I have two cats and I thought learning about Japanese folklore would be interesting, so I went the Supernatural Cats of Japan panel at Anime Next. In Japan, there are many different urban legends about cats and yokai. And many of these stories derive from events and have been passed down for generations.
The panel was hosted by Zack Davisson. He stated that cats are magical creatures with many secrets, it makes me wonder about my own pets. (Zack studies tokay folklore.) He is a yokai scholar and the author of Supernatural Cats of Japan. According to Zack, the reason that cats are often seen as yokai in Japanese mythology is that of the mystery surrounding them. Their distinctive features such as their sharp teeth and claws. Their eyes change color and their fur sparks due to static electricity when you pet them. Many people see them as monsters.
One of the cats he talked about was the bakeneko. Bakeneko (meaning changed cat) is a Japanese yōkai that changed into a supernatural creature. Their are various legends around Japan about the Bakeneko. One popular tale, in particular, is the Nabeshima Bakeneko Disturbance in the Saga Prefecture. This story dates back to the Edo period, Waianae Sansai Zue states the cat would stand on its hind legs and lick the oil of the oriental lamps. When the cat licks the oil it is an omen of something strange is about to occur.
In the Edo period, they used fish oil (sardine oil) in the lanterns which would explain why cats liked to lick them. But when the cat stood up to reach the lamp, they made it appear eerie like something an animal wouldn’t normally do. Other information associated with the Bakeneko includes some associated with shape shifting; as humans or wearing a Hitaikakushi (ghost headband) etc. An example of it this is Maomolin from Ranma 1/2.
Another, cat folklore that is popular in Japan is the Nekomata (meaning two-tailed), which is another cat-like yokai that its tail splits in two when they get older. They believed that as the cats aged it would eventually turn into a Bakeneko. In the Yamagata District, Hiroshima Prefecture, rumor had it that if the cat was reared for seven years or more it would kill its owner. A similar urban legend floated around China. It is said that after rearing your cat for three years, it would start bewitching you. The legend also has it that cats with white tails are good at bewitching, so people would refrain from raising white cats or cats with white tails. These cats get their ability to bewitch people from the moon. You can find a similar example in the anime Blue Exorcist and Kirara from Inuyasha.
Then we have the Neko Musume which is yokai who comes in the form of a young girl but can change her appearance to have catlike features. (sharp claws and cat eyes). Neko Musume is known to be quiet but it is said that the Neko Musume can be an angry beast. It is stated that this yokai does not get along with the Nezumi and took over the rodent yokai. It is also said that the Neko Musume is in love with GeGeGe no Kitaro, a young boy yokai.
Over the years, Neko Musume features have changed from her hair color to the type of dress she wears. Even in regards to the length of the hair and even her facial features.
Neko Musume is also popular in the cosplay community. There are several animated series where they have the Neko Musume such as Himori Konno from GeGeGe no Kitaro (2007).
Another popular cat in Japanese folklore is, the Maneki Neko, also known as the inviting cat or the lucky cat. There are also many stories surround this cat. One of the stories shared in the panel was about an old lady. The old lady lived with her beloved cat and was very poor. One day, while the old woman slept, her cat spoke to her in her dreams. In the dream, the cat told the old woman to mold cats statues that looked like it, using the mud found outside of her house. So the old woman molded the cat sculptures and sold them in a nearby market. The old woman made a fortune. This is why the Maneki Neko is known as the lucky cat.
Another story about the Maneki Neko, surrounding a Lord. One day this particular Lord got caught outside in a thunderstorm. The lightening caused the Lord to frantically seek shelter and he ran into a tree. The tree was struck by lighting. This was when he came across the Maneki Neko. The Maneki Neko lead the Lord to a Buddhist temple and saved the Lord’s life. This is where the name the inviting cat came from.
A great example in an anime would be Meowth from Pokémon. Meowth was the sidekick to Jessie and James from Team Rocket. But in Team Rockets case, it was always reversed. Instead of bringing good luck, it turned out bad for them. Another example would be Master Karin from Dragon Ball Z.
There are many different folklores that include cats. I only mentioned a few. It was interesting to find out that many of these cat’s that appear in folklore have also appeared in different Anime’s series and or films.
This was a very interesting panel to attend. I learned about the history of the cat’s in Japanese folklore. I’m curious to learn more.
Zack Davisson has a book on Japanese cat folklore called The Supernatural Cats of Japan. If you are interested in learning more about cat folklore, this would be an interesting book to read.
For more information on Zack and this topic follow the links below.