Category: Japan

Cat On The Street: What Do You Think About Humans Translating Your Meows?

MeowTalk, an iOS/Android app that aims to translate your meows using a machine learning algorithm, is getting a new publicity push after a recent update. The app has proven particularly popular in Japan, a nation of cat lovers.

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What do you think about MeowTalk?

“You’re telling me there’s a good chance my human understood me calling her a dim-witted biped who’s stingy with snacks?” – Midnight, 7, office supervisor

“Finally, a device that can translate all my loving utterances at 5 a.m. when my bowl’s empty!” – Cleo, 5, cushion tester

“If an app is translating our meows, then why do our humans still stink at giving us massages?” – Andre, 2, faucet operator

“You know what this means, don’t you? If my humans overheard me discussing plans for the feline takeover of Earth, I’m going to have to smother them in their sleep.” – Dragorth the Destroyer, 4, generalissimo

“Sometimes I like to meow in gibberish just to mess with the humans. LOL! Wait, how can this app translate Japanese meows AND American meows?” – Zelda, 3, princess

“CHECK IT OUT, THERE’S A KITTEN WHO LOOKS JUST LIKE ME BEHIND THE GLASS! HEY, STOP IMITATING ME! STOP THAT! IT’S REALLY ANNOYING! HEY!” – Christian, 3 months, archaeologist kitten

Sunday Cats: A Cat Fluent In Sign Language?

A Reddit post with almost 30,000 upvotes claims a cat took it upon himself to learn sign language after realizing his human is deaf.

You don’t need me to tell you it’s nonsense, do you? It’s interesting how we’re willing to believe a cat can endeavor to learn sign language, but we — the supposedly more intelligent species — can’t be bothered to watch for emotions conveyed by the curl of a tail or a twitch of the whiskers.

Cats are incredibly smart little furballs, but just like the people who claim their cats are meaningfully communicating via talking boards with 100 buttons, this is just social media fodder for the credulous.

Unfortunately the credulous are numerous, although a few Redditors had a good time at their expense. One user complimented the addition of a VHS-like filter over the video clip, giving it a vintage quality.

“Not a filter. It’s been around for a while,” another Redditor responded. “The cat now knows ASL, English, French, Spanish, and is working on its doctoral thesis.”

A cat in a backpack? No, a cat backpack

In a reminder that the Japanese have an endless appetite for all things cat-related, the newest hot item among the Land of the Rising Sun’s neko-infatuated is a bespoke cat backpack hand-sewn by a housewife in Fukui prefecture.

The bags don’t come cheap. It takes Miho Katsumi between one and three months to make each one, and they’ll set you back about $1,000 each via Katsumi’s site. Check out her Instagram for more images.

How quickly do you think Bud would murder me if I came home with one of these in his image one day? ๐Ÿ™‚

Sunday Cats: FitBit For Felines, Plus CFA’s Top Breeds For 2021

A Japanese company that sells FitBit-like devices for cats released its first data-driven report this week and promises new revelations to come as more people buy the devices for their cats, leading to more data.

The company and its device are both called Catlog. To mark “Cat Day” in Japan, which falls on Feb. 22, researchers at the Shibuya, Tokyo-based firm issued a report saying data shows cats sleep progressively longer as they age, and cats in general sleep longer in winter.

Yeah. Not exactly a whopper.

Still, it’s one thing to know something anecdotally and another to prove it, and there are tantalizing possibilities as more kitties are equipped with Catlog. The collar-like device uses “biologging” technology to record and sort data on things like eating, drinking, sleeping, grooming and exercise. The data is relayed to caretakers via a mobile app and added to the information coming from every other Catlog, giving the research team behind the app hard data for cats across all ages and breeds.

The Catlog has received Japan’s Good Design Award, a sought-after mark of excellence among Japanese products.

Catlog
Catlog looks like a regular collar with an unobtrusive device attached.

Unfortunately Buddy won’t be contributing to that data even if Catlog pushes into the US market. Little dude won’t tolerate a collar at all and is not shy about loudly, repeatedly, incessantly communicating when he doesn’t like something. ๐Ÿ™

Most Popular Cat Breeds of 2021, According to CFA

The Cat Fanciers’ Association has released its annual list of the most popular cat breeds. While the CFA recognizes 45 breeds and registers “non-pedigreed” cats as well, the list is based only on CFA registered cats. That means it provides a good snapshot of which breeds are trendy, but it’s not a definitive most popular breeds list.

Cats without a particular breed still account for the vast majority of all pet felines, but among people who registered their cats with CFA, Ragdolls were the most popular in 2021, followed by gentle giant Maine Coones and exotic shorthairs. (Note that this list does not include the fearsome and elusive Buddinese Tiger.)

2021-breeds-with-CC
The world’s largest registry of pedigreed cats has again determined the world’s most popular cat breeds, based on registrations. This year’s Top 10 list reflects the increasing popularity of certain breeds. However, registrations of ALL cats have increased substantially, reflecting the growing popularity of pet cats since the beginning of the pandemic.

Can Cats Feel Jealousy?

Bud isn’t fond of my smartphone.

Like many other humans I spend too much time looking at the damn thing, and that’s not good even though I have the excuse that I use my phone as a reader and my presence on social media ranges from extremely limited to nonexistent.

When His Grace has decided I’ve looked at the screen long enough and it’s Buddy Time, he’ll pad up and slap the phone out of my hands, or if I’m laying down he’ll climb on top of me, nudge the phone out of the way and sit on my chest so he has my full attention.

