EP40 Cat Foklore #1


Show Notes for episode 40 of our Podcast – Cat Folklore #1.

Cat Folklore covers so much in Japan, and there is no way we could do it all in one episode for you all, so lets delve into a little part of the Cat Folklore that fills Japan.

Story Notes

Cat Foklore
The Maneki Neko

Cat Folklore and Supernatural cats, can fall into the term of Yokai understandably. But they can also be classed as Henge (変化 shape-shifters). But we can even class most of the supernatural cats as Strange Cats (Kaibyo 怪猫). 

I won’t get into the history of Hello Kitty today, perhaps she deserved something to herself but we will talk about many strange cats, look into folktales of cats, and we will definitely be talking about the Lucky Cat and see how there are actually more than one kind of them.  

But first a question, have you ever seen a Japanese family name with the kanji for cat? General belief is that there are no families sing this Kanji in their family names due to the cats supernatural associations.  

So let’s dive into the world of cats. We have touched on the before with our first ever bonus episode surrounding the dog Shippeitaro, so if you haven’t given that a listen yet then please do, so what else is there to tell? 

Well let’s start by quickly looking at the practice you still see a lot in Japan of cutting off the cats tail. I personally don’t agree with the practice, but it does seem to have it origins in the superstitious past, from a time when cats were mysterious and supernatural. 

And to find this answer we turn to Lafcadio Hearn, and his many writings from his time in Japan, they were all compiled and published in 1906 by Elizabeth Bisland and one of them talks about how certain cats, such as Izumo cats are born with long tales. Now due to the mysticism surrounding these animals, it was thought that, should they be able to keep their long tails, then they would grow up to turn into for instance a Nekomata which we will talk about soon. 

But when did cats arrive in Japan. They aren’t native at all, well unless you look into strange tales of the Cat Folklore surrounding the Yamaneko, or Mountain Cat, which was as big as a cougars and striped like tigers. But apparently they went extinct sometimes before 300BC, and little is really known of their existence. Cats as we know them as house pets, there is evidence going back all the way to the third century BCE for cats from grave sites at the Karakami Site in Iki. Though at the time, they were in Japan in such low numbers, there wasn’t a viable population for them to breed and survive so these cats were likely traded curiosities and nothing more. Prized by their owners and so buried alongside them.  

It isn’t likely until Buddhism was on the rise in Japan around 552 that cats came arrived to stay and we have records from here talking of cats. However, the first definitive record of a cat comes from March 11 889, from a diary known as the Kanpyō Gyoki (寛平御記) which was the diary of Emperor Uda. And he wrote the following 

I wish to express my joy of the cat… the color of the fur is peerless, none could find the words to describe it… I affixed a bow about its neck but it did not remain for long… in rebellion it narrows its eyes and extends its needles… when it lies down it curls into a ball like a coin.. You cannot see its feet… when it stands, its cry expresses profound lonliness, like a black dragon floating above the clouds… its color allows it to disappear at night. I am convinced it is superior to all other cats.  

So we can see cats were loved even by the highest of people in Japan, and I do enjoy the idea of the Emperor putting a little bow onto his cat. 

So we have records of cats, but the actual Kanji can be found from the Asuka Period (538 to 710) when its appears in the word Mikeneko 三毛猫, or Three Colored Furry Beast. And I suppose this could be our first supernatural cat. It is said to have been dangerous with fiery eyes, and incredibly intelligent but also vengeful to those who would betray it. Funnily enough there is little else known about this strange creature, but if you are in Japan you may have heard the term Mikeneko before, as it is now used as the name for Calico Cats which are seen as rather luckily. So this creature has undergone quite the change through the centuries.  

Now let’s talk about the Cat Folklore surrounding the Nekomata 猫股, or Forked Cat. Now this cat is portrayed rather well throughout history, in various ways. We can see it portrayed by Toriyama Sekien who we have mentioned before where he shows three cats in various stages of turning into a Nekomata. But we can also find it portrayed in the Hyakkai Zukan and the Bakemono no e where they are shown wearing a geishas robe and playing the shamisen. This is a little tongue in cheek, as we have said before that shamisan are made using a cats skin. But what is a nekomata specifically. Well, legends say that when a cat should reach a certain age they will gain the ability to walk on its hind legs, as well as learn to talk and have its tail spilt into two. So when did we first hear about this creature? Well they turned up in a diary called the Meigetsuki, or Diary of the Clear Moon by Fujiwara Teika, who was our poet from episode 15.  

