Late one afternoon, on a bustling street in Tokyo, an anthropologist ducks into a small café. She orders a cup of tea and finds a seat on an overstuffed couch.
Before long, a large cat saunters toward her from a back room, his tail flicking with contentment. The café regulars know this feline's schedule well. "His shift just started," one says with a smile.
The anthropologist, Amanda Robinson, is pursuing a PhD at Pitt. She has passed many afternoons in Japanese cat cafés like this one—but not because she has any special affinity for the animals. Rather, the graduate student has been conducting anthropological fieldwork for her dissertation on the cat café as a business model, and the role it serves in Japanese society. What she’s discovering sheds light on the dynamics of human culture in Japan and across the world.
Growing up in the Bronx, Robinson observed the larger world through family travel and a love of reading. She was especially fascinated by international folk- and fairytales because of their cultural insights. By age 13, she resolved to become an anthropologist. In high school, Robinson fell in love with Japanese culture through anime and manga, stylized forms of animation and comics. That new curiosity drove her undergraduate ambitions at Cornell University, where she majored in Asian studies and anthropology. Along the way, she became intrigued by how people in various cultures socialize, especially with the rise of Internet social networking. She arrived at Pitt for graduate school, eager to explore online communities.
Then, a casual conversation about the emerging trend of cat cafés changed everything. “I remember thinking, this is something I have not seen before,” Robinson recalls. She wanted to know more about these businesses, where people pay money to spend time around cats in a social setting. These cafés seemed to be a different type of social network, she thought.
Between 2012 and 2014, she spent 18 months in Tokyo, interviewing business owners, employees, and customers from a smattering of Tokyo’s more than 30 cat cafés. Robinson discovered that these places aren’t just about the cuddly creatures—they are about finding a way, in complex modern cultures, to connect with the world and find comfort.
In the 1990s, Japan experienced deep economic turmoil, forcing many young people into temp jobs and contract labor. Their circumstances isolated them from workplace communities, says Robinson, leading many to look elsewhere to fill the social gap. That’s when iyashi (which translates to emotional healing) businesses began popping up across Japan. Cat cafés found business success in people’s need for emotional comfort, helping thousands to socialize and relieve stress. Nowadays, Japan’s economy has stabilized, but cat cafés remain very much a part of Japanese life.
Back in the States, where cat cafés are beginning to find a foothold, Robinson is deep into writing her dissertation. She’s excited to study these businesses at a time when they appear to be globalizing. Luckily, she knows at least one proven method of relaxation, should she need to de-stress.