supernatural cats japan 化け猫
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Japan’s supernatural cats: watch out for the evil bakeneko

The land of Hello Kitty is home to a bevy of cats that can transform into human shape.

Do you know about Japan’s supernatural cats? Everyone is aware of werewolves and vampire bats, but evil supernatural cats seem rare. Except in Japan. That island nation has two main types of shape-shifting felines – the one-tailed bakeneko and the two-tailed nekomata.

Most people who have passed by an Asian store have seen the maneki-neko, or beckoning cat that brings good luck. As you can see, “neko” means cat. Today, we will delve into the bakeneko.

Domestic cats are not native to Japan. They were most likely introduced from Korea or India, but exactly when is a secret that the cats don’t want to divulge. By the year 900 AD, cats were expensive and exotic pets for the very top of the upper class in feudal Japan. Emperor Ichijō in the 10th century even named a cat as the Chief Lady in Waiting and awarded her all suitable honors for that role.

This high status didn’t last forever, though. Eventually, they became pets in more common households, and by the early 1600s they actually had to work, keeping rats from destroying the silkworm industry.

Cats’ aloof and nocturnal nature became equated with the supernatural in the minds of the public. While the popular werewolf of Western culture is a person who turns into an animal, the bakeneko is the opposite – the cat transforms into a human.

japan bakeneko supernatural cats kabuki
Scene from 'Traveling Alone to the Fifty-three Stations' . Source: University of California, Irvine.
japanese supernatural cats 化け猫
'The Bakeneko of the Sasakibara Family'. Print by Yosa Buson, before 1784.
japanese supernatural cats 化け猫
A man walks with a cat courtesan. Print by Isoda Koryūsai, 1777.

Young cats were highly regarded, but once a cat was older than around 12 years it was held in suspicion. A bakeneko almost always stems from a senior cat. This idea unfortunately has led to discrimination and maltreatment of elderly felines. Long tails were also seen as a harbinger of evil and supernatural behavior. Many cats in Japan now have short tails due to selective breeding.

Cats were known for stealing fish oil from lamps, and seeing them do so was a bad omen. While dogs can eat almost anything save for chocolate and a few other items, cats need meat. But most cat owners fed cats rice and other plant-based food, as meat was an expensive luxury. Cats would break into the fish oil to get some needed nutrients.

A cat stretched out on its hind legs reaching up to drink the oil from a burning lamp would have projected a tall shadow of an upright cat on the wall, which may have started the shape-shifting rumor.

japanese supernatural cats 化け猫
A bakeneko courtesan with the arm of a victim. Print by Kiyoshitsune Torii.
japanese supernatural cats 化け猫
'Cat Witch of Okabe'. Print by Utagawa Kunisada, 1853.

Folk tales offer a wide array ranging from cats who become indistinguishable from humans to upright talking cats in human clothes. Sometimes the upright cats took on dark qualities and were associated with killing or possessing humans, creating zombies out of the dead.

One popular tale finds a tea merchant who noticed his cloth napkins were vanishing without explanation. He stayed up late to spy on his tea room and discovered cats standing upright and dancing with cloth napkins on their heads. There is a whole genre of Japanese legends with animals putting something on their heads to invoke magical powers. While these rather comic images seems truly odd, Western fairy tales are also filled with magic hats and unexplainable behavior.

Some of these cats in human form would allegedly work as ladies of the night. And the courtesans often encouraged this idea, as it made them seem more exotic. These women could turn back into evil, murderous cats while the client slept. This had a pragmatic effect of encouraging the customer to leave rather than linger, so the courtesan could seek out additional clients on the same evening.

japanese supernatural cats 化け猫
Original illustration for 'The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima'.

These supernatural cats first clawed their way into the West via the 1871 anthology Tales of Old Japan, written by British diplomat Lord Redesdale (aka A.B. Mitford), with drawings by unnamed Japanese artists.

“The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima” sees an evil cat killing the favorite female retainer of the Prince of Hizen and transforming to take her place. The prince would sleep with the evil bakeneko and grow weaker by the day. Guards tasked with keeping watch all fell asleep.

Finally, a common soldier came forward and promised to help. He stayed awake by pricking himself and was able to keep the bakeneko from drinking the blood of the sleeping prince. The bakeneko escaped to the mountains but was later trapped by hunters.

japan bakeneko 化け猫supernatural cats kabuki
Scene from a Ghost Story: The Okazaki Cat Demon. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A second tale called “The Story of the Faithful Cat” features a talking cat who protects the daughter of a grain farmer from a giant rat who has his sights on the daughter. The cat and a companion both perish after taking on the rat. The cat’s self-sacrificing deed was still remembered a century later by the girl’s relatives. Both tales can be read online as the book is in the public domain.

You can also find supernatural cats in Kabuki plays. A woodblock print of called Ghost Story: The Okazaki Cat Demon can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It comes from an 1827 play called Traveling Alone to the Fifty-three Stations.

Four travelers arrive at an abandoned temple, and in the evening see a pair of dancing cats. The old lady who oversees the temple assures them everything is normal. But the travelers are in for a fight as the cats and old lady are not what they seem.

In more modern times, supernatural cats have figured into films. The genre was more popular in the pre-war era, but a notable exception is House (Hausu) from 1977. The horror comedy was a big hit and has achieved cult status, despite mostly negative reviews.

These particular supernatural cats have left behind indelible pawprints on centuries of Japanese art and culture, and still going strong, that is when they are not napping.

Main image is a woodblock print by Kyosai Kawanabe, before 1870. Some information for this article came from the book Kaibyō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan by Zack Davisson.

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