Cats of Japan. The Mysterious Felines of the Far East


Cats have a long history and cultural significance in Japan. The exact origins of when cats first arrived in Japan are unclear, but it is believed they were likely introduced from China or Korea as early as the 6th century. Over the centuries, cats have become an integral part of Japanese culture and society. They are featured in folklore, worshipped at shrines, and kept commonly as pets. Today, Japan has several native cat breeds and is home to tens of millions of domestic cats. Cats have left their paw print on Japanese culture, language and tradition.

Origins of Cats in Japan

Cats were first introduced to Japan from China and Korea during the 6th century AD, around 500-600 AD. It is generally believed that cats arrived in Japan at the same time as Buddhism was spreading from mainland Asia. According to the website Web Japan, “It is said that the domestic cat first came to Japan in 538 (or 552) A.D. It is generally thought that cats were introduced at the same time as Buddhism, to deal with mice that might eat the sutras.” [1] Cats quickly became popular pets and protectors of scrolls and scriptures from rodents in temples and noble households.


Cats in Japanese Culture

Cats have played an important role in Japanese culture and folklore for centuries. In Japanese mythology, cats were seen as magical creatures and were thought to have the ability to shapeshift into humans. The most famous cat in Japanese folklore is the bakeneko, or “transforming cat.” According to legend, a regular domestic cat could turn into a bakeneko after living for a long time or reaching a certain age. The bakeneko was said to walk on its hind legs, speak the human language, and even wield swords. Some bakeneko were thought to use their powers to manipulate or possess humans.

Beyond folklore, cats have been a popular subject of art and literature in Japan. Ukiyo-e artists like Kuniyoshi produced prints depicting cats engaging in human activities like playing musical instruments. In modern times, hello kitty and other cat characters feature prominently in kawaii pop culture. Cats have also been featured in Japanese poetry, novels, manga, and anime. Writers like Natsume Soseki wrote about the wisdom, independence, and mysterious qualities of cats.

Overall, cats have long been appreciated in Japan for their beauty, grace, and air of mystery. They continue to be a cherished part of Japanese culture and tradition. (1)

Breeds of Cats Native to Japan

There are three main breeds of cats considered native to Japan:

Japanese Bobtail

The Japanese Bobtail is one of the most popular cat breeds originating from Japan. They are a natural breed and have existed in Japan for centuries. The Japanese Bobtail is recognized for its peculiar short or stubby tail, which is a result of a genetic mutation. These cats typically have a strong, compact body and come in a wide variety of coat colors and patterns.

Kurilian Bobtail

The Kurilian Bobtail, also known as the Kuril Islands Bobtail, comes from the Kuril Islands north of Japan. They are a landrace breed adapted to the harsh climate of the northern islands. The Kurilian Bobtail has a fluffy medium-length coat that can be longhair or shorthair. They are semi-cobby in body type and always have a pom-pom tail.

Japanese Curl

The Japanese Curl is a newer breed originating from a spontaneous genetic mutation in cats on Ishigaki Island, Japan, in 1981. The breed is characterized by its unique curled ears. Japanese Curls have a medium-length silky coat that can be straight or wavy. Their body type is semi-foreign with long slender legs.

While not yet as popular globally as the Japanese Bobtail, the Kurilian Bobtail and Japanese Curl are gaining interest among cat fanciers looking for unique breeds.


Cats as Pets in Japan

Despite Japan’s reputation as a nation of cat lovers, cat ownership rates are actually quite low compared to other countries. According to a 2022 survey by Euromonitor International, only 22% of Japanese households owned a cat, which was the lowest rate of cat ownership among the Asian countries surveyed. In contrast, 44% of Thai households and 40% of Philippine households owned cats. Cat ownership rates have remained steady in Japan over the past decade, hovering between 20-25% of households.

The most popular cat breeds kept as pets in Japan are native Japanese breeds such as the Kurilian Bobtail, Japanese Bobtail, and Japanese Chin. Other popular breeds include the American Shorthair, Scottish Fold, and exotic breeds like the Bengal. Many pet cats are mixed breeds adopted from animal shelters. Pedigreed cats are less common, likely due to the small living spaces in Japanese households. Regardless of breed, cats are prized for their cute appearance and independent, quiet nature that suits Japan’s dense urban living.

Feral and Stray Cats

Japan has a significant population of feral and stray cats, especially in urban areas. It’s estimated there are over 100,000 stray cats just in Tokyo alone[1]. These large populations of unowned cats are a result of Japan’s history of allowing cats to roam freely, lack of spay/neuter programs, and people abandoning pets[2].

