Nekomata: An Evil Cat in Japanese Folklore

Pets these days are considered to be among the best companions of people. While they cannot necessarily speak or talk to human beings, people find comfort in confiding in their pets and having them around the house. The common types of domestic pets include dogs, cats, birds, and fish. The two most typical ones are the dogs that are considered to be a man's best friend and the cats that love to purr and cuddle. These cute little bundles of joy look harmless and bring comfort to their owners.

Utagawa Kunisada [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, in Japan, this is not always the case. There are many superstitions and folklores surrounding animals in general, including domesticated pets, among them being cats. There is a Japanese folklore that believes that there are monsters within cats that come out after a certain age. Some believe that they turn into beasts known as the Nekomata after a certain time of being in the house. These beasts were believed to devour human beings and kill just for fun. This has made an impact on how some people who believe in the Japanese folklore take care of their domesticated cats until today. Sadly, this effect has not been the best for the welfare of the cats in Japan.

A Cat Yokai Known As Nekomata: Its Meaning and Powers

With “neko” translating to “cat” in English, a nekomata is a type of cat yokai that originated from Japanese folklore. It was first mentioned by Yoshida Kenko in his literary jottings during the Kamakura period from the year 1185 to the year 1333. In his scroll called Tsurezure-gusa or The Harvest of Leisure, also called Essays in Idleness, Yoshida stated that a nekomata exists deep in the mountains that feeds on human flesh. It was also around this time that Fujiwara Sadaie mentioned the existence of nekomata in his scroll called Meigetsuki or The Record of the Clear Moon, also known as the Diary of the Clear Moon.

During the Kamakura period, because there was no accounts that relayed supernatural abilities of the nekomata, the beast was only considered a regular predator that lived in the mountains. It is also unbeknownst to the public whether the accounts stated by both Yoshida and Fujiwara were based on an actual creature or something else altogether. What is to be sure is how this recounting of events in their scrolls affected the readers and the general public. It caused fear among the people, all of which have not even seen a nekomata before.

Utagawa Kunisada [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Upon the arrival of the Edo period, the folk legend concerning the nekomata evolved. Through the years, the size of the nekomata increased with each telling of the story. The nekomata was described to be bigger than a wild boar in the book entitled Shincho Monjyu or A Literary Collection of New Hearings published in the year 1685. Come the year 1775 in the book entitled Waku-shiori or A Bookmark of Chinese Characters, the size of the nekomata further increased as it was described to be as huge as a panther or a lion, with its growl resounding through the mountainous regions. This further evolved as the nekomata was depicted as having a length of more than six feet in the year 1809. It was also said that the creature was big enough “to carry a dog in its mouth.”

It was during the Middle Edo Period that the idea of domesticated cats turning into the nekomata first appeared. It was believed to be dangerous to keep a house cat for too long as it might transform into the nekomata. Furthermore, it was said that the tail of the old cats would be split into two once it is time for their transformation. This idea was explained and supported by the books Ansei Zuihitsu or The Literary Jottings of Ansei written by Yusoku Kojitsu and Kazusai no Neko or Cats of Various Ages written by Ise Fudatake. A scholar by the name of Arai Hakuseki further increased the popularity of this belief through his essays about the mysteries of cats. His essays were printed in newspapers that were widely circulated at that time.

Probably among the most famous stories in relation to the nekomata was The Nekomata Fire, which was among the many stories compiled in the 1708 Yamato Kaiiki or Mysterious Stories from Japan. The tale talks about how the house of a samurai was taken over by a ghost-like haunting. The problem only ended when the house cat of the family was killed (which was considered a feat) where it was revealed to have two tails. 

By Sawaki Suushi (佐脇嵩之, Japanase, *1707, †1772) - scanned from ISBN 4-3360-4187-3., パブリック・ドメイン, Link

Many people mistake the nekomata for the bakeneko. While the two have the same original life of being house cats before transforming into beasts, the nekomata are more hostile. Not only are they older and larger cats compared to the bakeneko, but they also have longer tails that would split into two. Furthermore, not all bakeneko are malevolent while all nekomata definitely are. It is also believed that the nekomata are more able to speak human language in comparison to the bakeneko. Due to their larger size, the nekomata are also able to cause more damage and wreak havoc in comparison to the bakeneko.

Nekomata in the Mountain Regions

The belief on the nekomata and its evil acts began in the year 1233, which was the beginning of Tenpuku. On the 8th of the month of August during the early years of the Kamakura period, a statement was made by Fujiwara in the scroll “Meigetsuki” that a nekomata killed and gobbled many people in just one single night in Nanto, which is now known as Nara Prefecture. This was the first time that a nekomata appeared in literature. It was believed then that a nekomata was a monster living in the mountains.

