Whether Hello Kitty, the waving cat Maneki-Neko, cat gods or cat petting cafés: Japan is hardly imaginable without cats. The animals are flattered and adored. But the Japanese love of cats also has a dark side.
It was also in Japan, more precisely in Osaka, where in 2004, the first cat café opened with the name “Neko No Jikan” (Cat Time). Since then, stressed, lonely, or simply animal-loving Japanese have been enjoying a break from everyday life in the presence of live cats in these establishments with their fluffy interiors.
A foray through Japanese literature sheds light on an ambivalent relationship characterized by a constant oscillation between fascination and horror.
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The Cat in Japan – An Import from China
In Japanese literature, the cat is mentioned from about the 10th century AD (Heian period). The first cats came to Japan through Fujiwara no Sanesuke (957-1046), a nobleman in the court of the Tennō Ichijō (r. 986-1011). Fujiwara had the cats imported from China. The reason for these imports was the cats’ task of protecting important Buddhist scriptures from mice.
They were called “hand-fed tigers.” Cats enjoyed great popularity initially, but soon many Japanese met them with suspicion and even fear. Besides being ungrateful, cats are also inherently destructive. They scratch tatami mats, make holes in paper shōji doors, and sharpen their claws on wooden support beams. And they like lamp oil and do not infrequently lick the storage bowls dry.
For many Japanese, cats were curse-laden creatures. Only the cat and the snake did not mourn the Buddha’s death. In fact, it was the cat that killed the rat, which had been sent to get medicine.
A Japanese saying goes, “Give a dog food for three days, and it will remember your kindness for three years. Likewise, give a cat food for three years, and it will forget your kindness within three days.”
Superstition and Horror Stories
In the early 17th century, the Japanese believed that the cat’s tail could turn into a poisonous snake if the cat got hold of this important body part. So to prevent the “dangerous transformation,” long-tailed cats had their tails cut off, and special cats with stubby tails were bred.
At the same time, cats are said to have been worshipped as Deities (Kami) for the first time in Japanese Shintoism.
Goblin Cats That Make Dead Dance
Like foxes and tanuki, cats are also able to cast spells on people. Cats can also control the dead, even make them dance. Cats have a tendency to turn into Neko-Mata, “goblin cats.”
They can only be “cured” of this by cutting off their tails – a practice usually performed on even small kittens. When a Neko-Mata grew older, it could become an Obake-Neko.
“Obake-Neko” (sometimes “kaibyō“) literally means “supernatural cat” but is often translated as “ghost cat” or “vampire cat.” There is nothing comparable in the Western world. Not only the older cats could become Obake-Neko, but they also killed or badly treated specimens bent on revenge.
At night, the cat spirit roams the rooftops and makes people shiver. In an 18th-century painting by Utagawa, an oversized Cheshire cat fixes its prey with fiery eyes – or is it just a painting on the wall screen?
Along with foxes and tanuki, cats are among the best-known shape-shifters in Japanese folklore. One moment of carelessness and the inconspicuous little mother on the street has transformed: Silent horror spreads in the dark. The velvet paws should retain their eerie reputation for a long time.
Demon Cats in Japanese Folklore
Demon and goblin cats: Known as “Neko” and “Bakeneko” in Japanese mythology, are supernatural feline creatures with a rich and fascinating history in the Japanese folklore.
Legend has it: Neko are ordinary cats that have gained magical powers through various means – such as being possessed by spirits or obtaining unique artifacts. Bakeneko, on the other hand, are cats that have transformed into dangerous demons through means such as mutation or possession.
One famous story about Neko involves the “Maneki Neko,” or “Beckoning cat;” which is a figurine of a cat with one paw raised in the air. It is believed that this cat brings good luck and prosperity to businesses, and is often placed at the entrance of shops and restaurants!
Bakeneko, are often depicted as mischievous or malevolent beings. They are known to cause mischief and mayhem – such as stealing food or causing objects to move on their own. In many stories, they are even depicted as taking on a human form and causing havoc in the world of us humans.
