Cats are an obsession in modern Japan. Most people have heard of cat cafes by now, but did you know there are cat shrines and even cat tourism? Tama the cat was appointed stationmaster of a Wakayama train station and revived the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists a year. There’s a tourist-magnet island overrun with kitties. February 22 is unofficially Cat Day because nyan-nyan (the Japanese “mew-mew”) can also mean “two-two.” If you love your cat too much, you can take lessons in how to cook for it. Go a step further and you can even get your house designed specially to accommodate your feline family. Cats are stars on the Japanese internet: Videos of the Scottish Fold cat Maru (often doing that basic cat thing of being in a box) have hundreds of millions of views. And of course of all the thousands of merchandising characters in Japan, Hello Kitty reigns supreme.
This may all seem like particularly modern craziness, but in reality it’s just the 21st-century version of something that goes way back, as we can see by looking at the history of Japanese art. Whether ink on paper or pixels on a screen, depictions of cats have been popular for as long as cats have been in Japan.
Hello Kitties! How Cats Invaded Japan
Cats may stroll around Japan like they own the place now, but they’re not natives. It’s said they were originally imported from China around the mid-sixth century to keep the mice away from precious Buddhist scrolls. With this kind of first impression, people’s attitudes toward them were positive and maybe even reverent from the start. The first pet cats were rare, so they were kept only by the elite and carefully cherished. Art of the period shows them on leashes and living indoors. Individual cats could be celebrities back then, too. One Heian-era manuscript details the habits and personality of a black cat given as a gift to the Emperor Uda.
Despite positive associations, cats clearly started making trouble from the beginning. The print above illustrates a scene from The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature that’s considered the world’s first novel. A cat sets a major part of the plot in motion when it knocks down a screen. This allows Genji’s nephew to catches a glimpse of its owner, the third princess. He later seduces her (or forces himself on her, depending on which interpretation you read) and she bears an illegitimate son who’s the main character of much of the rest of the book.
In early art, cats are shown living in the lap of luxury. Contrast this with Chinese art of the same period that tended to emphasize their natural hunting ability. But the good times couldn’t last. Eventually cats were cast out of their aristocratic lifestyles to work in the streets and fields like cats everywhere else. In 1602, the government decreed that all cats should be set free to catch rodents that were destroying the silk worm industry.
Life on the loose may have had some downsides, but it enabled the making of more cats. More cats meant more people could get to know cats and start obsessing over them. The rest is history.
Hey, Edo Entrepreneur! Wanna Buy Some Ukiyo-e?
Photo by Thornet
In the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Japan stopped making war and started making mass popular culture. People had the time and means for leisure. While they didn’t have the internet, they did have romance theater, trashy literature, and of course, ukiyo-e prints.
Ukiyo-e prints are now delicate and precious works of art displayed in museums, protected under glass in dim light. But ukiyo-e, though extremely sophisticated, was in fact originally a popular art form. These are woodblock prints, not paintings. The whole point is to make a bunch of them to sell.
A merchant class had developed and it had money to spend on non-essentials. To attract those buyers, the subject matter of ukiyo-e was everything fashionable and popular. This included cats.
Cats As They Are
Cats were depicted in many ways in ukiyo-e. One is naturally, precisely capturing their appearance and behavior. Cats chasing and playing with their prey, sleeping in various cute positions, licking themselves, etc. That also includes the ways cats naturally interact with people, as in my favorite above. Those who have lived with cats know how true to life that picture is: a cat treating a human the same way it would treat the back of a sofa or a tree branch. While it seems ridiculously awkward, somehow they find that comfortable.
Wild cats were popular in art too, sometimes depicted by artists who’d never seen them in real life. One way you can tell is by looking at the eyes. House cats have pupils that look like vertical slits when contracted. Lions and tigers don’t – their pupils contact to small circles, just like ours. So if the artist draws a tiger with slit pupils, you can bet he’s never seen a live tiger. For all its apparent ferocity, the print above is really a kitty in a tiger suit.
There’s only one thing cuter than cats au naturel: cats in human clothing. In ukiyo-e, cats were frequently depicted as people, walking upright. fully dressed, and engaging in a whole range of human activities. Sometimes these prints are caricature and social commentary, but other times they’re just in fun. In the print above, the cats are performing a traditional Edo acrobatic act of balancing on sticks. But the sticks are pieces of katsuobushi (dried bonito), something cats love to eat.