Cat Foklore
Hyakkai Zukan

Cat Foklore
Toriyama Sekien
Cat Foklore
Bakemono no e

He writes that on August 8th 1233 a nekomata came from the mountains and ate multiple people. I am not sure how the became associated with eating human flesh, but is is definitely an idea that lingered as we can see it again in the book Essays in Idleness where they state, deep in the mountains lives the Nekomata, it is said it will feed on humans.  

So if you are ever in the mountains and see a standing cat with two tails, I think it would be best to steer clear. But what is more interesting is that, during these original accounts they were seen as a seperate breed of cat, it wasn’t until the Edo Period when it was thought owned cats would grow old and turn into the Nekomata. Over time as well they went from small sizes, to being boar sized in 1685, by 1775 they were as big as a panthers and by 1809 they had become described as over 6 feet long. It is interesting to see how these legends can change over time.  

But one last thing, I can’t remember where I read this but, something to think about for the Edo thinking for these cats. During this time, most lamps would be lit using fish oil, something cats would have loved to have had. So it seems that perhaps people saw there cats through the Shoji paper doors, seeing only the shadow of their cat on its hind legs which only led to the idea of their cats undergoing transformation.  

So lets us end with a quick Nekomata Tale, from 1660. 

There was once a monk from the temple of Gyogan-ji who wandered around singing the praises of the Buddha, and he told me this tale.  

One night I was out in the mountains singing until I decided to return home. When I reached a brook I searched for a safe place to cross, and that is then when the Nekomata came out to strike, It grabbed my leg, climbed to my neck and sunk in its teeth. I fell into the brook crying for help, and luckily someone heard me and rushed to find me. 

What is going on? They cried. They pulled me from the creek, my possessions and money had been washed away. Having saved me, I and everyone else returned home.  

Now lets us turn to the Cat Folklore of the Neko Musume 猫娘 or Cat Daughter. A trope which is rather popular in anime these days, with females characters being part cat with cute cat like ears and at times a tail. 

But their origins are less than happy as we trace this kind of creatures to, I don’t like the term but they find their origins from what we once called Freak Shows. I won’t be using that term again, its just to give an idea of what I mean. Carnivals of extradordinary people, if not outright forgeries to entice people into spending their money. In Japan these were known as Misemono 見世物. These shows were often hurriedly produced and crude and finds its way back to the Edo Period, although they may be a little older than that, and actually at times were benefit performances to raise funds for shrines and temples. I suppose the most famous of tall of these kinds of shows was by PT Barnum, who you may know, especially from the film Greatest Showman. Infact, his famous Fiji Mermaid, was created in a Japanese Misemono and found its way to his show.      

However, back to the Neko Musume. She was exhibited in the Asakusa District of Edo reaching the height of popularity in 1769. It was said she was exactly how a human cat hybrid would appear (unfortunately there are no pictures of her). Whether this was from a kind of birth defect or even clever prosthetics we will never know, and she had all but faded from fame by the 1780s as Misemono fell into decline.  

But that isn’t quite the end for these particular cat. They appeared again in 1800 with tales surfacing about this creatures. And I will briefly go over them now. This one comes from the Ashu no Kijo.  

There was once a merchant who had a daughter. His daughter had a rough tongue, and a fondness for licking things. Due to this, the nature of her parentage only came into question and eventually was given the name of Neko Musume. 

The second tale surrounding Cat Folklore comes from the Ansei zakki, and was a collection of stories seen as fact at the time of their writing. This tale comes from 1852. 

In Tokyo, there was once a girl named Matsu. Since childhood she had fondess for dragging discarded heads and guts from fish from the garbage before eating them. She was nimble and would often trap mice and rats to eat. 

Due to this she gained many names including Neko Kozo, Cat Child and Neko Bozu, Cat Priest.  

Her nature was strange to others, some thinking the essence of a cat had mingled with hers as a baby leading to how she was today. 

Her mother prayed and summoned doctors to try and see if she could take the cat out of her daughter. She even beat her, but nothing worked.  

In the end, she shaved her daughters head and sent her to be a nun but even that did not work. Still her behavior continued and so she was expelled from the nunnery.  

Matsu was bullied by the other children, they chased her, but as she was nimble she could always get away by climbing up and running over rooftops. She became respected by other adults who saw her as useful with rat problems, and so her mother began to rent out her child to others, Matsu given to clambering under peoples homes and feast on the rats there.  

And that is the strange tales of the Neko Musume, I didn’t enjoy learning of the origins, I think shows like that were cruel, but it is history and should be learnt.  

Now I want to move onto the third and maybe final thing for today. There are so many tales we could tell, so many other types of cats we could do, like the Kasha, Bakeneko, Gotoku Neko, the list goes on. But I don’t want to go overboard. We can easily fo a part 2 to this in the future.  

