The Cat in Japan:
The cat reached Japan from China in the late 900’s during the Edo period reign of Emperor Ichigo (986-1011). At first only the rich could afford such a rare pet, and so the cat became popular amongst royalty. The young Emperor loved his cats, and when on the 19th day of the 9th month of the year 999† a cat in the palace gave birth to kittens, he gave orders that a wet nurse take care of them as if they were his own new born children. The Emperor even went so far as to order tailors to make tiny suits of clothing for them. Giving the mother cat the name Myobu No Omoto, the Emperor granted her a rank equal to that of a lady in waiting (Van Vechten, 1921).
Lady Sarashina, in her diary that covered the years 1009-1059, lovingly describes the relationship that she had with her pet cat. “Once in the Rice-Sprout month, when I was up late reading a romance, I heard a cat mewing with a long-drawn-out cry. I turned, wondering, and saw a very lovely cat. “Whence does it come?” I asked. “Sh,” said my sister, “do not tell anybody. It is a darling cat and we will keep it.” The cat was very sociable and lay beside us. Someone might be looking for her [we thought], so we kept her secretly. She kept herself aloof from the vulgar servants, always sitting quietly before us. She turned her face away from unclean food, never eating it. She was tenderly cared for and caressed by us. Once sister was ill, and the family was rather upset. The cat was kept in a room facing the north [i.e. a servant’s room], and never was called. She cried loudly and scoldingly, yet I thought it better to keep her away and did so. Sister, suddenly awakening, said to me, “Where is the cat kept? Bring her here.” I asked why, and sister said:” In my dream the cat came to my side and said, ‘I am the altered form of the late Honoured Daughter of the First Adviser to the King. There was a slight cause [for this]. Your sister has been thinking of me affectionately, so I am here for a while, but now I am among the servants. O how dreary I am!’ So saying she wept bitterly. She appeared to be a noble and beautiful person and then I awoke to hear the cat crying! How pitiful!” The story moved me deeply and after this I never sent the cat away to the north-facing room, but waited on her lovingly. Once, when I was sitting alone, she came and sat before me, and, stroking her head, I addressed her: “You are the first daughter of the Noble Adviser? I wish to let your father know of it.” The cat watched my face and mewed, lengthening her voice. It may be my fancy, but as I was watching her she seemed no common cat. She seemed to understand my words, and I pity her. At midnight of the Deutzia month [April, 1024] a fire broke out, and the cat which had been waited on as a daughter of the First Adviser was burned to death. She had been used to come mewing whenever I called her by the name of that lady, as if she had understood me. My father said that he would tell the matter to the First Adviser, for it is a strange and heartfelt story. I was very, very sorry for her.” (Omori and Doi, 1920, pp.23-26)
The poet and writer Lady Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji (11th century) also noted cats’ behavior at court. “The most unsociable cat, when it finds itself wrapped up in someone’s coat and put to sleep upon his bed—stroked, fed, and tended with every imaginable care—soon ceases to stand upon its dignity.” (quoted in Rogers, 2006, p.24)
Unfortunately, not all of Japanese society shared this good will towards cats. Superstitious Japanese believed the cat’s tail to be the source of its magic, so it became a custom to cut it off. Thus, by doing so, the cat was unable to become a demon. One folktale describes the demise of a whole city owing to a cat’s tail. The cat’s tail catches on fire, and the cat runs through the town setting it all ablaze ultimately destroying the city. As a result, the Emperor decrees that all cats must have their tails cut off. Today the most popular cat in Japan is the bobtail.
A Bakeneko, or spirit cat, by its very nature eventually became a cat with a forked tail called a Nekomata.
The transformation of the Bakeneko to a Nekomata was sometimes dependent upon the cat’s age or its weight. Spiritual strength increased with age and weight, and so a cat could speak at 10 years old and, some years later, could even transform itself into a human being.
Killing a cat was not advisable, as a curse would doom the killer and his family to continuous haunting for 7 generations. The Ainu, who primarily inhabit the northern island of Hokkaido, believe that if a person kills a cat, the spirit of the cat will take revenge by enchanting his murderer and causing him to die. The only way to prevent this is if the cat killer eats a part of the same cat. If this is not done, the spirit of the cat possesses him, and causes him to act like a cat as he gradually dies. However, the cat’s killer, while he is still able to, can cure himself by killing another cat and eating part of it. Otherwise, he finally dies a painful death while meowing like a cat. The name of this affliction in the Ainu language is meko pagoat or “cat punishment.” (Refsing, 2002, p. 36) In contrast, in other Ainu villages, killing a cat merely causes a deadly disease (Etter, 2004).
The Japanese, not unlike the Chinese and Indians, believed in vampire cats, and plenty of stories and myths are deeply rooted in the culture. One such story is The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima. One day while Prince Hizen and his favorite concubine, O’Toyo, were walking through the palace gardens, an enormous black cat followed them. The day passed, and O’Toyo retired early only to be awoken at midnight by the same black cat sitting right next to her on her bed. She screamed and the cat attacked, biting her neck so fiercely and sucking her blood so greedily that she quickly died. The cat dug a grave and buried her and assumed her form with a plan to enchant the Prince. As time passed, the Prince grew weaker and paler. No medicine could cure him. Even though servants guarded his door at night, they suddenly fell asleep at ten o’clock. This was the time when the demon cat in O’Toyo’s body would come and suck the prince’s blood. This odd malady was soon suspected as witchcraft, and a young dedicated soldier, Ito Soda, offered to try and save the Prince by remaining awake all night. By deeply cutting his leg, Ito managed to stay awake all night and confronted the demon. The demon was no longer able to suck the Prince’s blood, and as time passed the Prince started to get better. Ito unsuccessfully tried to kill the cat, as it escaped by running across the roofs to the mountains afar. There the healthy Prince was able to hunt it down and eventually kill it, but only after it had terrorized many villages (Mitford, 2010).
In contrast, another Japanese story relates the love of a family for its deceased cat. In The Faithful Cat, a family in Osaka celebrates the 100th anniversary of the death of their ancestor’s cat. The family reminisced that the cherished cat would follow the great grandfather’s daughter around everywhere so that the great grandfather feared that the cat had fallen in love with her and wanted to cast a spell on her. Fearing the worst, he threatened to kill the cat, but hearing the plan that night, the cat whispered in his ear that he was in fact protecting his daughter from a large rat that lived in the granary. The cat instructed the great grandfather to go the next day and find another cat well known for its excellent hunting abilities and bring him back to the house. The great grandfather did as he was asked and brought the cat back. The two cats then went together into the granary to fight the rat. Even though the two cats managed to trap the ferocious rat so that the man could cut its throat, the two cats were so severely injured that they would not heal and eventually died. Thus, because of the bravery and devotion of their cat, the family faithfully celebrated its birthday each year (Mitford, 2010).
In addition, another positive legend is of the Maneki-neko based on a story of a temple cat that beckoned to a Samurai to move away from a tree right before it was struck by lightning, saving the Samurai’s life. Today’s Hello Kitty is loosely based upon this legend.
† Again the cat is associated with the number 9 originally mentioned in Roman mythology.