Japan’s Weird Animal Islands

By Debra Kelly on Friday, February 7, 2014
okunoshima
“Cats and monkey, monkeys and cats; all human life is there!” —Henry James

In A Nutshell

Off the main coast of Japan are two tiny islands that have becom5e home to more animals than people. Tashiro-jima is better known as Cat Island, and it’s home to about 100 people and hundreds upon hundreds of stray cats. Not too far away is Okunoshima (pictured above), which is better known as Rabbit Island. Once home to a manufacturing plant for mustard gas, the island is now populated by hundreds of tame rabbits.

The Whole Bushel

If there’s any nation that we might expect to have two complete islands that have accidentally been turned into massive petting zoos, it’s Japan. Tashiro-jima is perhaps the more well-known of the two. This small island was a popular haunt for fishermen in the 1800s, and since then it’s popularity as a home has dwindled—among humans, that is.

Now home to only about 100 human residents (with the majority of those being senior citizens), there are also hundreds and hundreds of stray and feral cats that roam the island. It started with the fishermen, who noticed the island’s then-small cat population was following them to and from work. (We’re sure it had nothing to do with their fishy catches and the promise of treats.) Soon, not only were the cats multiplying, but the fishermen were starting to use their behavior patterns to make predictions about the weather and how successful upcoming fishing expeditions were going to be.

The fishermen believed that feeding the cats would bring them luck, and island residents still think that today. The cats are well cared for, but most are feral. Many are friendly, though, and will approach visitors in hopes of some food and some attention. (Somewhat strangely, keeping any of the island’s cats as pets is considered highly inappropriate.)

And more than that, the island has become a virtual cat paradise. There’s cat shrines, cat monuments, and cat-shaped buildings with ears on the roof. And there are no dogs allowed.

The other island is popularly known as Rabbit Island, or Usagi Shima. It’s been the subject of some debate as to how the rabbits originally got to the island, but now there are hundreds just waiting for some attention from the tourists that flock to the island each year. The rabbits are so tame that they’ll fearlessly approach visitors, expecting a treat or a handful of the rabbit food you can buy at a number of different stores. Cats, of course, are not allowed on this island.

More properly named Okunoshima, the island has a dark past. It was originally used as a base of operations for the manufacture of mustard gas during World War II, and many of the abandoned factories can still be seen today. Sadly, it’s this part of the island’s history that supplies one explanation for the rabbits.

According to one story, rabbits were used to test the effects of the mustard gas and other poisons that were being manufactured at the plant. When the plants were shut down after the end of the war, the rabbits were released and did what rabbits are known for.

Another, less tragic story is that a group of eight original rabbits were released by schoolchildren on a field trip in 1971.

Either way, the rabbits are making the island a tourist destination in a country that has cat cafes and dog rentals. The island (chosen for the location of the chemical plant because of its remote location and distance from the mainland should anything go wrong) now has resort hotels, golf courses, parks, and a thriving tourist economy, all thanks to the rabbits.

And, of course, the National Poison Gas Museum.

Show Me The Proof

Huffington Post: ‘Rabbit Island’ Is Japan’s Bunny-Filled Draw For Tourists
‘Cat Island’ is a feline’s purrfect paradise
‘Rabbit Island’ attracts pet-loving tourists despite its dark past
Tashirojima – Cat Island