‘Nekonomics’ does its bit to keep Japan’s economy purring
Paws for thought: Professor Kasuhiro Miyamoto of Kansai University estimates that merchandise about cats brings in about ¥3 billion a year. | ISTOCK
In our last column we talked about the economic effectiveness (keizai kōka) of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Keizai kōka is often used as an indication of how much money a given scheme or phenomenon adds to a particular economy. As we pointed out, the number only takes into consideration the positive effects of the phenomenon or scheme, and in that regard it’s interesting to look at one that has received a good deal of attention lately because of how clearly it illustrates the growth of a certain phenomenon: namely, the market surrounding cats, or, what professor Kasuhiro Miyamoto of Kansai University has dubbed “nekonomics,” or the “economics of cats.”
Miyamoto’s premise is that the increasing popularity of cats as pets and the resulting fascination with cats among the general population can be measured economically. He doesn’t go into why cats are popular but instead stresses how cat ownership benefits the economy in ways that other phenomena, including the Olympics, don’t.
The professor’s theory has been taken up by other scholars who, obviously, are fond of cats. On the pet blog site “Peto Koto” (“Pet Matters”), Izumi Takei, a consultant for Mitsubishi UFJ Research, writes that she is also a “nekonomist,” and emphasizes that as far as pets go, dogs are still a more potent contributor to the nation’s financial well-being than cats are.
According to the Pet Food Association of Japan (PFAJ), the number of dogs kept as pets by Japanese people between the ages of 20 and 70 in 2015 stood at 9.92 million, while the number of cats was slightly less, at 9.87 million. More to the point, dogs by their nature and physical circumstances require more investment in terms of time and money. You have to walk them regularly and bathe them, whereas cats don’t need either. Due to their appetites and relative bulk, dogs also need more food.
There are also legal matters that have financial repercussions. Local governments require that dogs be registered and regularly inoculated, all of which costs money. Most municipalities do not have the same rules for cats, so, obviously, dogs are more expensive to keep than cats. According to PFAJ research, the average pet dog in Japan in 2014 lived 14.25 years and over that period cost its owner ¥1.19 million, while the average pet cat lived 14.56 years and cost its owner about ¥700,000.
Takei makes the case that cat ownership is on the increase and may eventually outstrip dog ownership.
Her reasoning is mostly based on demographics. The number of seniors, especially seniors living alone, is on the increase, and since dogs require more effort, if an older person desires animal companionship, cats are a better fit.
But another contributor to economic effectiveness is the cultural cachet of cats, spurred on the one hand by famous felines in popular culture (Doraemon, Hello Kitty, the narrator of Natsume Soseki’s “I Am a Cat”) and on the other hand by the sheer ubiquity of cats on the internet. Nekonomics takes all of these factors into account.
Miyamoto estimates that the total economic effectiveness of cats was ¥2.3 trillion in 2015. Of this amount, ¥1.1 trillion was “direct spending,” meaning money for cat food, kitty litter, visits to the veterinarian, pet sitters and cat hotels, cat toys, even cat insurance. Another ¥668 billion was “related spending,” mostly by pet food companies who bought ingredients for their products.
About ¥4 billion was generated by tourism directly associated with cats, such as people traveling to any of the 24 Japanese islands that are famous for having sizable feral cat populations, or visits to Kishie Station in Wakayama Prefecture, which famously has a cat station master whose own economic effectiveness reached ¥1.1 billion several years ago. (That cat, Tama, has since passed on, but was recently replaced by a new “employee.”) Cat “products,” meaning not merchandise for cats but rather merchandise about cats, brings in about ¥3 billion a year.
Perhaps Miyamoto’s most interesting input is the ¥541 billion that is spent by people who work in industries related to cats. In other words, the money is not spent on cats or cat products, per se, but since those people earn their living from cat-related industries, their own spending is dependent on those industries, and thus must be included because it is caused by cats.
The one economic activity that is not incorporated into nekonomics is sales of cats themselves. Frustrated with the lack of available numbers associated with sales of pets at stores and through breeders, we contacted Miyamoto directly. He assured us that, indeed, the associated industries do not make such data publicly available, even to him, and so he did not include them in his own findings.
The reason should be obvious: Pet stores and breeders, especially in barely regulated Japan, have come under fire from animal welfare groups for over-producing animals that, in the end, have to be put down if they aren’t sold. The city of San Francisco recently addressed this problem by limiting pet stores to sales of rescued animals only. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has pledged to reduce the number of dogs and cats put down by public facilities to zero, which would seem to mean regulating pet stores more stringently.
Masahiko Ota, a reporter who often writes about pets for the Asahi Shimbun, wondered about this aspect of nekonomics as well, and did some extrapolation. Though pet stores don’t publicly release sales numbers, they are required to report them to local authorities, and the Asahi Shimbun found that there were 750,000 transactions involving pets in 2014. Most of these, however, involved dogs.
In addition, a research company called Yano Economics calculated that animal sales in 2014 were worth about ¥428 billion. It doesn’t reveal the breakdown between dogs and cats, but a survey conduced by the pet research company Pet Soken last year would seem to indicate that few cat owners acquire their pets through retailers or breeders. Four million cats were basically “picked up off the street,” 3 million were received from “friends or acquaintances,” 1 million were adopted from animal shelters and 2 million were bought at pet stores.
Roughly speaking that means about 20 percent of cats kept as pets were obtained from a commercial entity, though another survey conducted by the municipality of Tokyo in 2001 found that 5.7 percent of respondents who keep cats got them “from a pet store.”
In any event, Pet Soken estimates that about half of the pet dogs in Japan were acquired through profit-making endeavors, most likely because people who want dogs usually demand pure breeds, which are easier to obtain through pet stores and breeders. Despite the popularity in the Japanese media of the American short-hair and Scottish fold breeds, it seems people who like cats don’t really care about their pedigree.
Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.