✥ Cats and Japan ✥

Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando) Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival, No. 101 from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Woodblock print
歌川広重「名所江戸百景 浅草田圃酉の町詣」安政四年(1857)
Takahashi Hiroaki (Shōtei) (1871-1945) , White cat and black cat playing with a ball ( 高橋弘明「毬(まり)と遊ぶ白猫、黒猫」)

Japan and cats, two of the things I love the most in this world, sit somewhere in my top 10 of interests along with literature, history, and the 50s and 60s American and Japanese aesthetics( If anyone even cares about my borderline obsessive interests). I don’t know why I’m so particularly fond of cats, but my best bet would probably lie in two huge things and events that shaped my early childhood at the beginning of the new millenium: my obsession with the Disney movie The Lion King and, above everything else, the cat that my parents gave to me not long after my grandmother’s passing. Grieving in my own way as a young child, in between two drawings of my grandmother as an angel in the clouds, I remember sitting down and contemplating my cat sleeping or grooming her fur and wondering if perhaps she was a reincarnation of her. Silly thing to believe, maybe, but when you’re six years old, you hold on to anything relatively comforting to make up for this unfamiliar and weird emptiness in your heart that comes with grief. It’s probably for this very reason that I’ve always perceived cats as an extremely precious and comforting presence in my life. As the loss of my grandmother left a cold and somber empty spot in my small family bubble, cats came into my life to gradually fill up that void with their soft warmth and their cute goofiness. I’ve grown up with the idea that a house with a cat becomes a home, a safe and cozy haven for days when storms wreak havoc to the outside world. 

What’s the difference between a house and a home? A cat. The latter has a cat in it. Or many more. Personally I think two cats is the perfect balance.   

My cat Milky
My favorite neighbour in Shitamachi, I see him almost every week

Just as much as cats can be soothing pets to keep around, they seem to be mystical and wonderful creatures as well, at least in my opinion, especially after considering how often they appear in creative works, in legends and superstitious beliefs all around the world. Aren’t cats well known for having a natural mysterious nature that no one quite fully understands? I’ve always felt intrigued when looking at a cat’s eyes. They seem to hold an otherworldly wisdom that you sometimes might get a glimpse of when you stare at their beguiling gaze. I know some would rather say that cats are complete dummies who think about absolutely nothing except maybe their next meal when they absent-mindedly stare at the walls, but I beg to differ. I admit though that I am indubitably holding cats in high esteem and that is probably all part of my childish fantasies to romanticize cats, but I swear that there is somehow something ethereal and magical about them.


Judging by my experiences in Japan, that something is a thing that apparently most of the people in Japan seem to feel too, just the same way as I do, and I’m glad that they have liked cats for years, because I’m always a little bit reticent when I meet someone who says that they don’t. Heinous crime. Let’s be honest, cat haters are probably humans lacking a beating heart and thus undeserving of my trust. It’s all based on scientific proof collected in my head over the years, of course. If you take the time to let a cat warm up to you, they’ll open the door to their fantastic universe and you’ll gain a lifelong friend, so why all the unnecessary hate? 

Small alley in Ameyoko, Ueno, June 2018

I’d like to see the stunning country that is Japan through the eyes of a cat; their quiet and wise stare seems to hold many secrets that us humans still ignore and I often feel this imaginative urge to know how they see it all. How come they live their lives seemingly so… unbothered? I sometimes find myself randomly daydreaming, imagining I was a stray cat wandering in an older neighborhood of Tokyo or living near a shrine in the countryside. Where would my feline journey take me, where would I be enjoying a sunbath in the early afternoons, in which neighborhood would I set up base and claim my small territory? One of the most prominent novels in the history of Japanese literature, “I am a cat” by Natsume Sōseki, is one of the books that helped me feed my imagination by opening the door to unlimited possibilities about cats and their overall mystical image that I like to associate them with. On top of that, after reading numerous other Japanese novels from the 20th and 21st centuries and after taking classes of traditional Japanese literature and art, I eventually came to the conclusion that my obsession for cats is a shared interest with the population of Japan and I sure am not complaining. 

Cutest Choo Choo cat dolls ever in Asakusa, 2018

I quickly found out when I first came here four years ago that, wherever you go in Japan, you are bound to see in some way or another something related to cats. Be it cute characters like Hello Kitty, cat cafes sprinkled all over the big cities and cat shaped goods, those adorable pets are literally omnipresent in the Japanese popular culture and have been for years, even before the so-called popular culture became a thing. Dating far back as when they were first introduced to the archipelago some one thousand years ago or even more (Some claim that those cute critters were introduced around the same time as Buddhism during the 6th century), it has always been an undeniable fact that cats have always played a huge part in the collective imaginary of Japan and its folklore, although not always in a positive way. The folklore related to cats, the catlore, have always seemingly been rich in Japan, especially during the Edo period, when they were often portrayed in paintings and ukiyo-e(浮世絵), famous woodblocks prints and paintings, and constantly part of legends and superstitions. Nowadays, cats in Japan might be more perceived as those ubiquitous cute little creatures, sometimes associated with the thrilling realm of magic, sometimes associated with the peaceful mundane, but it wasn’t always the same in the past. 

