Frisky Felines of Japan

With the boom of the internet and social media, one animal seems to have gained the title as the world’s most loved house pet. The interest and ownership of cats as family pets have seen a great rise in popularity despite the common notion that cats are not the most loving of pets. Their laid back yet cunning demeanor seems to have caught the attention of many people around the world and has given way to many different forms of cat themed business. Even shows that star cats, such as Garfield and Sagwa Miao, have gained so much popularity. This is true especially in modern day Japan as evident in the steady rise in the number of cat cafes, shrines, and Instagram pet accounts where cats are considered cute or “kawaii”. One of Japan’s most famous cats in cat cafes and online is Maru. If Japan has Machiko as its most famous dog, Maru is Hachiko’s cat counterpart.

From the cities of Tokyo and Osaka up to the beaches of Okinawa, cats, or Neko in the Japanese language are seen almost everywhere in Japan. A great example of how popular cats are in Japan would require one to walk no further than the closest store as most vendors in Japan would have a small statue of a kitten. With one paw in the air and the other on a coin, the maneki-neko, or fortune cat, ensures the vendors have a lucky day. It might be confusing as to why something as sly as a cat would gain so much love from the Japanese. To answer this, one must look at multiple aspects of the Japanese feline pet and learn what makes it so special.

The Meaning Behind Cats Found in Traditional Japanese Art

The Japanese have been enthralled by these fun furry little felines way before the first email was sent over the internet. This is surprising because felines are not actually native to Japan. The common conception of the history community was that cats were brought in with Chinese trading ships over 1000 years ago. Originally, these cats were brought in as a way to exterminate mice. These cats became protectors of many different things. Placing cats in a farm would protect the crops from pests. Placing cats in a temple would protect scriptures and structures from rats. Placing cats on boats would protect sailors from diseases carried by rodents. It is no wonder the ancient Japanese had hundreds of artworks devoted to worshiping their new best friend.

In the early years of the Japanese feline, they were believed to only be kept in the care of the rich and powerful. These cats would live the life of luxury and much like the Instagram famous pets of today, individual cats would be treated like a star. These are evident in paintings from the Heian-era, with the most famous being a black cat that was given to Emperor Uda. This black cat even had a whole manuscript devoted to explaining its mannerisms and physical characteristics in much detail.

The most famous artist who repeatedly used cats as a subject for his art projects would have to be Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Utagawa Kuniyoshi who was born on the first of January 1978, was a master in visual arts. As a child, he was exposed to pattern designing as his father was a silk dyer. It is believed that his exposure to his father’s work is what triggered his artistic curiosities and is where his liberal use of colors emanated from. He commonly creates violent, scary, and creepy images meant to instill discomfort onto viewers. It was said that he loves the companionship that cats bring him. It was said that he had more cats as friends than people. Visitors would never see him not in contact in one form or another with a cat. Aside from the creepier art pieces, Kuniyoshi also created artworks that depicted humanoid cats doing things that people would do, A great example of this would be his painting of cats standing upright in fishing gear, dealing in a wet market.

The most famous depictions of cats in traditional Japanese artworks happen in the Edo period as Ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, gained fame. Sellers of these mass-produced forms of art needed to use popular themes and images to constantly stay in business and this included cats. Woodblock prints of cats would take on many different forms. Popular depictions of cats would be:

  • Cats Being Cats
    These prints would depict the cats in their natural form as seen in everyday life. From playing with toys to hunting rodents, the aim of this style of cat painting was to imitate the feeling of joy or leisure of watching a cat be itself.
  • Cats Interacting With People
    With the same thought process as showing a cat in its natural state, expressing a cat interacting with a person shows the joy, or hardships, of living with a cat. Some of them would show a child playing with a kitten, others would show cats sleeping beside old men. This style showed the different interactions people have with the feline companion.
  • Cats Depicted as People
    By combining the first two depictions of cats, Ukiyo-e artists were able to make mass-produced art that could say more than just the joy of having a cat. By turning the image of a person into a cat, or vice-versa, these ancient artists were able to make caricatures of the world around them. When the Japanese government forbade the printing of specific people, artists would just turn their likeness into cats and work around that law. 
  • Yokai
    The use of Japanese folklore in artwork has always been used as popular media. This is also true for the usage of cats. These art forms usually are exaggerations of the qualities of cats which are not favorable to the pet owner. Popular images were those of cats knocking things off tables as if a ghost had done it.

