Tuesday 29 August 2023

Japan's Ubiquitous Animal Cafes: "Fureai" as a Cure for Loneliness and Isolation

After a (chilly) time in the UK and a (scorching) time in Sicily, BritishProf is finally back in Japan to prepare for the start of the new university term. Although Southern European temperatures reached into the forties, the dry heat was surprisingly bearable compared to the high humidity here in Japan (which is still stifling). Japan had the hottest July in 125 years (here) and though we're almost into September, there is still no respite from the fiercely hot days and tropical nights. While in the UK, I spotted a poster advertising an exhibition by 94-year-old contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, currently partnering with Louis Vuitton. Perhaps Japan's most successful living artist, Kusama lives in a mental health facility and creates art to keep her anxiety and fear at bay. A key theme of her work is the feeling of losing the boundary between the self and the other and the motif "self-obliteration" - look out for a future post on my visit to the Kusama museum in Tokyo.

A "fureai" experience with Harry

For now, let's go a little low brow and take a look at Japan's cafe culture. While cosplay influenced maid cafes (enjoyed by both men and women) and butler cafes (mainly for women) have captured the attention of the media, even more popular are the ubiquitous animal cafes where one can enjoy a drink and snack while petting a wide variety of cute animals. While cat and dog cafes were the trailblazers, today, in Tokyo at least, there is probably a cafe for almost any kind of small animal you can imagine - capybara, snakes, lizards, owls, hedgehogs, miniature pigs, lovebirds, penguins, sloths, and otters to name but a few. Now BritishProf is not a big fan of animals kept in captivity for the purpose of human entertainment - I have written before about Japan's lax animal welfare rules - but I was lucky enough to come across a newly opened dog cafe that trains therapy dogs for work in hospitals: a cafe called Florence in Adachi City, Tokyo.

Florence, which opened in May this year, is billed as a "first-rate healing space where you can interact with your favourite dog" (好きなワンちゃんと触れ合える極上の癒し空間). The cafe and the dogs are separated by acrylic barriers, so it is quite possible to enjoy a coffee and a snack while just watching the dogs. Most customers though will opt for the hands-on "fureai" experience: fureai (触れ合い) is a Japanese word made up of the characters for touch and join/fit/match and usually describes some sort of emotional and/or physical connection, contact, or interaction between people, animals, or even nature. A public square, for example may be called a fureai hiroba (ふれあい広場). Close in meaning to the unique Japanese term "skinship" (スキンシップ), one survey found that during the pandemic over 40% of Japanese suffered from a lack of "heart-to-heart contact" (kokoro no fureai=心のふれあい), affecting their mental well-being. Even now, with more and more people engaging in telework, using social media, and living in single-person households, opportunities for face-to-face contact and communication seem less than before, to the extent that Japanese - particularly Japanese men - have been described as the loneliest, most isolated in the world (PDF here). In this context, a visit to this kind of space where one can interact with dogs of all sizes and also their handlers/trainers is truly miso soup for the soul. Why not share some of your own fureai tips in the COMMENTS?


Lesley Phillips said...

What a lovely idea. Animals, especially dogs, can give so much love and happiness. Just petting them can give you a feel good factor. If you own a dog you are never lonely and it is heart warming to know that they love you as much as you love them.

Maybe some of the cafe dogs could be ones that need a home. If someone then falls in love with them that is going to be so beneficial for both human and dog.

Chris Burgess said...

I hear dog cafes have become a growing trend in the UK in the past few years but are still few and far between. Certainly, it's a win-win situation for both dogs and humans if connections can be made and lives saved. Unfortunately, Japan still euthanises something like 60 cats and dogs (zatsushobun) each day despite a push to reduce this to zero.

Chris Burgess said...