The Mythic Felines of Japan. How Cats Captured the Cultural Imagination

The Mythical Cat Deities of Japan

In Japan, cats aren’t just pets. They are revered as mythical figures with supernatural powers that bring good luck and fortune. Tales of shape-shifting cat spirits known as bakeneko have been told for centuries in Japanese folklore. From the beckoning cat maneki-neko to the demonic cat monsters called nekomata, cats hold a special place in the mythical imagination of Japan.

So why do cats captivate the Japanese people? There are many reasons cats have reached an exalted status in Japanese culture and history. This article explores the folklore, religion, popular culture, and modern lifestyle trends around cats in Japan. It aims to uncover why these agile, mysterious creatures continue to bewitch an entire nation.

History and Folklore

Cats were first introduced to Japan from China around the 6th century AD during the Kofun period. Trade ships likely brought domestic cats to Japan to help control rodents on board. Over time, cats made their way onto land and spread throughout the country.

In ancient Japanese folklore and mythology, cats were viewed as having supernatural abilities. According to folktales, cats served as messengers of the gods and could invite prosperity into the home. This belief led to the popular “beckoning cat” figurine called maneki-neko in Japanese.

The maneki-neko cat figurine is often depicted with one paw raised up beckoning or waving. Shop owners would place these figurines outside their stores to invite customers and good fortune. Even today, maneki-neko remains a common sight at Japanese businesses. The figurine represents the mystical and lucky qualities attributed to cats in Japanese mythology and culture (Cats In Japanese Literature at Eric Avery blog –

Cats as Pets

Cats are the most popular pet in Japan, with an estimated 9.5 million pet cats in households across the country (Pet Food Industry, 2022). Despite low overall pet ownership rates compared to other countries, Japanese households that do have pets show a strong preference for cats.

There are several reasons why cats are so beloved as pets in Japan. Cats are seen as tidy, quiet, and low-maintenance compared to dogs, making them well-suited for small homes in dense urban areas. Their independence is also appreciated, as cats can often be left at home alone without problems. Cats are considered cute and soothing companions that provide stress relief from busy modern life. Owning a cat is a sign of being a kind, responsible pet owner in Japan (Pet Food Industry, 2022).

Some interesting facts about pet cats in Japan:

  • There are more pet cats than dogs, despite Japan being well-known for dog breeds like Shiba Inu
  • Special cat-only apartments allow feline-loving renters
  • Cat cafes where people pay to interact with resident cats are popular in cities
  • High-tech cat toys and automated litter boxes are big sellers
  • Special cat islands like Tashirojima provide sanctuary for community cats

With their appealing traits and deep cultural roots, it’s no wonder cats hold such an esteemed place as companion animals in Japan today.

Cats in Religion

Cats have long been associated with spiritual figures and religious practices in Japan. One notable example is the goddess Shashinme, who is depicted as a cat and believed to grant favor and prosperity. Shashinme is an incarnation of Benten, the goddess of wealth, music, and knowledge in Japanese Buddhism.

Cats also play an important role in Japanese Buddhism more broadly. They are seen as protectors of sacred scriptures and are welcomed in temples to help guard against rats and vermin. Monks have a tradition of raising and caring for temple cats, and some shrines even serve as shelters for community cats today.

There are several cat shrines and temples across Japan. Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo is renowned as the birthplace of beckoning cats or maneki-neko. Legend claims a monk took in a stray cat despite the temple’s poverty. The cat showed its gratitude by bringing prosperity to the temple. Miyori Shrine in Hiroshima prefecture also honors cats for bringing good fortune.

Some other examples include Imado Shrine in Tokyo, known for its good luck cat charms, and Aoshima Island in Ehime prefecture, nicknamed Cat Island for its large stray cat population. Cats are welcomed and protected at these sacred sites as bringers of luck and prosperity.

Cats in Japanese Culture

Cats have a prominent place in various aspects of Japanese culture including art, literature, media, and pop culture. Cats frequently appear as subjects in traditional Japanese art, especially from the Edo period. The famous artist Hiroshige created many woodblock prints featuring cats. His cat art series “Hiraki-Ukiyo-e” depicts cats doing humorous and anthropomorphic activities. Cats remain popular subjects in modern Japanese art as well.

In literature, cats appear in various classic Japanese poems, stories, and folktales. The Tale of the Life of a Sensuous Man, written in the 10th century, features a monk’s loving relationship with his pet cat. Literary cats continue appearing in modern Japan, such as in Natsume Soseki’s iconic novel I Am a Cat.

In Japanese media and pop culture, cats play major roles in popular franchises like Hello Kitty and The Cat Returns. Cat cafes, where people can interact with cats in a coffee shop setting, have become trendy spots. Cats remain ever-present in anime, manga, toys, games, and advertising.