Cats portraying famous kabuki actors and scenes from equally famous plays became a thing in the mid-19th century when the government banned pictures of actors and courtesans, considering them detrimental to public morals. Artists will always find a way around the rules, of course. In this case cats came to the rescue. Supposedly all of the cats in the print above are recognizable stars of their day. I guess it’s as if someone had ‘shopped cat faces onto a cast photo of Mad Men or some such.
And once you’ve got cats in clothes, why not cat paper dolls? Prints like this one only rarely survive, since children needed to cut them up to play with them.
Although cats first arrived in Japan in a revered and religious context, eventually people got to know them better. This inevitably developed more mixed emotions. From torturing dying mice, to knocking things off the dresser in the middle of the night, cats are often not at all nice.
From this meanness came a tradition of cat monsters and horror stories. Of course we see these in art as well. The print above illustrates a scene from a famous story I’ve found called the “Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima and The Cat Monster of Saga.” It was made into a kabuki play called “The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano.” (A story this good can’t have just one title, I guess.)
It starts when Lord Mabeshima puts his retainer Matashichi to death. Matashichi’s mother commits suicide out of despair, and the cat licks the blood from the knife and turns into a bakeneko. Things just get worse from there.
Crazy Cat Man
When it comes to monstrous cats, no one can beat Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This late Edo-period ukiyo-e artist was a master of the violent and frightening. His art still has such an impact that one modern art critic saw a Kuniyoshi print as a child and ran out of the gallery in terror.
Along with this penchant for the creepy, Kuniyoshi was also obsessed with cats. His studio was reportedly overrun by them and visitors would find him working with a cat cuddled up in his kimono. So it’s no surprise that he combined those two interests in scary cat prints like the one above.
As you would expect, though, he also produced plenty of the other kinds of cats. He did the cats in human clothes thing to the hilt. Lots of kabuki actors and parodies of historical figures. Then there were cats as Edo townspeople dancing, carousing, and playing games.
And as you’d expect from someone with a studio full of felines, he also drew cats doing typical cat things, such as these guys below:
The cats above have punny names corresponding to the 53 stations of the Tōkaidō, a favorite theme in non-cat-related art of the time.
In this more realistic vein, he also included one of his own cats in each of his own self-portraits.
I think my favorite, though, is his series of cats positioned to spell out the names of different kinds of fish in kana. In this one, the second character is a bit hard to decipher, but it should help to know that it’s a fish that is the obvious favorite for us at Tofugu:
Cats in the Round
Prints and drawings aren’t the only place we see cats in Japanese art. There are plenty of three-dimensional versions as well. The famous maneki-neko or beckoning cat may not be high art, but it’s a depiction of cats that you’ll see all over Japan. Cats also appear in higher-class knicknacks in the form of netsuke, which include some of the most fabulous animal art to come out of Japan. Netsuke are tiny carvings that were hung at the end of a cord of purse as part of an arrangement for carrying things when wearing traditional garb that lacks pockets.
A more modern sculptor who had an interest in cats was Asakura Fumio (1883-1964), sometimes called the father of modern Japanese sculpture. You can see many of his cat sculptures at the Asakura Museum of Sculpture in Yanaka, Tokyo, where his amazing house has been preserved and used to display his work.
His sculptures clearly show the hand of someone who’s observed cats closely. As the story goes, when he was a student he couldn’t afford to pay models. So he’d wander around the streets of Ueno sketching cats. It makes sense he eventually settled in nearby Yanaka, since it’s famous for its street kitties.
Once he was successful enough to build his large home and studio, he kept many cats. There are supposedly many photos of him surrounded by a dozen cats. Apparently he even hired a student to care for them.
While its website shows mostly his sculpture of humans, it’s significant that there’s a cat right there in the museum’s logo. Unfortunately they forbid photography inside the museum and I hesitantly obeyed the rules, so I don’t have photos. But at this link you can see a photo of the master and some of his cats, as well as one of a sculpture of a cat being held by the scruff of its neck. Realistically, he’s not all that thrilled. There’s also a great photo of him with another cat sculpture at the museum website.
Photo by yeowatzup
I had planned to wrap up with article with a section about current artists who are obsessed with cats, but it quickly became clear that researching this topic could take up the entire rest of my life. That said, I can’t leave out this link to a couple of terrific modern cat netsuke. There are also some great prints here… OK, I really better stop now.
Now go forth onto the Internet and find Japanese cat obsessive media yourself. And if anyone tells you you’re wasting your time looking at cat pictures, share this article to prove that you’re part of a long and honorable tradition.