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What Place Do Cats Have In Japanese Culture? What You Should Know!

Cats are quite popular in Japan, you will find cats depicted in Japanese pop culture, from the “Maneki Neko,” the beckoning cat, to Japanese folklore that symbolizes cats as good fortune.

Cats represent many things in Japanese culture and are believed to be elegant and mysterious creatures that started when cats were brought over from China to protect Buddhist scriptures from vermin. The origins and folklore that have caused cats to become a major part of Japanese culture are fascinating and theirs no doubt that the Japanese love cats. These inspiring animals have been depicted in various Japanese novels, art, literature, and folklore.

Click below to jump ahead:

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History Of Cats In Japan

Cats are believed to have originally come into China during the 6th century by Buddhist Monks to protect sacred Buddhist scrolls from damage caused by vermin like mice and rats when the religion was introduced into the country.

Cats were then kept as pets by the Emperor, which made them become more than just protection for scrolls, but also a prized possession. The Emperor’s cat was black, and this was depicted in a diary.

The first recorded name of a cat in Japan was Moyobu no Otodo which was an aristocratic name given by Emperor Ichijo. The cat had a white tag and red collar in ancient records and was seen playing with strings.

This made them first seem like exotic animals that were rare and precious before they were plentiful in Japan. Soon after cats were introduced into the streets, they populated and become more common. Cats have since been the inspiration for many legends and folklore surrounding Japanese culture and have inspired the creation of many Japanese statues and cartoons.

Cats were kept throughout Japan to protect silk farms, and rice in food storages, and even made popular pets. Many cats are also kept for spiritual meanings, as cats are symbols of fortune and luck in Japan.

Cat in Japan with Buddhist
Image Credit: SAND555UG, Shutterstock

What Do Cats Symbolize In Japanese Culture?

Cats are a symbol of good fortune in Japan, especially the Japanese bobtail breed. Black cats were especially adored in Japan because they were believed to bring unmarried women a desirable suitor. Other symbolisms of cats in Japanese culture include wealth, prosperity, and luck in the Maneki Neko.

Symbolizing is very meaningful in Japan. Cats are also seen as having protective powers. Many cats are special in Japanese culture because of all the art, folklore, legends, and literature about cats that makes them not only cute and cuddly companions, but also have spiritual meaning in Japanese culture.

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The 4 Symbolic Cats In Japanese Folklore

Most cats are portrayed with supernatural powers as entities in Japanese folklore. These cats are symbolic and often have a back story as to why they are portrayed in that way.

1. Maneki Neko

The beckoning cat, better known as the Maneki Neko in Japanese, is one of the most popular feline statues with a symbolic meaning. The Maneki Neko is believed to bring fortune and luck, and there are three folklore stories as to how this cat figurine may have originated from.

It is usually made from ceramic or plastic and can be seen in front of shops and houses in Japan, usually by the entrance. The original figurine was a calico Japanese bobtail cat with a raised left paw that beckons visitors. It is used as a form of welcoming, while also being considered good luck to the owner.

The most widely believed origin story of the Maneki Neko is that a feudal lord was underneath a tree when he saw a cat waving at him with its paw. He curiously approached the cat, when suddenly a lightning bolt hit the tree right where he had been standing moments before.

This figurine has since been placed throughout Japan and is especially popular among small business owners. The Maneki Neko’s classic back-and-forth mechanical paw is also believed to signal when visitors are arriving since it looks like the cat is washing its face.

Meneki Neko cat figurine
Image Credit: Cris Feliciano, Pexels
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2. Bakeneko

This is a story about a shape-shifting cat that started normal and later developed supernatural abilities. This change happened as the cat aged and was unusually large. Cats were generally preferred to have short tails in ancient Japan, much like the Japanese bobtail and the tails were typically cut short to achieve this look.

This preference led to the unintentional breeding of cats with naturally short tails, and once they have gotten their supernatural powers, the bakenko grow into a human adult. They will walk on their hind legs and even speak, along with the ability to summon fireballs that were found that the ends of their tails.

When a bakeneko transforms into a woman, they are known as “Neko-Musume” which translates to the daughter of a cat. This is also the popular depiction of the cat girl from anime.

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3. Kasha

One of the most terrifying bakeneko is the Kasha, This was a fiery cat that stole sinners’ corpses from graveyards and is believed to bring them to hell. Sometimes they will keep the bodies to eat, while sometimes using them as puppets. This gruesome bakeneko was called Kasha because it was the original meaning of a burning chariot in the original Buddhist texts.

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4. Nekomata

The Nekomata (forked cat) was often confused with the bakeneko, but the main difference is their double tails. Even though not all bakeneko are considered malicious to humans, the Nekomata are. When the Nekomata gains supernatural powers and begins to walk on its hind legs and talk like humans, some run away to hide from towns deep in the mountains.

Here they become human-eating monsters and some tails say that they learned necromancy. The Nekomata sometimes haunt their owners with visits from the dead and even summon fireballs just like the bakeneko. However, the bakeneko doesn’t use its power to intentionally harm humans, the Nekomata does.

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The 4 Representations of Cats In Japanese Art

Cats have long been depicted in Japanese art and even found in one of the world’s first novels as a main character in the 11th century. From watercolors to ukiyo-e prints, cats have been featured in many Japanese artworks.

Let’s look at some of the Japanese artwork that features cats:

1. Beauties After a Bath – Kitagawa Utamaro

A picture of two young women in gowns who just got out of the hot springs baths and have a short-tailed kitten playing with the bottom of the orange gown. It was created over 200 years ago and shows the artist’s love for felines and female forms.

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2. Tiresome – Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

The artwork was taken by the series Thirty-two Customs and Manners of Women which shows a famous painting of the love between a woman and her cat. Yoshitoshi was considered one of the greatest ukiyo-e greatest artists.

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3. Tama the Cat – Hiroaki Takahashi

This print was created in 1926 by a Tokyo artist who produced cat portraits of a more modern ukiyo-e style. The artist’s use of shading and blending colors to create a striking white cat with a red neckpiece makes for a perfectly balanced cat picture.

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4. Cat and Plum Blossoms – Hishida Shunso

Hishida Shunso produced delicate and realistic paintings using the nihonga and morotai styles. This painting shows a cat waking up or fighting the urge to sleep, with soft peachy colors and the ink diffusion painting method makes the painting look realistic.

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Cats In Japanese Literature

In Japanese culture, cats are also the main character in many cartoons and novels written by Natsume Soseki. The book I Am a Cat which was written from the perspective of house cats is critical of its owners.

Years later, Hiro Arikawa took inspiration from the novel and wrote The Traveling Cat Chronicles, which is a satirical story about the adventures of a cat that travels with its owners through Japan. Even if cats are not the main characters in Japanese novels, they will be featured often.

Japanese Bobtail Cat
Image Credit: slowmotiongli, Shutterstock



Cats are greatly intertwined with Japanese culture and can be found throughout cities in Japan. Cats primarily represent luck and good fortune in Japanese culture, but they are also the lead roles in novels and shows, along with being depicted in artwork for decades by famous Japanese artists.

Cats are considered both cute and cuddly pets along with a character in famous artwork, literature, and folklore that makes them a favorite and symbolic animal in Japan.

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Featured Image Credit: Pabkov, Shutterstock