Meet the Cats of Japanese Literature
Cats and Japan seem as tangled up in each other as a kitten with a yarn ball. From the iconic maneki neko, the lucky cat with its raised and beckoning paw, through to Hello Kitty, felines are inescapable in Nippon. You’ll find them curled up in cat shrines, cat trains, and cat cafés; there are even islands full of cats. Whether it’s because cats are considered kawaii (cute) or a lucky charm, they have meowed and purred their way into the heart of Japanese culture.
Popular culture has more than its fill of saucer-eyed cats. They appear in fur suits as backing dancers for Japanese pop stars, melt the hearts of grumpy-faced samurais in TV and film, and get anthropomorphised with speaking roles in Anime and Manga.
Before wide-eyed Luna from Sailor Moon, cats often “modeled” for Ukiyo-e art. Mass produced by woodblock prints, this art form became popular in the Edo period, spanning 17th to 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e prints cover a range of subjects, including cats in all positions: lone cats, cats with people, people as cats, and even cats as monsters.
There are supernatural creatures, like the bakeneko—the changed cat who stands on its hind legs and slowly acquires human traits—and its more nefarious cousin the nekomata, who one-ups the bakeneko by speaking, and incites chaos.
Then you have the maneki neko, the lucky cat who symbolises good fortune and has her own share of folk tales, whether it’s bringing prosperity to starving shop owners or warning someone of a lightning strike by simply raising her paw.
Ever-iconic in Japanese art, this love of cats translates onto the pages of Japanese literature. Immortalised from the most famous Heian novel of the 11th century to the present day, cats have made scratch marks in Japanese prose and poetry.
So slink off to a quiet corner, ideally with your cat if you have one, and immerse yourself in one of these Japanese classics.