In the “Meigetsuki,” the nekomata was described as that of having the eyes of a cat but the body of a large dog. It was believed that the nekomata would attack humans who were by chance in the mountain regions. The chances of becoming a victim of the nekomata depended on many factors such as how deep the person is in the mountains. The nekomata were also cunning creatures that used several tricks in order to lure people into the mountains.

One of their many tricks included mimicking the sound or cries of people who are in peril. Their tricks were not limited to this, as they would do anything to lure their prey into the dangers of the mountains and away from the safety of their own homes. These victims, upon encountering the nekomata, would be attacked, killed, then eaten by the beast. While its appearance were still uncertain, most descriptions of this monster were still quite scary.

Another trick that the demon cat would do in order to kill more people is to transform into human form. They are not limited to only a single human body. This means that they can transform into anyone, even into a person’s mother or relative. Once they are able to trick the victim into thinking that it is a loved one in danger and the victim gets closer, the nekomata would attack the victim unguarded. 

Domestic Nekomata: Evil Cats Eating Their Masters At Home

On the other hand, there is also another type of nekomata, which is the domesticated nekomata. Kittens that were raised inside homes would grow into the normal house cats. However, it is believed by some people that these house cats would gradually develop certain powers that would enable them to entrance their owners. They would then turn into nekomata and leave the house to travel to the mountains, where they would join their mountain counterparts, kill, and eat humans.

Sadly, this folklore has affected the lives of many cats whose owners believe in this mythology. For it was believed that only domesticated cats turned into nekomata, a number of the feline species would be left out in the cold after reaching a certain age. While this is a sad and cruel outcome for the cats, it was deemed necessary by believers in order to prevent the transformation of the cats into nekomata.

Another skill or power of this devil cat was believed to be the ability to talk to the dead. Not only that, the nekomata was also said to be able to control the dead and use this to torment human beings. They would do this just to spread mischief and to cause misery among humans. A trick that they would do to further torment a person is to taunt them with the visions of their loved ones who have already passed away. On the other hand, it is said that they only generally do this to the people who have caused them harm while the cats were still alive.

Due to their many powers, it is said that the nekomata have enslaved humans by blackmailing them. Another way for them to kill humans other than eating them is by causing chaos and large fires. They would find great pleasure in wreaking havoc among humans. The cruelty of the nekomata truly is unparalleled. Tormenting humans just for fun and seeing them suffer is not something a creature with conscience can do.

Nekomata in Persona 5, Nioh, Haikyuu, and Mobius Final Fantasy (As A Squad Card)

This Japanese folklore about the nekomata has truly spread throughout generations. The concept of the nekomata has been found to be so fascinating that it was incorporated in video games and anime as well. A popular video game known as Persona 5 has a character known as Nekomata that has a number of skills that can be related to evil cats, such as Terror Claw and Evil Touch. Students as well as adults who are into playing Persona 5 would definitely know about the Nekomata.

Part of the list of video games that incorporated this concept is Nioh. Called a Guardian Spirit in the game, the Nekomata can provide the player with both active and passive benefits. Its Guardian Spirit Protection and Living Weapon information can be found in the Nioh wiki website. Another video game that had the nekomata term in its game is the Mobius Final Fantasy. Among its many Ability Cards is the Security: Nekomata Squad (Card). Its job type is Healer while its element is Wind. The region for this is the Mako Reactor 2: Upper Levels.

Also incorporating the name nekomata in his aliases is Naoyuki Sato. A video game composer with Necomata Modify Salvation among its aliases, he is quite well-known for the music he composes for various video games. It was also he who made the system voice used in beatmania IIDX 20 tricoro. As for another video game incorporating nekomata, one can look into Megami Tensei.

As for anime, a popular series entitled Haikyuu used the word “nekomata” as a surname of one of its characters. Going by the name of Yasufumi Nekomata, this character plays the Head Coach of the volleyball team for boys of Nekoma High. He is male and is 68 years of age in the series. His character is also often seen smiling while his attire is composed of a white shirt under a red jacket matched with a pair of red pants.

Whether this Japanese folklore holds some sense of truth in it, the important thing to always remember is to be good to all creatures in general. Even though cats may not turn into the nekomata after a number of years, cruelty against them should be avoided at all cost. Being gentle to these animals and showing the love and care would surely stick to them. Having these loyal companions by one’s side can be beneficial at times. Leaving a cat out in the cold to fend for itself without having any idea what it has done to deserve such treatment is just cruel. Whether or not the nekomata folklore is real, one hopes that cats, in general, get better treatment.