Despite their sometimes troublesome nature – both Neko and Bakeneko are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and are often depicted in art, literature, and film. They are beloved by many for their mysterious and otherworldly powers, and their place in Japanese mythology is enduring.
Japan’s demon and goblin cat mythology is a rich and fascinating aspect of Japanese culture – with a history that stretches back many centuries. These supernatural feline creatures have captured the imagination of people all over the world, and their enduring popularity is a testament to their enduring appeal.
The Sacred Role of Cats in Japanese Shinto Religion
Cats have played a significant role in the Japanese “Shinto Religion” for centuries and are revered as sacred beings that hold a special place in the spiritual life of the Japanese people.
According to Shinto beliefs: Cats are believed to be “Gods’ Messengers” – and are seen as symbols of good luck, prosperity, and protection. They are associated with the goddess of fertility and childbirth, Inari, and are believed to be her protectors.
In Shinto shrines, it is common to see statues of the famous “Maneki Neko” cats with raised paws. These statues are believed to bring good fortune to those who pray to them and are often found at the entrance of homes and businesses.
Next to their role as messengers of the god – cats are also believed to have the ability to ward off evil spirits and protect against natural disasters. They are seen as powerful spiritual guardians, and their presence is believed to bring peace and prosperity to those who honor them.
Cats are also an essential part of traditional Japanese festivals and ceremonies – where they are often offered food and other gifts – to show respect and appreciation.
The cat holds a special place in the Shinto religion and is revered as a sacred being that brings good fortune and protection to those who honor it. Its role in the spiritual life of the Japanese people is an enduring one – and its place in the pantheon of Shinto deities is a testament to its ever-lasting importance.
The Tragic Legend of Usugumo: A Japanese Ghost Story
In Japanese Folklore the girl Usugomo works as a courtesan in the east of present-day Tokyo. Her most precious possession is a small, white cat. One night, her cat starts pulling at the girls’ kimonos.
The fact that she cannot be persuaded to stop finally enrages the establishment’s owner so much that he cuts off the cat’s head, believing it to be cursed. The cat’s head flies to the room’s ceiling due to the blow’s force and slays a snake lurking there.
Usugomo is inconsolable over the loss of her cat. However, one of her suitors eventually gives her a wooden effigy of a waving cat, hoping to cheer Usugomo up. This wooden effigy becomes known as Maneki-Neko.
Around the Origin of the Waving Cat Entwine Various Legends
The most famous is about a poor monk who was no longer receiving alms because the population was also starving. While searching for leftover grain in a field, he spotted a cat in the distance. The animal seemed to be beckoning in his direction.
He ran to it, but whenever he was almost close, the cat kept running, turned to him and waved again. It went on like this several times, and as evening approached, the monk collapsed from exhaustion near a town.
The inhabitants took him in and nursed him back to health. Then, one day, as he was wandering through the town, he saw the beckoning cat sitting again on a hill in the distance. So he ran up the hill, sat next to the cat, and began praying.
He prayed into the evening, and his voice was heard in the night silence that fell. Then, finally, people approached and prayed with him, and they built a temple on the hill.
From then on, at the entrance to this temple, the cat sat and beckoned people in.
Cats in Modern Japan
Today in Japan, the relationship with pets has changed fundamentally: Cats, dogs and even goldfish are welcome companions for humans. And if the real space is not enough, people keep virtual cats, like in the popular Büsi collecting app Neko Atsume or with the “Merch” of the manga “Little Cat Chi” by Konami Kanata.
Today, cats in Japan have magical powers like Luna and Artemis from “Sailor Moon.” Or they can fly like Happy from the manga “Fairy Tail” – or even both together, like Shalulu. The adorable blue Doraemon, the mascot of the Japanese postal service, also belongs to the latter category. Nya!
Read also: Dogs in Chinese Mythology – A Deep Dive into the Rich History and Legends of Canine Companions in Chinese Culture