Cats predictably make a startling mark in Japanese prints.
It would be surprising if Japan didn’t have a tradition of dressed up cats doing human things. The island nation does not disappoint, especially when it comes to Japanese prints. Cats seem to have first come on trading ships from China about a thousand years ago, and became respected as mouse catchers. There are even temples dedicated to cats.
Among the upper class, cats were kept as pets, and the earliest prints show rather lucky Japanese bobtail cats living their best lives. But their good fortune ended in 1602 when an imperial decree ordered cats to be set loose on the streets to battle the mice that were threatening the silk industry.
Exactly how long their exile on the main street lasted is not clear, but in 1701, a book of cultural observations written by a foreigner said that Japanese bobtails have “no mind to hunt for rats and mice but just want to be carried and stroked by women.”
This era in Japan is known as Edo, and it was marked by a flowering of culture similar to Europe’s Renaissance. Colorful woodblock prints called ukiyo-e made art accessible to the masses, and cute cats were a big topic, along with celebrity actors and landscapes.
While many of the prints show cats as pets or just doing their daily routines of grooming, others show cats walking upright donning kimonos, waving fans and carrying umbrellas. Often these have a bit of humor. Some of the most famous are by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the last great ukiyo-e artists. He worked in the late 18th century until the middle of the 19th century.
A change in the law made cat prints even more popular. In the early 1840s, the Tokugawa Shogunate went on one of those periodic crackdowns to stop the degradation of public morals. Among other things, posters of kabuki actors and courtesans were banned.
But printers quickly found a loophole: substitute dressed up cats for the actors. The cats all displayed traits that a theater fan could use to guess the identity of the actor they replaced.
One shows two cats as sumo wrestlers on a stage from the play “Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki,” or “A Diary of Two Butterflies in the Pleasure Quarters.” The nine-act play was first told with puppets and later adapted to kabuki.
Kuniyoshi also has several posters from 1842 called “One Hundred Faces of Cats” with framed faces of then-popular kabuki actors rendered with cat features. Only a few of the names are still remembered, and the rest have been lost to time.
Some were not specifically linked to a particular production. From around 1841 his “Cats Dancing” shows three kimonoed cats with fans furiously giving the two-step their best. “Cats Enjoying the Evening Cool,” shows felines dressed as elderly women at a dock in the evening.
Another of Kuniyoshi’s works from this era is “Cat Dressed as a Woman Tapping the Head of an Octopus,” from 1847. It is sometimes described as a parody of a kabuki theater scene.
The mockery of the censorship rules rendered them pointless and they were dropped by the end of the decade. But cats remained popular as Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a cat owner and a big fan, and many of his students and emulators used them for subjects as well.
One of his most intriguing works is “Cats Suggested As The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” from 1850, with cats in different poses trying to capture the genius loci of each postal stop on the road from Tokyo to Kyoto, where travelers could seek refreshment and lodging. The images often involved puns that will be lost on most people not familiar with the language. The cats, though, are not dressed up for this masterwork.
At the same time, cat paper dolls became popular, with different outfits that could be put on upright bobtail cat forms. Uncut copies of these are quite rare.
With the end of the Edo era and the coming of the 20th century, the quality of these prints declined drastically. Artists faced competition from both photography and new cheap printing processes. Printmakers who continued to work were more and more influenced by highbrow themes like copying Western impressionists or lowbrow sensational topics of frightening ghost and gore scenes.
But cats remained in popular culture, eventually turning up in new artforms such as illustrated manga books and anime, and spawning whole industries like Hello Kitty. People can even buy cat-sized kimonos to dress up their pets for special occasions, and post the results on social media.