Big Issue Vendor

Homeless people in Japan can stay with their pets, thanks to Street Cat Bob

Bob House, inspired by the much-missed moggy, allows people who've lost their home to keep their pets with them, rather than having to send them to animal shelters.
Street Cat Bob in Covent Garden. Photo: Jenny Goodall/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

One year on from his passing, Street Cat Bob is still having a positive impact on many lives.

The much-missed moggy helped Big Issue vendor and busker James Bowen beat addiction and became the subject of a series of bestselling books and blockbuster films, winning an army of devoted fans around the world.

His was a story of one man and his cat, but millions could relate. It shone a spotlight on big issues, including homelessness, and changed the perception of people experiencing that kind of trauma.

In Japan, a country famous for its love of cats, Bob was massive. James and Bob took a trip there to promote their film A Street Cat Named Bob and were besieged by followers. Every time Bob was on the cover of The Big Issue, we would have a flood of orders from the soon-to-be-Olympic hosts.

But Bob wasn’t popular there just because he was incredibly cute. Indeed, he has inspired a remarkable legacy in the country. Shinobu Ishikawa reports from Tokyo.

Naomi* had no choice but to leave her two pet cats, Ma-chan and Nii, in a cage at an animal shelter in Tokyo when she lost her home in May last year.

The Japanese government had issued a coronavirus state of emergency the previous month, restricting non-essential outings and asking many shops to close. Workers in the hospitality industry were among those who took the biggest hit in the move, and Naomi was one of them.

“I had only 1,000 yen (£6.50) when I asked a charity for help with nowhere to go,” Naomi said.

At the time, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had offered hotel rooms for people losing their homes under the state of emergency. No pets were allowed, but staying there seemed the only option for Naomi. 

“I was able to visit the animal shelter to meet my cats only once a week,” she said. “I want them out of the cage, but  it couldn’t be helped.”

What brought them together again was a shelter called Bob House.

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Some of the pets, including Naomi’s cat Ma-chan (Top Left), that have been housed with their owner thanks to Street Cat Bob. Photos: Supplied

Tsuyoshi Inaba was inspired by Bob’s story. He works for a non-profit group that supports people in need and is also involved with The Big Issue Japan Foundation.

“I declared on Twitter that I would open Bob House, just a couple of days after I heard the news of Bob’s death,” Inaba said.

“I have spent more than 20 years supporting people in need, but what I have done is nowhere near Bob’s contributions.”

People who had never struggled to make ends meet have lost homes amid the pandemic, Inaba explained. They include those who could once afford to keep animals. However, he added that no pet-friendly public shelters are available in Tokyo.

Public officials in the city deal with people who are homeless based on what he calls the “Facility-First” practice. When those people ask for public assistance, they usually end up being referred to shared accommodation.

Under the rules of those facilities, living with furry mates is almost out of the question.

“Some people are told to ‘dispose of’ their pets or to ask someone to take care of them,” Inaba added.

Also, finding an affordable, pet-friendly flat in Tokyo is not easy, especially for people in financial hardship.

According to SUUMO, a major Japanese housing information website, about 1.06 million properties are currently available for rent in Tokyo and the surrounding area.

About 20 per cent of them allow pets, but in a search for those listed at 55,000 yen (£355) or less per month, the figure goes down to just one per cent.

That is over the maximum amount of housing benefit available from the government. Higher deposits are also required for pet-friendly properties.

This is why an initiative like Bob House is so important. Bob House started with two independent rooms and now offers four rooms.

Since the opening last July, five people aged between 20 and 49 have used the shelter.

Two of them, including Naomi, have already moved to a pet-friendly flat, using a private support programme that helps with the deposit and other initial housing costs.

Naomi is currently looking for a more stable job while working part-time. Without Bob House, she says, she would probably have gone back to her hometown Fukuoka.

“I had no hope for my future and I’d thought the only way left for me was to die, but I’m now positive about hanging in there with my cats in Tokyo,” she said. “I really appreciate Bob House.”

Future residents in Bob House will learn the story of James and Bob. Street Cat Bob will be remembered by people in similar situations with similar stories, and he will provide hope to them for years to come.