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Today’s post is a continuation of the obake series, which so far has covered kitsune and tanuki.

Obake (お化け) is a blanket term for the shapeshifters of Japanese folklore, with shapeshifting being a common trait. Other than that, though, anything goes: besides the animal-like obake, there’s also a plethora of shapeshifting housewares, namely the tsukumogami (付喪神).

night parade of 100 demons tsukumogami detail

I can make out an obake cane and umbrella… I think that straw-like thing is a zouri sandal… and I have no idea what that orange thing is.

Bakeneko (化け猫) literally means “transforming cat,” and like its fellow obake, it is also a shapeshifter. Older cats can become bakeneko, although an “old” cat can be anywhere from 7-13 years old or older depending on which prefecture you’re in. Like the kitsune, a bakeneko usually transforms into a beautiful woman, and it can maintain its human form indefinitely. (This means it can deceive men for years – which probably led to neko becoming another name for the coy, bewitching geisha.)

There are many stories that portray bakeneko as bloodthirsty monsters; some even eat and then impersonate their owners. However there are also accounts of bakeneko just engaging in simple tomfoolery.

According to one story, there was once a soy sauce shop that kept losing hand towels. The shop owner heard loud music one night and decided to investigate – and lo and behold, there was a clowder of cats having a grand old time, and in the midst of it all was his pet cat, apparently a bakeneko, dancing on its hind legs and wearing a towel on its head.

Bakeneko 101

As expected for a legendary beast, there are heaps of theories on the origins of bakeneko, what their defining traits are and so on.

ume no haru goju santsugi

One common feature is the bakeneko’s ability to stand (and dance if it wants to) on its hind legs, like a human. There’s an easy explanation for this one: in the past, paper-enclosed andon (行灯) lanterns were lit using cheap fish oils. The Japanese at the time were largely vegetarians, and therefore so were the cats that were fed on table scraps. These protein- and fat-starved kitties naturally gravitated toward the andon lanterns, where the only way to get at the fish oil was to stand on their hind legs and reach in through the open top.

Another defining feature is the bakeneko’s ability to speak human words. I think we can all agree this is just a product of a healthy imagination and any cat that has more than just nyaa~ in its vocabulary. Theo, the star of the following video, greets his owner with “okaeri,” and even chides “bakayarou” when his owner gets home late one night.

The more fantastical traits of a bakeneko are not as easy to explain, though. I mean, shapeshifting? Manipulating corpses? Placing curses on humans? Well, I guess it makes for a better story.

Katsushige Nabeshima, a daimyo during the early Edo period, was once targeted by a seven-tailed bakeneko. The bakeneko shapeshifted into the daimyo’s concubine, but a retainer saw through its disguise and foiled the attempt. For his troubles, the retainer was cursed, and no male heirs were born in his family again.

The Bakeneko’s Legacy

Bakeneko seem quite popular as far as obake go, and there are several bakeneko-related landmarks around Japan. That towel-stealing, dancing scallywag I mentioned earlier? The alleged scene of debauchery is now where Odoriba-eki (踊場駅), or “Dancing Place” Station is located. Another example would be Syuurinji (秀林寺) in the town of Shiroishi, where that murderous, seven-tailed bakeneko is supposedly enshrined.

bakeneko landmarks

Image sources: 1, 2

Bakeneko is also quite common in Japanese pop culture. There’s an upcoming bakeneko parade, for instance, and it frequently appears in manga and anime. My personal favorite is the bakeneko in the manga “Mononoke” (モノノ怪) by Yaeko Ninagawa, which was born of the grudge poured into a kitten by a woman that was kidnapped, raped, imprisoned, and finally discarded in a well like trash. Needless to say this particular bakeneko was a badass and terrorized the wrongdoers mercilessly.


Bakeneko isn’t the only member of Japan’s mythical cat family: there’s also the bakeneko prostitute (化け猫遊女 or bakeneko yuujo), and the nekobake (猫化け), an old witch that transforms into a cat and ingratiates itself as a family pet, only to steal and eat the children at the earliest opportunity.

Sometimes the two-tailed nekomata (猫又) and the maneki neko (招き猫) or “beckoning cat” are considered types of bakeneko, but I’d hesitate to call them that as they don’t actually shapeshift.

In any case, do you have a favourite obake? Tell us about it!


Header image by Kuniyoshi Utagawa

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Am I the only one who kept reading “bakaneko” (ばかねこ) instead of “bakeneko”?? ^-^;;

    And for crazy talking demon cats I just posted one that cracked me up so much on Facebook a few days ago. It was this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kg44ktmeSu0

    A very interesting post. I love cats and so this was a must-read for me! ^-^

  • じょじざ じゃてく

    So the girl in your profile picture is hugging a bakeneko?

  • じょじざ じゃてく

    Have you seen that barking cat?

  • ジョサイア

    Ah, I finally got my profile working again.

    Great post!