“No glowing rectangle!” he’s saying. “It’s Buddy Time! Now scratch my chin and rub the top of my head as I purr!”

Naturally I comply, and before long Buddy is leaning in, pressing the top of his head against my forehead, which is his way of saying: “I love you, slow dumb human! You have many flaws and you don’t give me enough snacks, but you’re my Big Buddy!”

Of course, intuitively knowing Buddy is jealous of — or annoyed by — my phone is different than proving it in a well-designed, repeatable experiment.

Psychology Today’s Jessica Wu writes about just such an effort by a team of researchers out of Japan.

Before I offer my criticism of the study, let me first say I have respect for the team at Kyoto University. They’re one of a handful of research teams around the world that routinely produce studies into cat behavior and cognition, and it’s clear that they view it as an important and crucial area of research. That’s significant, because even though we’ve seen something of a renaissance in cat-related studies over the past half-decade or so, many scientists still think cats are nearly impossible to work with.

The team at Kyoto also understands the territorial nature of cats makes it difficult to study them in a lab environment, so they go the extra mile and enlist people who are willing to let them into their homes to study their little tigers.

That’s what the Kyoto team did for their 2020 study on jealousy, splitting their research between typical homes and cat cafes. (Fifty two cats in total participated.) All the cats observed in the study had been living in their homes or cafes for at least six months.

Researchers took a method that’s been used to study human babies and dogs, and adapted it for felines. They brought in a plush cat and a pillow with a corresponding color and texture.

Then they asked the participants to spend time petting the plush cat and the pillow in front of their furry overlords while team members carefully watched the kitties for their reaction. Each experiment was then repeated with a stranger petting the plush and the pillow to gauge whether cats behaved differently when observing someone they aren’t emotionally attached to.

The team found the cats “reacted more intensely” to the plush cats than the pillows, but there wasn’t any marked difference in how they reacted when they watched their humans versus strangers.

Crucially, the cats didn’t show signs that they were upset, like human babies have in such experiments, and they didn’t try to physically separate their humans from the plushies, as many dogs did in their version of the experiment.

jealous-cat
“How dare you hand out yums and not include me!” Credit: icanhazcheezburger

The results indicate cats didn’t express jealousy in the experiment, but the Kyoto team are pros, noting that it’s just one study with one approach.

“We consider the existence of some cognitive bases for jealousy to emerge in cats, and the potential effect of catsโ€™ living environment on the nature of their attachment to their owner,” they wrote. “More ecologically valid procedures are required for further study of these issues.”

It’s my non-expert, non-scientific opinion that researchers would get better results using actual cats instead of proxies. That introduces a new set of problems and an experiment involving rival cats won’t be easy, but science isn’t supposed to be easy, and if we really want to understand how cats think, we have to get as close as possible to mimicking real circumstances.

Plush Cat in Kyoto study
The plush cat used in the Kyoto study. Perhaps the cats involved in the research felt the humans were insulting their intelligence. Credit: Kyoto University

It would also help to expand the scope of the experiment. How much can researchers really glean from a fleeting interaction? Jealousy isn’t something that just bubbles up and disappears. It happens within an emotional context. It’s a secondary emotion that sprouts from elements of primary emotions like fear, anger and confusion.

Scientists are very careful about anthropomorphizing animals, for obvious reasons, but sometimes they’re guilty of over-correcting as well and denying the obvious, which is why the prevailing scientific opinion for almost half a century, until 1959, was that animals don’t have emotions or cognition.

In the meantime, Buddy will continue to make sure Buddy Time is equal to, or greater than, glowing rectangle time.

The Story Behind Japan’s Iconic ‘Beckoning Cat’

In a new article, National Geographic delves into the history of maneki neko — Japan’s famous “beckoning cat” — and how the image became ubiquitous in modern society.

Chances are you’ve seen maneki neko even if you don’t realize it. The iconic feline image has transcended its homeland and is common not only in China, Vietnam, Thailand and the rest of Asia, it’s also made its way to the US and Canada as well, earning a place in shops run by Japanese and westerners alike.

Maneki Neko at Setagaya Tokyo
Visitors leave their own maneki neko statues at the shrine, often with personal messages asking for different blessings and written in black marker on the back of the statues. Credit: Pain In The Bud

There’s a reason for that: The waving cat not only represents luck and good fortune, it’s a welcoming gesture meant to attract customers. Maneki neko find a place in homes too, with different coat colors and patterns representing different positive attributes: A white cat is supposed to bring happiness, while a black cat wards off evil spirits and a calico is believed to bring luck in all its forms.

Maneki Neko Setagaya Tokyo
Maneki Neko statues at Setagaya shrine. Credit: PITB

As a cat lover I kept an eye out for the iconic statues during my time in Japan and, although I missed Buddy, I couldn’t leave without seeing where it all began: The cat shrine at Setagaya, a quiet Tokyo suburb where, according to legend, a feudal lord followed a beckoning cat by the roadside and found refuge from the elements in a humble shrine, where the temple monk invited them inside and gave a memorable sermon.

The feudal lord was so grateful for the hospitality, and for finding shelter to wait out a violent thunderstorm, that he vowed to become the temple’s patron. The grounds contain several temples today, as well as separate shrine areas for maneki neko left by visitors and wooden icons with hopeful messages written on them.

All images in this post are from my trip to Setagaya’s cat shrine in the summer of 2019. To see more, check out the post I wrote at the time from Tokyo.