A Digital Cat Is Melting Hearts (and Napping a Lot) in Japan


Ryoko Kikuchi was strolling home from a Tokyo movie theater when she stalked a cat the size of a yacht high above the sidewalk, shyly licking its paws.

“The way it meowed was too cute to take,” she said.

Many people in Tokyo feel the same way, regardless of the fact that the cat is just a bunch of pixels on a billboard. The 4K display won’t officially “open” until Monday, but it has already attracted socially distant crowds since it was installed last month – and has inspired many social media posts.

The digital calico acts a bit like a real cat in the sense that it does what it wants. Visitors are only spoiled with a few short appearances per hour, with advertising and music videos in between.

The cat yawns here and there, and at 1 a.m. it falls asleep for about six hours, resting its head on white paws clinging to the side of what appears to be an open seat near Shinjuku subway station. (The three-dimensional look is an illusion created by a curved 26 x 62 foot LED screen.)

It also speaks and greets pedestrians with “nyannichiwa”. This is a mixture of “konnichiwa” or hello and “nyan”, Japanese for “meow”.

Unlike many of the flashing billboards and signs around the area, the cat doesn’t advertise a specific product or brand.

Takayuki Ohkawa, a spokesman for Japanese conglomerate Unika, one of the two companies running the cat show, said the cat doesn’t have an official name. (Fans have named it “Shinjuku East Exit Cat” after the train station.)

“There are many reasons we decided to exhibit the cat, but one of the main reasons is that the world got very dark with Corona,” added Mr. Ohkawa, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “With the cat show, we wanted to revive Shinjuku and make it brighter.”

Tokyo officials reported 920 new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, the city’s highest number since mid-May. On Thursday, the Japanese government imposed Tokyo on the fourth state of emergency since the pandemic began, weeks before the city is set to host the Summer Olympics.

When a fan of the cat, Kenjiro Shimoda, recently stopped at Shinjuku Station, he saw other people hanging around waiting to pick up several cat cameos. He said he could only stay long enough to see one, but it was worth it.

“The effect was stronger than I thought,” said Mr. Shimoda, who works in marketing.

It’s not the first three-dimensional billboard to delight pedestrians and social media users in East Asia. Last year in Seoul saw a crashing wave. Another in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu showed a “Star Trek” -like spaceship that appeared to rise from a building.

A video feed of the cat billboard will be broadcast live to those unable to visit the Shinjuku area. At noon on Thursday, nearly 200 YouTube users watched the cat wag its tail and stare at some above-ground subway cars.

Still, the human masters have conceded to the cat that the three-dimensional illusion of a live feed is not nearly as pronounced as that of a person.

Some people – even cat people – may also find that the Shinjuku East End cat repertoire feels a little repetitive. Mr Ohkawa said new graphics may be introduced on Monday but declined to elaborate on it.

“You just have to wait and see,” he said.