Battle of the Cat Breeds: Japanese Bobtail vs American Bobtail

Bobtailed cats are among the rarest and most prized breeds of feline in the world. The Japanese Bobtail, an ancient and very famous breed, as well as the American Bobtail, a new and upcoming breed, are the most well known. These two cats are often mistaken for one another but once one learns more about them, their differences really stand out.

The most famous breed of feline in Japan would have to be the Japanese Bobtail. This is the cat that is most seen in traditional Japanese art and folklore. Native to Japan and South Asia, this feline gained the name bobtail because its tail is “bobbed” much like that of a rabbit. These short haired cats often come in almost any color and pattern. However, the most prized and referenced image of a Japanese Bobcat would be one the mi-ke, which translates to triple hair. The mi-ke is a Japanese bobtail that is predominantly white with patches of two other colors. The Japanese Bobtail cat typically has a pleasant and affectionate personality and is often favored as the perfect family cat. These are regarded as very intelligent and playful cats. They love being puzzled with toys and other animals. Highly sociable in nature, these cats will demand attention when none has been given. The physical characteristics of the Japanese Bobtail are what makes this breed very rare and special. Its bobbed tail, which should not be over three inches, gives a playful impression and resembles that of a bunny. The eyes are large and slanted much like that of the Japanese, giving it a very Asian animal look. The shape of the head is what really sets this cat apart. The shape of the head, not counting the ears, is actually an equilateral triangle. This is a rare and ancient breed of cat that is known world-over as a very prestigious and excellent pet to own. Although it is quite pricey to get a hold of this cat, most feline lovers, as well as cat cafes in Japan, aim to own a Japanese Bobtail.

The American Bobtail breed of cat has less information about its origins as it is fairly new in development. This breed of cat is believed to have relations to the Japanese Bobtail. This breed of cat started in the 60’s just by pure accident as one couple brought in a short-tailed stray cat which then mated with their own cat. They then turned to a breeder to help them and the American Bobtail was born. By selectively choosing mates for the bobtails, the breeder was able to produce a breed of cat that had a fierce look and a loving personality. This cat was accepted as a full-fledged breed by the year 1989. The personality of an American Bobtail is akin to that of the Golden Retriever dog breed. It’s fun, playful, and devoted to the people around it. It’s also said to have a very adaptable nature to it so this breed is perfect for people on the road a lot. As this breed of cat was made using many other breeds, even those without pedigree, the American Bobtail has no predisposition to any illnesses. Physically, this cat is stunning. It is a medium sized cat with a short fluffy tail. It is a common saying that no two tails of American Bobtails are the same. This cat comes in two lengths of fur, short and semi-long.

With all the wildly different characteristics of the two bobtail breeds known, it seems that the two are similar only in name. Physically, the Japanese Bobtail has the most revered facial structure in the cat world who is cuter and better as a pet; the energetic and fun ancient Japanese Bobtail, or the wild and loving new breed, American Bobtail?

Popular Japanese Cat Names

By now, it should be clear that the Japanese have a unique fascination with their feline partners. In fact, Japan has given one day a year to these cats, by announcing that February 22 would be cat day. From the lonely college student to the young spritely child, cats seem to be integrated into the daily lives of the Japanese people. It makes one wonder what the most common names for felines in Japan are. Through a study done by a pet insurance company by Anikomu, the most popular name for both male and female cats came out to be “Sora,” which means sky. For the female pet’s name, Momo had taken the number one slot. Momo is the Japanese word for peach. Luna, a term for the moon, is the second most popular cat name in Japan. Hana, the word for flower, as well as Sakura, translates to cherry blossom. For the male kittens, Leo had taken the number one spot. Fuku, the term for Lucky, and Maru, which means round, were two names that were on the top of the list. Other names that have interesting meanings and are quite popular in Japan are Aiko (little love), Keiko (adored one), and Takara (treasure).

Cats are definitely one of the cutest and most amazing animals to keep as a pet. From the traditional paintings of the ancient masters to the many cat cafes spread around the cities, the reverence that the Japanese hold the cats up to can be felt in all aspects of their culture. From the first step, a cat did on the streets of Japan up to the cat cafes that are prevalent all throughout the major areas of Tokyo city. From going for walks in the warm month of March up to the cold weather of December, the feline immigrants have carefully made themselves an irreplaceable as can be in the popular media of Tokyo. Cats in all their playfulness allow people to really think about how they want to spend their reality and live a life as freely as they cat. Maybe everyone can learn and change themselves by spending more time with these wonderful cats.