So you’re an expat living in Japan, huh? For whatever your personal reasons are, you’ve decided that you want a pet. Could be a dog, cat, snake, hedgehog, chinchilla, or any other assortment of animal that’s allowed in a residential building. If you’re thinking more along the lines of horse, sheep, gators, or any other large or exotic pets, you might not find this article as helpful. For those struggling to get a pet, I’m hoping that my own personal experiences might help you decide how you go about getting your new family member while living abroad.
Why Do You Need A Pet?
I got asked this question A LOT before I brought home my cat. People couldn’t understand why a foreigner would want a pet, much less why someone with an ‘unpredictable future’ would be okay with such an arrangement.
“You’re a foreigner and you don’t know how long you’ll be here, so why do you need a pet?”
I have to admit, it’s sound reasoning for the majority of expats living in Japan. Not everyone who comes to Japan is looking to live here for more than a few years. Thankfully, I am. I’ve got quite a nice life setup here, and frankly I don’t have any intentions of moving back to my home country. Having said that, my ultimate dream of adulthood is having a cat and a dog in my home.
Other people have asked me, “You’ve said you’re a dog person, so why would you get a cat?” There’s a few reasons for that, of course. I’m a dog person, but that doesn’t mean I consider cats to be evil little creatures. In reality, I thought having a cat first while I was in an apartment would be a good transitional period before getting a house and a dog. A cat can be the head of household while I’m away and keep everything in check.
The running joke for a long time was that I would get a cat, then a dog, then a mini-Godzilla (since I’m living in Japan and all). I had a whole system in place for what I wanted to do and what steps I wanted to take. One of those steps included getting a cat, and so I got a cat. Except that I knew one very simple and very important fact about getting a cat: I would rescue, not purchase.
Why Not Just Buy A Cat Or Dog?
Now, as many expats can tell you, rescuing an animal from an organization when you’re not a citizen is hard. The organization’s number one priority is to find a home for the animal, not a temporary residence. If you’re going up to an organization and saying, “Here’s my visa (only good for one to five years, tops), I’d like to adopt an animal. Will I abandon the animal when I leave Japan? Oh no, I’ll keep it forever, don’t you worry. Even if I leave the country I’m sure to take it with me!” Which almost no organization buys.
When I finally had a bigger apartment that included ample space for a pet, I started my search. I asked around online if anyone knew an organization I could rescue a cat from. I sent in application after application, and they all responded the same way: “For reasons we will not disclose, we cannot release a pet to you.” That reason that they couldn’t disclose was that I wasn’t guaranteed to live in the country forever, and as such there was a high chance that I would ditch the animal upon leaving.
So with that roadblock in mind, why even go through the trouble of rescuing? I had been to dozens of pet stores during my time buying toys, supplies, and food for my soon-to-be cat, and in every pet store they have an area with dogs and cats and small animals for sale. Since it’s a purchase, these stores are a lot more lenient about giving out animals to anyone who can pay for it. For just 300,000 yen, or $3000, I could have any breed of cat I wanted without all the fuss that comes with being a foreigner.
Yet, I knew that breed and ease of purchase weren’t what I really wanted. I wanted to save an animal that didn’t have a home and wasn’t being looked after. Maybe it had a hard life, or maybe it was ‘damaged goods’ as people call them. That didn’t matter. I don’t believe on putting a price tag on life, and helping an animal that wasn’t given the same opportunities at birth as others meant more to me than taking the easy route. I wanted to save a life, not purchase one.
Is It Really Worth The Trouble?
As I write this, I’m throwing one of my cat’s favorite toys that I made out of scraps of fabric across the room, waiting a few seconds, and picking up the toy again to throw once more after she’s returned it to me. That’s right – my cat plays fetch. She also loves trying to speak to me and alert me to things like bugs in the room, strangers, or interesting smells. When I sleep, she cuddles right up next to my stomach under the covers during winter and lays by my feet during summer.
She’s saved my life (no, seriously) twice now, and I’m not sure what would happen if she wasn’t here. The apartment that I live in now has a large population of ムカデ, or mukade, nearby. These large centipedes are terrifying to see, and their bites are even worse to experience. They get into the house by any means necessary, and although they normally aren’t fatal, if they bite you near the chest or on the head you can die rather quickly if not treated. I’ve woken up twice to see her batting something away from my head, only later realizing she’s taken the bug’s attention away from me and is fighting the good fight while I sleep.
I didn’t intend to move into an apartment that had a serious deadly bug problem, but I’m thankful that I was able to go through with my dream of getting a cat while living where I am now. Not only does she keep the apartment free of creepy crawlies, but she also gives me a sense of safety, security, and family.
How Do You Feel Now?
After reading about my life-saving, fetch playing, amazing cat, it’s not hard to guess that she was worth the trouble to adopt. I had to go through quite a few rescue organizations, and when I finally found one that was foreigner friendly I made the three hour drive without a second guess, picked out my adorable kitten from amongst the others, drove three hours to get home with a silent cat in a carrier in the back seat, and from then on we’ve enjoyed living together.
Having a pet is a huge responsibility. I can’t travel without arranging someone to come watch her or find a place where she can stay. I can’t forget to feed or provide water to her. I can’t forget to groom and pet her, and I certainly can’t forget to spend time with her and make sure she’s happy. It’s a lot of work, but I feel that the joy and happiness that she gives me more than outweighs the costs.
I couldn’t be happier with my decision to get a cat while living in Japan. She’s the perfect companion, the best of friends, and the sweetest of creatures. I don’t regret for a single second that I waded through applications, made the long trip, and spent more cash than I thought I would (you still have to pay for the animal’s medical expenses when adopting through some organizations in Japan, so she got to stick me with her bill!). If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Plans For Another?
Strangely enough, the only other thing I’d want is a dog at this point. I tell people all the time that my cat has spoiled me, and that if I ever got another one I’d just compare her to Plumi at every turn. “Plumi never used to do that.” “Plumi liked it when I did that.” “Plumi had more respect!” I don’t want to give another creature less of an experience of life because I’m holding them to unrealistic standards. I feel like I’ve already had the world’s most perfect cat, and unless I was rescuing a poor animal in dire straights, I likely won’t go looking for another.
A dog, on the other hand, might come sooner than I expect, and I’m happy for what a new family member will bring to my life.
Advice To Other Foreigners
Don’t give up. If you’re serious about staying in Japan or taking your animals with you when you go back home, I say go for it! So long as you’re ready for the responsibility of caring for another life and putting the animal’s needs above your own (at times!), then it’s worth the effort.