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, girl playing with a cat
歌川国芳「鏡面シリーズ 猫と遊ぶ娘」(1844-45)

Especially once you take a dip into the fascinating Japanese folklore, you soon realize that the imaginary of our friendly kitties was instead deeply rooted in superstitions and fear. We all know maybe that foxes and tanukis (Japanese wild racoon dogs) are famous little cunning and mischievous beasts in the realm of the Japanese lore for having lived for so long alongside the humans, but cats, with their mysterious, indescribable air and their sometimes strange behaviors, cats are a whole different type of fascinating supernatural animals. I’ll be honest with you, this is precisely why I’m all in with this feline craze in Japan. They are not only cute pets, they are also the holders of secrets, traditions and legends that are so, so captivating and, dare I say it, aesthetically pleasing, at least from my point of view. If it wasn’t for my empty bank account, I’d probably have dozens of maneki neko (招き猫) figures of all shapes and colors neatly spread around my apartment, but sadly the only one I currently own is a cheap plastic figure I got for 300 yen in a gachapon (ガチャポン), the selling machines of toy capsules that you see everywhere in Tokyo.   

Curry restaurant entrance full of Maneki Neko in Hakone, March 2019

I personally know of very few of the cats from the Japanese folklore. In total, I’ve studied extensively about three, maybe four or five if I consider those I’ve read about a long time ago, like the nekomusume (猫娘), the girls with cat shaped ears that you see everywhere in maid cafes and anime today. I’ve heard about a great book by Zack Davisson, “Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan”, which I’m sure is the dream book for a cat lady, a book nerd and a obsessed-with-Japan-girl like me, but I sadly haven’t got the chance to grab one copy of my own as of now. Until then, I shall remain the girl who has a somewhat good knowledge of supernatural cats in Japan, but isn’t by no means any kind of expert on this topic, even though I wish I was. Can I get a master’s degree in cat history in Japan? Is this a thing? 

(Bakeneko) Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, Okazaki (1847-48)
歌川国芳「五十三駅 岡崎」弘化四〜嘉永元年(1847〜48)頃

Even though the oldest, known mystical cat in Japan date back to the 12th century when stories used to describe a massive two-tailed cat known as the nekomata (ねこまた), terrorizing humans and eating them, it really wasn’t until the Edo period beginning in the 1600s that the catlore really became increasingly popular in Japan with countless of tales and legends about various types of the monster cats, the bakeneko (化け猫), spreading around the country, each region having their very own stories of supernatural, terrifying kitties. According to the legends and the stories, Bakeneko are, for the most of them, domestic cats who lived long enough or grew big enough to develop supernatural powers and cause misfortunes to their owners, with the first sign of their impending transformation being an unusually long tail. This fear and mistrust coming from the folklore of cats, especially those with long tails, is probably why the bobtail cat in Japan grew so much in popularity over the years following the idea that the supposedly ever growing tails of cats were the root of evil.

Ohara Koson, Cat and paper lantern (1926)

Incidentally, the most omnipresent and popular cat in the Japanese catlore is considered to be a tricolored bobtail cat, and it is one that is still inherent in the popular culture today; the maneki neko, my personal favorite. Interestingly enough, maybe for its lack of a long tail, the maneki neko is the sole supernatural cat from the japanese folklore who actually is a positive entity and do bring good fortune to its owner and to its surroundings, which easily explains why it is the most loved and widespread magical cat across the country as well as internationally. The others, perhaps not so well-intentioned or kind kitties, are nothing short of trouble. For most of them anyway. The one supernatural cat regrouping them all under the same “monster cat” category, the bakeneko, isn’t necessarily always considered as bad per say, but its ability to shapeshift into human form or a smaller cat form, to kill its owner to take his place and to play tricks doesn’t make the cat a very lovable pet either, generally speaking. Rare are the stories of the bakeneko portraying them in a positive light. However, as I previously mentioned earlier, I think it is important to note that all supernatural cats are technically bakeneko, including the good maneki neko, but I think it’s safe to say that this lucky cat is precisely the exception to the rule. If the bakeneko doesn’t necessarily equal risk and peril, the last two subtypes of bakeneko that I will talk about next time, the oldest supernatural cat the split-tailed, man-eating and gigantic nekomata as well as the corpse-stealing kasha(火車, literally chariot of fire) cat are all depicted as very bad news in the folklore of Japan. Anyway, I think I should stop my snoozefest and my endless rambling stories of cats here, at least for now, and delve deeper into supernatural kitties another day. If you couldn’t tell, I’m kind of obsessed with this topic. I love cats, what can I say. I hope I made you a little bit more interested too! 

– Lisa Poirier
✥ Maple & Sakura ✥

Hangyoku (apprentice geisha) holding a pet cat, 1930

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