Cats as Symbols

Cats hold deep symbolic meaning in Japanese culture, often representing luck, prosperity, and protection. The famous beckoning cat or maneki-neko statue is the quintessential example, with its raised paw symbolizing fortune and its welcoming gesture inviting good luck into a business or home. According to legend, a feudal lord in the Edo period (1603-1868) was sheltering under a tree during a rainstorm when he noticed a cat in a temple nearby raising its paw in a welcoming motion. He ventured over to the temple just before lightning struck the tree where he had been standing. The lord believed the cat’s gesture saved his life, and maneki-neko figurines became popular as tokens of good luck after that (Cats in Japanese Culture and History).

Beyond the maneki-neko, cats are also thought to provide protection from evil spirits in Japanese myth. According to folklore, a cat’s true form was that of a supernatural being, capable of defending a household or temple from malevolent forces. Cats came to symbolize this protective power for the Japanese people (The Place of Cats in Japanese Culture and Literature). Additionally, there are many Japanese idioms and proverbs related to cats, like “a cat has nine lives” representing resilience. Overall, felines represent qualities like fortune, safety, adaptability, and mystery within Japanese culture.

Importance of Community Cats

In Japan, communities of free-roaming street cats, known as “community cats”, are an established part of everyday life. These cats are essentially unowned and live outdoors in neighborhoods, parks, and city streets. While some might consider them “strays”, local residents embrace them as part of the community and an important part of the culture.

Unlike in some other countries, there is little stigma against community cats in Japan. In fact, people welcome them and make an effort to care for them by providing food, water, and makeshift shelters. There are even designated cat feeding areas with donated food and water bowls in public parks and streets. Some shops and businesses will also feed any neighborhood cats that pass by.

This compassion comes from a long history of positive perceptions of cats in Japanese folklore and culture. The Japanese see community cats not as pests or nuisances, but as symbols of good luck and protectors that keep rodents and vermin away from shops and homes. Taking care of them is seen as a communal duty.

There are many cat rescue organizations across Japan focused on sterilizing community cats to humanely control the populations and prevent suffering. Groups like the Japan Cat Network trap, neuter, and return community cats so they can continue living outdoors while reducing breeding. Shelters like ARK also work to find homes for kittens and friendly cats.

Studies show these TNR programs are effective, with a 2020 report finding up to a 66% decline in cat populations across targeted areas. The community cats program allows Japan to humanely manage its outdoor cat communities while embracing them as an integral part of the culture.

Cats in the Modern Era

While cats played important roles throughout Japanese history, their popularity has reached new heights in contemporary Japan. Cats remain beloved pets and symbols in modern culture. However, they have also taken on new significance through emerging trends and businesses.

One of the most notable developments is the rise of cat cafes in major Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka. As described by Japan-Guide, cat cafes allow visitors to interact with cats while enjoying refreshments. Popular establishments include Neko Cafe MoCHA in Shibuya and Temari no Ouchi in Tokyo. Patrons can relax with friendly felines roaming freely. Cat cafes have become popular date spots and relaxing escapes from urban life.

Cat cafes exemplify the continued cultural importance of cats in contemporary Japan. As in the past, cats represent healing, comfort, and community connections. The emergence of cat-themed businesses underscores their enduring appeal. While trends come and go, cats maintain their mythic status in Japanese society.

Declining Birth Rates

Japan’s birth rates have been steadily declining for decades and reached a record low of 1.3 births per woman in 2022. This has led to an aging population crisis and has caused many Japanese couples to increasingly view pets, especially cats, as surrogate children. As of 2020, Japan has more pets than children under 15, with nearly 20 million dogs and cats compared to only 16.6 million children.

There are several social factors driving this trend of pets replacing kids. Delayed marriage, high costs of raising children, more women in the workforce, and cramped urban living spaces all contribute. Additionally, pets offer companionship without the high demands of childrearing. With pets, Japanese couples can enjoy bonding and affection without sacrificing careers or lifestyles. This demonstrates how deeply ingrained cats are in Japanese culture and households.


Throughout their long history together, cats have become an integral part of Japanese culture and mythology. Revered as symbols of good fortune and protectors against evil spirits, cats hold a special status in the folklore and traditions of Japan. Their image can be found in art, literature, and religion across the ages. Today, cats remain cherished pets and are honored with a national holiday celebrating their importance. While the declining birth rate in Japan raises uncertainty about the future, it’s clear that cats will continue to be an essential part of Japanese society. Their mythic status is a testament to the deep bond between cats and the people of Japan.

The rich history explored in this article gives readers an appreciation for how cats have become interwoven into the very fabric of Japan. From ancient folktales to modern traditions, the cat’s place in Japanese culture reveals a profound connection between humans and animals. By understanding this unique relationship, we gain insight into what cats represent for the Japanese people – good fortune, protection, comfort, and companionship. Cats hold a power in Japan that elevates them to near-mythic status.

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