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