel won’t release the cats to us so that we can find them adoptive homes. It seems so much easier than taking care of the cats on Ogishima.”

I asked Endo about adoptive homes during our December 21 phone call. He said that the City of Kawasaki was making introductions to organizations which may help find adoptive homes (sato oya) for the cats, and that this process was moving along.

In a follow-up exchange, Endo said that adoptive homes had been found for some of the cats, although he did not provide information on how many.

During our December 21 phone call, Endo acknowledged that there were no particular winter shelters available for the animals, because, as a corporation and in accordance with the “chiiki neko” paradigm, the animals were not considered pets.

“There are, though, protective shelters for sick and injured cats,” Endo said in a follow-up exchange.

Yui points out that JFE Steel cut down a small grove of shrubbery and trees where the cats had been sheltering because, Yui alleges, someone had been giving the cats extra food there after JFE Steel had forbidden the practice.

Endo, however, says that the grove of shrubbery and trees was cut down only in one area, around equipment and facilities for use in case of a fire emergency and in the interest of fire safety. He says that a fairly wide green space remains available, and that, furthermore, the JFE side has already informed those who have inquired about the shrubbery that only the area around the fire equipment was cut. He also says that food and water were being provided at a nearby location, and not where the shrubbery was cut down.

In this way, the widely differing interpretations of what is going on in Ogishima persist.

“The condition of the animals is far from ideal,” Yui tells me during our late December phone call. “We are ready to take all the cats and find homes for them. To be honest, I do not feel that JFE Steel is responding sincerely to the problem.”

Endo disputes this. “We are moving forward taking appropriate measures,” he writes.

Lawyers, City Hall, and Economics

I asked Endo about the reporting in the Tokyo Shimbun article about the economic future of the Ogishima facility. Was it true, I asked him, that one of the blast furnaces was going to be shut down in 2023?

“Yes,” he said, but then quickly pointed out that other operations, such as steel processing, would continue, and that the rumors of massive layoffs were unfounded. 

I asked at another point during our December 21 interview about the economic changes in Japan and whether the reorganization of operations on Ogishima was part of this. But Endo again emphasized that Ogishima was going to continue in operation, with some several thousand employees remaining on the job in steel production.

Yui, however, says that JFE employees are afraid to speak up about what is happening on Ogishima to the cats. This is “power harassment (pawa hara),” she says. “Employees are afraid they may be let go, so they stay silent.”

Cat said to be rescued from Ogishima, JFE Steel property, November 2021 (courtesy of Yuki Animals)

City of Kawasaki’s View

To get a better perspective on the standoff between JFE Steel and the animal rescue groups, I contacted the public health department at Kawasaki City Hall. In a January 13, 2022 email message, a Kawasaki official confirmed that the city was dealing with the stray cats on the JFE Steel plant grounds. The official estimated the number to be “about one hundred”. 

Kawasaki, he said, provides the company with “advice and guidance” in accordance with the “City of Kawasaki Appropriate Care Guidelines for Cats”.

These guidelines, the official summarized, called for the “responsible provision of food and water and the carrying out of spaying and neutering,” as well as “caring for just one generation” of animals., among other points. They also stipulate “regular on-site inspections” and “checking on the condition of the cats, confirming whether food and water are provided, and confirming that spaying and neutering have been performed.”

I did not get Circle of Rescue for Dogs and Cats spokesperson Yui’s response to the City of Kawasaki’s message. But in our December 29, 2021 phone conversation Yui expressed skepticism about the city’s intentions.

Kawasaki is an industrial center, and city halls are naturally eager to protect their tax bases. There is no proof, however, that there may be some kind of improper influence at work, and the City of Kawasaki mentioned nothing about it. JFE Steel flatly denied any impropriety or entanglement between JFE Steel and the City of Kawasaki.

Yui said that those concerned about the cats on Ogishima have tried reaching out to Kawasaki officials, but that “nobody shows the slightest interest”. Instead, Yui alleges, “the City of Kawasaki says that JFE Steel is doing the right thing, protecting the company and not the animals.”

Endo disagrees with Yui’s charge of indifference, countering that JFE Steel has been in frequent consultation with the responsible authorities in Kawasaki, and were receiving guidance from those authorities regarding JFE Steel’s response to the feline situation on Ogishima.

Cats of Kawasaki face increasingly difficult circumstances in the harsh winter months. Even though the coldest days of winter have passed, Yui tells me that she and her allies are only going to keep trying harder to rescue the animals.

“We have a team of three lawyers who took an interest in this ー we will not give up,” Yui tells me.

People for the Animals

As with the Ashio Copper Mine and the environmental degradation in Minamata Bay, massive popular movements have sometimes been necessary to precipitate social change.

It seems something similar may be happening on behalf of the cats of Kawasaki. A January 24, 2022 Yahoo! News report relates that a crowdfunding site, under the direction of Yuki Animal Support director Yuki Hamada, was raising money to support rescue efforts for the felines. 

The response was overwhelming. The campaign ended on March 24, by which time 1,641 people had donated more than ¥23,817,000 JPY (about $194,500 USD), breaking past the 5 million JPY (about $41,000 USD) goal.

Endo points out in a follow-up conversation that the Yahoo! News item linked in the above paragraph contains no reporting based on contacts with JFE Steel.

Yui claims there have been protests and demonstrations in front of the entrance to the tunnel to Ogishima, as well as in front of JFE Steel headquarters, demanding the immediate release of all the cats on the island. Endo, on the other hand, wrote in a January 31, 2022 email that he is not aware of such protests as Yui mentions.

Cat-lovers of Japan are not going to give up the fight anytime soon, if Yui’s dedication to the cats of Kawasaki is any indication..

Endo countered that JFE Steel, too, was taking every measure to solve the feline problem on Ogishima by protecting the lives of the cats on the island.

“After the triple disaster in Tohoku in 2011,” Yui told me, “we worked for eight years to care for animals left behind in Fukushima. With permission from the authorities, volunteers went several times a month into barricaded areas to bring food to animals who had been left behind and to check on their welfare. “There are still people who are going today, into the no-go zone, just to care for two or three animals in need,” she says.

Just as people of Japan fought for their own protection amid industrialization and a rapidly changing economy in the last century and following the Fukushima disaster, it seems some are now fighting for the same protection for animals, too.

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Author: Jason Morgan