But I want to end on something that should be rather familiar to most people. The waving cat, the lucky or inviting cat, or as it is known in Japan, the Maneki Neko.  

First of all did you know that they can come in different colors? Each having different connotations. Red is for relationship success and illness prevention, black keeps evil at bay, gold is for money, green for health, blue for academic success and even pink for help with love. 

Some say a raised left hand brings in money, but other would say the complete opposite.  

But what of its origins? 

Well that can be a little contended wth Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto all claiming its origins back in the Edo Period. But the earliest made forms can be traced back to the Asakusa Districts of Tokyo. In their original form, they were rather different to today. Made of clay and with a raised paw they lacked the flair of modern maneki neko, and these precursors were known as marushime, meaning something close to affixing wealth and fortune to yourself. These precursor cats were portaryed in the markets of Sensoji by Utagawa Hiroshige in 1851 and a year later a tale of their origins was born. 

A woman, it is said once lived with her cat, she was poor, and rent was due. However, she could not pay. And so her cat came to her in a dream saying the gods had not abandoned her in this time of need. 

All she need do is take clay from under her home and sculpt a cat. Bake it to  make a figurine and then with it praise the Buddha. Riches and fine cloth will then come to you in kind. 

This tale is told to this day at the Imado Shrine in Asakusa, who claim it as the birth place of the marushime. Sadly though, I don’t think they sell them now, and you can only buy Maneki Neko there. 

But when did they morph and change into this new form? When did it gain its new style and items like the bib, coin and other attachments? 

We don’t know! 

All we know is their popularity only continued to increase from 1876 after a news article was made about them.  

I personally would love to be able to buy on of the original versions of this lucky cat. Unfortunately I have yet to see one in Japan. So lets just hope it works out in the end.  

One final thing, have you ever heard of Tama the cat? 

She was once the staion manager of Kishi Station, Wakayama Prefecture.  

Born in 1999 she would come to the train station with her owner and because of her the amount of  visiting the station increased, which was good as the station had almost closed due to funding.  

Sadly she died in 2015 but her job lived on with her succesors Nitama, Suntamatama and Yontama, literally Second, Third and Fourth Tama.  

It is fascinating seeing how cats had such sinister links through history but now have become symbols of prosperity and in the case of Tama, tourist attractions almost. 

So that was our first look into Cat Folklore, I am sure we will be back to look at some more cats of supernatural origin in the future.

Poem Notes

Takahashi Matsumoto

Takashi Matsumoto was born in Tokyo January 5, 1906. He was born into a family of Noh actors and started acting in Noh plays from the age of 8.  

Growing up, he was interested in calligraphy, Chinese literature, and English. He was also interested in comic storytelling, called rakugo. 

It wasn’t until he was recovering from illness in 1921 that he started to develop an interest in haiku.  He joined a haiku group and began to study under the haiku poet Takahma Kyoshi.  

When he was 20 he retired from Noh due to health issues and turned his career towards haiku.  

He had his own literary magazine called Fue. He also wrote a novel about Hosho Kuro, another Noh actor. He was also awarded the Yomiuri Literary Prize in 1954.  

He died in 1956. He was 50 years old. 


nari kotatsu neko

With squinted eyes,
the cat says,
I don’t want to talk with you,
while on the kotatsu

hitogirai – can be said to be deep and philosophical, but it’s humorous when said by a cat.

References for cat folklore

  • Andrew L. Marku (1985) “The Carnival of Edo: Misemono Spectacles From Contemporary Accounts” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 499-541 
  • Bakemono no e, from Brigham University Online: https://search.lib.byu.edu/byu/record/lee.991658?holding=ufs3as1qscmd6ed0
  • Bisland, Elizabeth (1906) “The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn,” New York: Mifflin and Co. 
  • Davisson, Z. (2017) “Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan.” Seattle: Chin Music Press 
  • Morris Edward Opler  (1945) “Japanese folk belief concerning the cat” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences Vol. 35, No. 9 pp. 269-275  
  • Poem from today: https://idea1616.com/neko-haiku/
  • Rabinovitch, Judith N; Minegishi, Akira (1992). “Some literary aspects of four kambun diaries of the Japanese court: Translation with commentaries on excerpts from Uda Tennō Gyoki, Murakami Tennō Gyoki, Gonki and Gyokuyō” . The humanities. Section II, Language and literature; Journal of the Yokohama National University. 39 (1–13). 
  • Takashi Matusmomo from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takashi_Matsumoto_(poet)
  • Tama the Cat from: http://travel.cnn.com/cat-saves-japanese-train-station-586471/
  • Yoda, H. and Alt, M. (2016) “Japandemonium: Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopaedia of Toriyama Sekien.”. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

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