While the popular cat cafes are usually associated with Japan, you may be interested to know that the first ever cat cafe was actually opened in Taipei (in 1998). However, Japan is where the trend has really taken off and there are dozens of cat cafes across the country, with more than 50 in Tokyo alone. While the rest of the world is catching up (with stores opening up in the United States, Canada, France, Italy, and the UK where there is even a cat pub), Japan is still the most famous place to play with cute balls of fur while having a cappuccino. But did you know that you can actually volunteer at these cat cafes? Many are run as charities and the cats are up for adoption – to provide the best lifestyle for the cats, many cat cafes encourage volunteers to help out with daily tasks.
The question of what you will be doing as a volunteer at a cat cafe depends on the location of the cafe and the size of it. For example, the cat cafe that I volunteer at is quite small and doesn’t require a huge amount of work to be done. The cafe opens to the public at 12:00 pm, and so volunteers are asked to arrive at 11:30 am to help with the cleaning before customers arrive.
While the cat cafe is a business (and therefore needs to be of good quality to attract customers), it is also home to the cats and kittens and they sure do treat it as such! A volunteer may be asked to vacuum, mop, or wipe the floor, wipe down tables, windows and surfaces, clean litter trays, and do other small cleaning tasks to prepare the area for customers.
As the cats will have been on the premises unsupervised since the previous day, there may be quite a mess to clean up – food scattered about, smudges on the floor from sneezes and runny noses (especially if, as is often the case, the cafe is caring for cats who are unwell), spilt water, and other mess can all contribute to lots of little things to clean up before the customers arrive. There may be other duties required – for more information, you should contact the specific cafe that you want to volunteer at and see what they require.
In a small cafe like the one I volunteer at, it doesn’t usually take more than 30 minutes to clean everything up before customers arrive, particularly if there is more than one volunteer on hand. After those cleaning tasks have been done, other duties for the volunteer include weighing the cats (for the records to check their health), wiping their faces, cutting their nails, administering medicine, brushing the cats, and seeing to other health and hygiene issues.
After that, the cat cafe is usually happy for you to sit and play with the cats for free as a reward for volunteering. (If you are unfamiliar with cat cafes, a customer usually has to pay a fee on top of their drink/food order which is like a table charge.) For people who like playing with cats but not the idea of paying for it, doing a small amount of volunteering in exchange for the free experience is well worth it.
Some people may be confused about why volunteers are needed at a cat cafe. After all, it is a money making business and the staff that works there certainly don’t do it for free, so why should volunteers offer their time to clean up after the cats? Well, it’s true that the cafes have a stable income from the customers who pay to visit and who buy food/drinks, but they also have a lot of costs to cover. Stray cats are brought to the cat cafes often in need of medical attention – the cafes pay for trips to the vet, surgeries such as neutering, medicine, and other items as well as the usual costs of food, bedding, etc. If a volunteer can save the staff members time and effort by completing the basic cleaning tasks, the staff can get on with other chores to improve the lives of the cats.
Volunteering at a cat cafe is a great way to make friends with humans and felines alike! Foreigners are often drawn to cat cafes because they are not so popular in their home countries and are something they want to experience, so you will usually find that many of the volunteers at a cat cafe are non-Japanese. If you want to make friends with other gaijins, a cat cafe is a good place to start. Not only that but with many apartments stipulating a “no pets” rule, foreigners who are used to having a furry companion at home will relish the chance to spend time with these stray cats.
Apart from meeting cats and other gaijins, cat cafes are also a great place for foreigners to make friends with Japanese people. Most of the staff are likely to be Japanese, but it isn’t always the case that they will speak English. However, if you’re hoping to brush up on your Japanese language skills, then what more could you want?
Just after the Kumamoto Earthquake, I visited a cat cafe different to the one I usually volunteer at. It was a bigger premises with many more cats and following the earthquake (when dozens of strays were brought in), they put out a call for volunteers to come and help build cages. With so many cats in the cafe, it was safer to have the cats in large cages, and also easier for them to be identified and reunited with their owners.
When I turned up to help build the cages, there was no one there who spoke English – all the staff and other volunteers were Japanese and couldn’t speak to me. But there is no time like after an earthquake for pulling together and getting on with it, and despite not being able to communicate in a common language, I managed to assist the other volunteers and together we built the cages without a problem.
I love volunteering, but it is often so difficult to find volunteering placements when living in a foreign country. You can imagine (loving cats as much as I love volunteering) how pleased I was to discover that I could volunteer at a cat cafe. It’s a fun way to give back to the community without taking up too much of my time. The cafe I go to is really relaxed and I just drop them a line when I’m able to come – sometimes with months in between and sometimes every week. Being able to volunteer in the place where you live is a key part of becoming integrated within the society and feeling like you belong. If you’re struggling to settle into life in Japan, a spot of volunteering could be just what you need!