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Japanese Cat Art

Updated on January 2, 2018
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truefaith7 is interested in East Asian art, world history, and cats.

"For Cats in Different Poses" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). Note the red collar and bell, which were worn by cats during the Edo period in Japan.
"For Cats in Different Poses" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). Note the red collar and bell, which were worn by cats during the Edo period in Japan. | Source


In Japan, one animal that has had many a superstition, legend, and mystery surrounding it is the cat. Cats, or 'neko' as they're called in Japanese, have been in Japan for over a thousand years and have been the subject of many stories and legends since then. They have been portrayed as being evil witches in disguise, lucky cats capable of bringing good luck and prosperity to businesses, and of course, the household pet we all know and love!

These ancient legends and scenes of cats in their everyday routines have formed the basis of much of the cat artwork of Japan. Many drawings, paintings, and woodblock prints have been made over the years by many Japanese artists depicting cats at play, sleeping, being mischievous, cuddling up with their masters, and more.

In this hub we'll have a look at the meanings and legends of the cat in Japanese society, its history in Japan, and the artwork that has been made of the cat over the years. Please sit back, read on, and enjoy!

The Beginning of Cats in Japan

The first cats were brought to Japan from China via Fujiwara no Sanesuke, a nobleman at the court of Emperor Ichijo, who ruled from 987 to 1011. At that time, cats became very popular pets and were known as "hand-fed tigers." However, it was mostly the wealthy who owned cats.

It wasn't long before the Japanese people started becoming suspicious and even terrified of cats. This is largely because cats were viewed as ungrateful, selfish, and destructive by nature. According to Japanese legend, the cat and the serpent were the only two animals in the animal kingdom that didn't cry when the Buddha died. By some accounts, the cat even killed the serpent after the Buddha's funeral!

Despite this, cats became a beloved pet to many, just as they are today. In addition, cats were put to work catching mice and rats in and around temples and homes.

A print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) depicting Okabe the Cat Witch and a terrified young girl running from the spectre of a bake-neko.
A print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) depicting Okabe the Cat Witch and a terrified young girl running from the spectre of a bake-neko. | Source

Bakeneko: The Monster Cat

One common character of Japanese folklore is the 'bakeneko' (化け猫), or "monster cat". This is an (usually) evil cat with supernatural abilities that can do things such as transform into a "super-sized" cat, walk on its hind legs, devour and kill human beings, fly, talk, transform into a human, shoot fireballs, menace sleeping humans, and more.

Legends about the bakeneko seem to have come about during the 17th century when cats were largely used for catching mice and rats and were allowed to roam free in the Japanese cities. Sadly enough, these legends prompted many cat owners to cut off their kittens' tails because many long-tailed cats were supposedly nekomata (meaning "forked-cat" in Japanese), which is a bakeneko with a forked tail.

Also, cats who lived in Japan during this time tended to drink lamp oil, which was based on fish oil. Many people who lived in these days considered cats who did this to be bakeneko.

In some legends, the bakeneko are actually good cats who love their owners and stay loyal to them their whole lives.

It was during the Edo period that ukiyo-e began to soar in popularity. A number of the popular ukiyo-e artists of the day depicted the bakeneko in their prints, such as the one on the right by Toyohara Kunichika.

A maneki-neko statue in Tokyo beckoning passers-by to come and play the lottery.
A maneki-neko statue in Tokyo beckoning passers-by to come and play the lottery. | Source

Maneki Neko: The Lucky Cat

One of Japan's most famous lucky charms is the 'Maneki Neko' (招き猫), or "lucky cat". This cat can be found in shop windows and store entrances across the country, with its left paw raised beckoning potential shoppers to enter.

The Maneki Neko is said to have its origins during the Edo period. Its exact origins are unknown, but largely thought to be inspired by the women in the "pleasure quarters" who beckoned for men outside the "houses of amusement". They would beckon by standing outside the building and hold their hand upright, showing their palms and folding their fingers in the traditional Japanese fashion...just like the maneki-neko!

In terms of artwork, many ceramic and wood Maneki Neko statues have been made over the years ranging from big human-sized statues to small ones that can sit on a shelf! These have become hot collectibles all around the world! In addition, many drawings have been made of the Maneko Neko over the years and these can be found in advertisements, store posters, and more. Children and women also wear Maneki Neko pendants and amulets (similar to amulets in countries such as Thailand and India) for various purposes.

Unlike in the West, black cats - or "kuroi-neko" as they are known in Japanese - are considered to be lucky cats which can cure sick children and fight off evil. White cats, known as "shiroi-neko" in Japanese, are considered to be pure due to their color, which represents purity in Japanese culture. Both black and white versions of maneki-neko can be found for sale.

The most famous of all maneki-neko can be found at the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo, which is home to dozens of maneki neko statues. According to legend, this temple was built in 1697 after Lord Ii Naotaka from the Hikone district (close to Kyoto) had his life saved by a good bakeneko who beckoned him away from a lightning bolt. This temple is also a place where people with lost or ill cats can come and leave a prayer board with the image of the maneki neko on the face for offering and prayer.