  • ジョサイア
  • ジョサイア
  • sawayaka

    Oh, this explains something for me. In the ‘Mr. Kisarazu contest’ episode of ‘Kisarazu Cats Eye’ (which I am still enamoured with ten years later), there is a line about ‘Go and change your costume, Baka Neko!’ but I now realize it was Bakeneko. Got it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    what is the ancient method to exorcise this demon cat if one might *cough cough* suspect they have one?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    definitely demonic

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Ah, well first you must determine the demon cat’s form, truth and reason. Only then can you slay it with the dragon-hilted sword!

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Yes! I laughed so hard the first time I saw it!

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Truly demonic! Reminds me of the Oh Long Johnson cat ^-^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    No way! Is it?

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Oh my god, that’s so cu- (head explodes)

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Thanks! ^–^

  • ジョサイア

    Haha, I just look that up…Whats with these strange(Aka funny) cats. xD

  • ジョサイア

    Wow, A real bakebeko.
    Why do I think this video is from niconico?

    Yeah, I did think of idiot cat. :D

  • ジョサイア

    Welcome. >-<

  • ジョサイア

    Why don’t they just throw the thing off a cliff or something? Oh yeah, they have to use the…Drum roll please…Dragon blade. –{>>>>>>>>>>>

  • ジョサイア

    It’s cute until you have to clean up there…Umm…(biological functions) xD

  • ジョサイア

    Don’t be fooled by it’s cuteness…Here is it’s true form…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIHv1rpUrSw O_O

  • ZXNova

    I always read Bakeneko as “Monster Cat”, but I guess Transforming Cat also works. One thing about a Cat is that when it’s tail reaches a certain length, it will become a Bakeneko. This is what lead to the breeding of the Japanese Bobtail. And there are other forms of Bakeneko, like Nekomata and Kasha. The Bakeneko can become a Nekomata if it eats Humans, and it becomes a Kasha (Which is the Bakaneko that steals corpses) if it eats spirits, ghosts, and other apparitions.

  • mitsuho32

    This is proof that cats are the devil in the form of cute and cuddly deception

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Yeah, apparently before the Japanese Bobtail came along, they went to the extent of cutting off long tails off cats, so that it wouldn’t split into two and produce a nekomata.

    Poor kitties!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Well, there’s no proof that it *isn’t*!

  • ジョサイア

    Lesson learned…Get a puppy! ^O^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    ◉−◉

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Yes, I already knew that one.
    There are so many hilarious cat videos on Youtube.

  • ジョサイア

    Don’t forget about funny little dogs and stuff(Like horses)…xD

  • http://www.facebook.com/katherine.zheng.16 Katherine Zheng

    So a group of cats is called a clowder…you learn something everyday

  • ジョサイア

    It’s standing.
    So in other words…it’s a bakeneko. o_O

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m sorry to say this, but I only care about cats!! XDDD
    Maybe I’m already under the influence of a bakeneko, who knows?

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    ^ – ^

  • ジョサイア

    How could you say that D:

    This will break the spell haha. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWDc9oyBj5Q

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Well, yeah, puppies are cute and all, but they have one big problem!!!
    They are NOT cats!!! ^-^;

  • ジョサイア

    Hmm…I guess you’re a 猫オタク then…xD

    I could be a 子犬オタク・・・maybe. :D

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I surely am! (*__*)
    I’d love to have a cat around me again. Stupid Japanese apartment rules!! :(

  • ジョサイア

    They don’t allow cats? What about mice? Dx

    Just tell them it’s a seeing eye cat and your blind…

    Oh yeah, This reminds me of my grandmother…She has like 15 cats…O_O

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    *LOL*
    Well, pets are not allowed, but how come that bats, frogs, roaches, centipedes and other critters just enter without asking? A cat could at least take care of that, right?
    Though, I like your idea as well! ;P

  • ジョサイア

    You’ve got to get the バカ外人 message across somehow. :D

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I thought it was being picked up…

  • ジョサイア

    That’s just what it wont’s you to think…O_o

    You hold it, I’ll go get my dragon blade. xD

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    (= ̄▽ ̄=)V やったね。(汗)

  • ジョサイア

    ♪ ♫!♪♫.. ようし!

  • JoeGaston

    bakeneko for sure http://youtu.be/Ufg0EpexoYM

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    So it is! LOL

    I didn’t actually know what my profile pic was from, Viet posted it and I figured I might as well use it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    D:

  • ジョサイア

    …I’ll go get a dragon blade…LOL

  • ジョサイア

    In reality that cat in you’re profile picture is cute. :D

  • ジョサイア

    Better than the dragon blade! D:

  • Ju

    Great article, thank you! :)

  • hikaru1412

    Omg, the cat named Theo in that video is so damned cute!! I want a cat that speaks to me in Japanese. haha

  • cloudsnapper

    Can you do a story on the wall ghost? Someone online once wrote that their Japanese roommate was telling him/her stories about Japanese ghosts and one was a wall ghost. They said “It’s a ghost that’s a wall. It’s really annoying because you have to always go around it.”
    It’s also possible that the person was making things up, but it seems like a pretty funny ghost to me.

  • HorrorChan

    Reminds me of what people in Europe did during their witch hunts cats. Only they were put to death. :c

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Wall ghost? That sounds interesting!

    I’ll go see what I can find out about it ^-^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Me too!