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Home > Cats > Cats in Japanese Culture & History (Folklore, Modern Media & More)

Cats in Japanese Culture & History (Folklore, Modern Media & More)

Cat in the Japanese arches in Kyoto Fushimi Inari Temple

Japan is renowned for being a nation of cat lovers. In 2022, the country ranked in the top 10 countries with the most pet cats.1 The enigmatic domestic felines appear to have been intricately intertwined in many aspects of Japanese history, dating back to ancient times. Evidently, their allure persists in the modern era. Cats are not far behind dogs as the most popular choice for a household pet2—a few years ago, they even surpassed dogs in popularity and may do once again in the future.3

The history of how domestic cats came to occupy such a prominent position in Japanese culture is rich and interesting. Archaeological findings, early Japanese diary entries, and illustrations all beautifully document the role of the cat in Japanese culture and society through the ages.


Earliest Records

The first references to domestic cats in Japanese history appear between the 6th and 8th centuries, when it is said cats were introduced simultaneously to protect ancient Buddhist texts from rodent damage. Genetic research indicates that these cats probably came from India.

The first officially documented record of a domesticated cat was from an Emperor’s diary of that time, in the 9th century AD. This was a greatly admired black cat that was brought from China in 884.

Until recently, it was believed that these references coincided, more or less, with the first arrival of domestic cats to the Asian island nation. However, a 2011 archaeological discovery on Iki island in Nagasaki yielded domesticated cat remains that date back around 2,000 years.

Although these are believed to have been the oldest known domestic cats in Japan, much more ancient remains have been found. It is suggested that these belonged to domesticated native wild cats that date back as far back as 5,000 years.4

Many domestic cats in isolation looking outside of the window and trying to run away
Image Credit: Pencil case, Shutterstock

Through the Ages

The earliest record of a named pet cat is that of Myobu no Otodo, who belonged to Emperor Ichijo in the 10th century. She was a much-treasured pet holding a special rank in court, with a host of ladies-in-waiting tasked with looking after her.

It is believed that the first Japanese picture of cats was drawn in the 11th or 12th century. The drawing is part of a narrative picture scroll and depicts three long-tailed striped cats playing with rabbits, foxes, and frogs. It is thought that, by this time, cats had become common in Japan and were no longer thought of as exotic animals. By this stage, of course, imported cats had begun breeding and forming local naturalized domestic feline populations.

Japan was in self-isolation for much of the time between 1603–1867, and during this period, no more cats were imported. Inbreeding of the existing cat population resulted in a short-tailed genetic mutation in the cats, which proliferated. These short-tailed cats came to be known as Japanese cats, whilst cats with long tails would be regarded as having a foreign heritage.

Fast forward to the period after World War II, which saw an influx of all kinds of international cat breeds, such as Siamese and American Shorthairs, resulting in diminishing numbers of the Japanese short-tailed cat. During this time, several of these short-tailed cats were exported to America and registered as the Japanese Bobtail.


Early Japanese Folklore

Folk tales are a wonderful and valuable medium for preserving and disseminating a nation’s culture and beliefs. Ancient and early Japanese folklore has been meticulously documented and maintained through the ages—beautiful stories of demons, light spirits, and more abound—many of which prominently feature actual cats and cat-like beings.

Japanese parents have been telling their children stories about the Bake-Neko, or “fairy-monster cats”, for centuries to this day. These nightmare-inducing creatures carried out all kinds of misdeeds, such as taking the form of humans and possessing them.

One such tale, albeit one with a happy moral, that persists as a popular symbol today is that of Maneki Neko.

Maneki Neko

Even if you have never travelled to the east, you may have come across a cute figurine or image of Maneki Neko at some stage. Arguably the most well-known traditional Japanese cat reference in the modern era, this little kitty symbol has an uplifting meaning and interesting origins. Maneki Neko translates to “beckoning cat”—Neko being the Japanese word for cat.

The little statue of Maneki Neko is said to ward off evil and bring good luck. It can often be seen at the entrance to shops, businesses, and restaurants in Japan as a welcoming gesture of warmth. It can also be placed on an office or work desk to bring success in one’s career. Maneki Neko is often painted gold, as it has become a talisman for wealth and good fortune. In these instances, it is placed in the southeast corner of the home or room if used domestically, and in the northeast corner if used in a business.

The origins of Maneki Neko are speculative, but the most popular explanation has its roots in the 17th century. The story goes that a wealthy nobleman on his travels was seeking refuge under a tree near a temple during a storm when he noticed a nearby cat. The cat seemed to be beckoning him insistently with his paw, and he was obliged to obey. No sooner had he left the refuge of the tree than it was destroyed by an almighty lightning strike. To acknowledge his incredibly good fortune and to show his gratitude, he became the temple’s benefactor, ensuring that it prospered from that moment onward.

Image Credit: Darko Majcenovic, Pexels


Cats in Modern Media

Cats feature prominently in Japanese media. One of the earliest and most renowned appearances of a cat in Japanese literature was the widely acclaimed book, “I Am a Cat” written by Natsume Sōseki in 1905–1906. The novel is a satirical account of the Japanese middle and upper class at the turn of the century, recounted by the main character, which is a Japanese housecat.

Cats have continued to feature prominently in both serious and popular Japanese literature and popular culture, such as animation series and films like “Doraemon” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. They have permeated into Japanese video games and anime too—we’re all familiar with Pokemon!

The most internationally famous Japanese cat in modern media is probably Hello Kitty. Created in 1974 by a company called Sanrio, the cute little mouthless white cartoon kitten has become one of the most widely recognized cartoon characters across the globe.

Cats in Contemporary Japan

Many Japanese apartments do not allow residents to keep cats, and so Japanese cat lovers have had to find another way to get their feline fix. Behold—the cat cafe. If you’ve never heard of a cat café, you may have guessed that it’s a coffee shop—or similar—where there are cats that you can share a table, conversation, or even a cuddle with. The last 20 years have seen an exponential increase in the number of cat cafés in Japan, which now boasts the highest number in the world.

One other fantastic Japanese feline fact is the existence of Japanese cat islands. There are around 11 of these small islands, several of which see the cat inhabitants considerably outnumbering the human inhabitants. The most famous of these is Aoshima Island, where it is reported that the cats outnumber the residents by anywhere from 10:1 to as much as 36:1. The number is truthfully closer to the latter since many of the elderly residents have passed on.

corgi looking at the two cats
Image By: JumpStory



Few countries have such an interesting and prominently cat-intertwined history as Japan. The regal countenance that cats possess is appreciated and celebrated wholeheartedly by the Japanese. Cat lovers the world over concur with the Japanese’s regard for our universally adored feline friends.

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Featured Image Credit: FOTOGRIN, Shutterstock

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