The famous Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carving at Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō, Japan.
The famous Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carving at Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō, Japan. | Source

Nemuri-neko: The Sleeping Cat

One of Japan's most famous cat statues is the 'nemuri-neko' statue, which can be found in the East corridor of Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō, Tochigi prefecture. This statue is attributed to Hidari Jingorō, who was a possible fictitious artist from the 16th century. Supposedly Jingorō was fascinated with cats and according to author Zempei Matsumara, he spent eight months in seclusion, during which he studied, sculpted and carved cats. The Nemuri-neko statue is the ultimate result of this endeavor.

Thanks in large part to this statue, Jingorō became hugely influential on the world of ceramic art and on ceramic animal art in particular. He influenced generations of sculptors and his Nemuri-neko statue is now a National Treasure of Japan.

"Cats Forming the Characters for Catfish" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
"Cats Forming the Characters for Catfish" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. | Source

Cats in Ukiyo-e

One of the most memorable forms of Japanese artwork depicting cats is without a doubt, ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Cats were depicted by most of the ukiyo-e masters, including Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro, Torii Kiyonaga, and Toriyama Sekien.

Ukiyo-e prints of cats tend to depict them in their everyday routine. That is, sleeping, chasing mice, watching fish, being their master's best friend, and so on. However, another popular subject in ukiyo-e was the bakeneko. Kunichika's print above is an example of this, as are Sekien's drawings and prints of bakeneko.

Most importantly of all, cat prints were made by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. It's no secret that cats were Kuniyoshi's favorite animal. He made a massive amount of prints and drawings of cats and according to his pupil Kawanabe Kyosai, his studio was filled with cats! As a matter of fact, Kyosai depicted Kuniyoshi's studio and all its feline residents in 'Kyosai gwadan' (1887)! Some of Kuniyoshi's most famous cat prints include "Cats Suggested as the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido" (see below), "A Cat Dressed as a Woman Tapping the Head of an Octopus", "Cats Forming the Characters for Catfish", and "Okabe - The Cat Witch". Kuniyoshi made many, if not most of the most famous ukiyo-e prints depicting cats.

Famous Cat Print by Kuniyoshi

"Cats Suggested as the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861).
"Cats Suggested as the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). | Source
"Madaraneko" by Takeuchi Seiho (1924).
"Madaraneko" by Takeuchi Seiho (1924). | Source

Cat Paintings in the Meiji, Showa and Taisho Periods

During the Meiji Restoration period, the popularity of ukiyo-e fizzled out and as Japan opened up to new ideas and concepts from the West, Western-syle paintings became more popular.

One Meiji-era painter who was famous for his paintings of cats was Hishida Shunsō (1874-1911). Shunsō was one of the most famous painters of Nihonga, or traditional Japanese-style paintings, which became popular during the Meiji Restoration. His most famous painting is "Black Cat, which was issued as a commemorative postage stamp by the Japanese postal service as part of their modern art stamp series in 1979.

A Taishō period painting that has become famous is the 1924 painting "Madaraneko" ("Tabby Cat") by Takeuchi Seiho. This painting can be found on display at Tokyo's Yamatane Art Museum.

Cats in Modern Japan

In the modern age, cats can be found in many Japanese TV shows, movies, anime, manga, artwork, and more.

Two of the most famous Japanese cats that have also become famous all around the world are Hello, Kitty and Doraemon. Since the 1970s, Sanrio's Hello, Kitty products that have been sold all over the world and are getting more and more popular by the day! Doraemon, the robotic cat from the future, has been achieving worldwide fame since his premiere in the manga series in 1969 and got a huge boost when two different anime series starring our favorite robotic cat premiered on TV in 1973 and 1979.

Of course one of the most popular medium for illustrated Japanese cats is through anime! The most famous Japanese anime director to feature cats as a main character in their work is none other than Hayao Miyazaki. Anime films such as "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "My Neighbor Totoro" both feature cats as a main or supporting character and have helped bring Japanese cats to the world stage.

Catgirls are also a popular character in anime, manga, and video games. Basically girls or women that grow cat ears, tails, etc. and often end each sentence with a 'nyā' (Japanese for 'meow'), catgirls have become popular in the animated world, both inside and outside of Japan.

And as omnipresent as it ever was is the bakeneko! They can also be found as principal characters in many anime and manga series, such as "Mononoke", "Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales" (episodes 9-11 of this series are about a bakeneko), and the Naruto series.

In Conclusion

Cats have been a part of Japanese culture and society since the day they arrived in Japan and instantly became an important part of the country's artwork. Cats will no doubt be depicted in Japanese art for many more years to come.

The cat anime, manga, and artwork popular in today's Japan has its roots in the art and legends of centuries ago. Through the modern-day media, the characters of these legends have come down to the new generations and will be carried on to the next ones to come.

Thank you for your visit to this hub! Please come back again soon as I plan to update this as time permits and as I find new material!


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