The Legend of the Japanese Cats


The artistic and cultural depiction of cats by humans is said to have been persisting for more than nine thousand years. Cats were considered highly sacred beings in the ancient Egyptian history (Called as ‘Mau’). Cats might have been domesticated during that period mainly to hunt mice, snakes and vermin that posed serious threats to stored food grains. The earliest evidence of a domesticated cat was found in 1983 in Cyprus (also known as “Fertile Crescent”), where an 8 month year old cat was ceremonially buried alongside a human. The skeletons of both the human and cat dated back to 7500 BCE (known as ‘Neolithic Period’). Unlike other animals, cat has been the subject of legend in many countries for lot of years.

The Norse mythology, ancient Greek culture, ancient Chinese kingdoms and Russian Empires had their own set of beliefs on the cultural depiction of cats. In some parts, cats were deemed as good omen and in others as evil or bad. In some parts of Ghana and West Africa, cats were ofen associated with witchcraft. Despite all these varied legends about cats, the contemporary or modern era can immediately relate the artistic depictions of cats with that of the Japanese culture. While the ‘Hello Kitty’ might have kindled the pop-culture sensation of cats in Japan, its traditional folkloric origins dates back to thousands of years. Modern anime, manga series and novels hailing from Japan gives more than enough space to the feline beings.

Statue of nekomata

Statue of nekomata

Religious anthropologists state that for Buddhists, cats represented creatures that are alternately cursed and sacred. Japan’s religious ties to cats have given its people two cat shrines for worshiping. The shrine of ‘maneki nako’ (also called as “beckoning cats”) would be the immediately identifiable cat depiction in contemporary period and also has immense cultural importance in Japan. The statuette of ‘maneki nako’ is often of a cat with its paw in a right position as if its beckoning someone. It was a symbol of ‘good luck’. A small cat shrine called as ‘Nekojinja’ is built by fishermen in the island of Tashirojima. The legend in the island says that by observing the cats closely, the fishermen could interpret significant predictions of weather and fish patterns.

There is also a Japanese legend of ‘nekomata’. As per this fable, when a cat reaches a certain age, it can stand up and speak like human beings. If you are big fan of novelist Murakami or anime features, you could often notice some kind of cat symbolism. Cat has significant and recurrent presence in the lives of Murakami’s characters (cat’s disappearance is usually a bad omen for Murakami characters). Psychoanalytic literature often puts forward the notion that people use animals (real or imaginary) to express a wide range of unconscious processes. However, Murakami has modestly claimed to know nothing about symbolism, when he was asked about the recurrent appearance of cats in his fictions (“It must be because I am personally fond of cats. I’ve always had them around since I was little. But I don’t know whether they have any other significance”).


The famous cat bus (“My Neighbor Totoro) and Baron Humber von Gikkingen (“Whispers of the Heart” & “The Cat Returns”) of the studio Ghibli films are just few of the feline beings that has occupied central role in Japanese pop-culture. ‘Kureneko-sama’ (black cat) is a vital cartoon cat character after “Hello Kitty” that is part of iconic manga series “Trigun” (referred as ‘space western’). The internet sensations like ‘Pusheen the cat’ (an animated web comic series) and sushi cat were all derived from ‘maneki nako’. The immensely popular internet meme ‘Nyan Cat’ may not have originated from Japan, but it was said to be inspired by Japanese animated series (nya is the Japanese word for ‘meow’). Cats are the vital part of meme culture and the persisting modern internet fixation with cats has definitely hailed from centuries of Japanese cultural and fictional cat portrayals.

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  • I have read a few of Murakami’s books. Cats have a quite a presence in them. Even ancient Egyptians held them in high regard and worshiped them.