While some feral cats are fed and looked after by people in the community, many struggle to survive and reproduce quickly. The large numbers of stray cats have a significant impact on urban wildlife. Cats prey on small animals like birds, rodents and reptiles, disrupting ecosystems[3]. There are concerns about the spread of diseases as well from uncontrolled stray cat populations interacting with owned pets.

To manage the issues, animal welfare organizations in Japan have started TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs to humanely reduce feral cat colonies. There is also a growing movement to make sterilization and registration mandatory for pet cats, and increase public education around responsible pet ownership[4]. However, addressing the large stray cat population remains an ongoing challenge.

[1] [](
[2] [](
[3] Feral Cat Ecology and Management, CAB International 2020.
[4] Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 22(4), 2019.

Cat Cafes

Cat cafes originated in Taiwan in the late 1990s before becoming popular in Japan in the 2000s (source). The concept involves a cafe where customers can interact with cats while enjoying drinks and snacks. Cat cafes grew in popularity across major cities in Japan like Tokyo and Osaka as more people moved into apartments that don’t allow pets.

Visiting a cat cafe provides a way for urban residents to get their “cat fix” and enjoy interacting with furry felines for an hour or two. While traditional cafes in Japan focus on the quality of coffee, cat cafes emphasize the cat experience and environment. The cafes typically house around 10-20 cats that roam freely while customers relax on couches and floor spaces. There is usually a cover charge which includes a drink, with additional fees to purchase snacks. Cat cafes have proven extremely popular, with Japan now home to hundreds of such establishments (source).

Cats in Religion

Cats have played an important role in Japanese religion and spirituality for centuries. In Buddhism, cats are seen as protectors of ancient sutras and sacred texts. According to tradition, a cat was left in charge of guarding and protecting an important Buddhist sutra at Chōzan-ji temple when the head monk had to leave (source: Cats are also believed to be the reincarnation of elderly spinster women in Japanese Buddhism.

In Shintoism, cats are thought to be lucky creatures and are revered for their ability to see spirits and ward off evil. It is believed that feeding cats will bring good fortune. The maneki-neko (beckoning cat) is a famous cat figurine found in many Japanese shops and homes thought to bring good luck and prosperity (source:

In Japanese folk religion, cats are viewed as magical shape-shifting creatures called bakeneko that can take on human form. Legends tell stories of cats that become human at night to interact with people.

Cats in Japanese Media

Cats have long been embedded in various forms of Japanese media and pop culture, from anime and manga to films. Their depictions often go beyond just being cute pets and tap into deeper cultural meanings and archetypes.

In anime and manga, cats are often depicted as wise, magical creatures or companions that provide guidance to characters. For example, Jiji the black cat in Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service acts as Kiki’s confidante and navigator. The magical cats in the Sailor Moon series, Luna and Artemis, serve as mentors to the Sailor Guardians.

Another common trope is hyper-cute cartoon cats, like Hello Kitty, that exemplify kawaii Japanese pop culture. These cutesy cat characters are embedded everywhere in Japan, from merchandise to advertising.

In Japanese films, cats are sometimes portrayed as having a sixth sense about danger or the supernatural, providing a mysterious forewarning of ominous events. The cat characters in The Ring and Hausu exemplify this trope.

Overall, the rich meanings and symbolism of cats in Japanese storytelling reveal a deep cultural appreciation and fascination with these furry creatures.



In conclusion, cats play an important role in Japanese culture and society. Some of the main points are that cats first arrived in Japan over 1,500 years ago and were likely brought by Buddhist monks. Over time, cats became intertwined with Japanese culture, art, folklore, and religion. There are several cat breeds considered native to Japan such as the Japanese Bobtail. Cats are popular pets and can be found in many households. Japan also has a large population of feral and stray cats that live on the streets. Special cat cafes started in Japan and have now spread around the world. Cats are respected in Buddhist traditions and folklore for protection against evil spirits and bad luck. They frequently appear in Japanese media and pop culture. Overall, cats have a rich history and cultural significance in Japan, being highly revered animals that are seen as lucky charms.

The importance of cats in Japanese culture can be seen through the many ways cats have become ingrained in daily life, art, media, folklore, and tradition over centuries. Japan has a long, deep bond with cats that still persists today. Cats continue to be cherished for their spiritual protection, companionship, and role in Japanese traditions.

Scroll to Top