From Doraemon to the lucky cat: why the Japanese are obsessed with these cats

The cat Lucky (maneki-neko) is not a Chinese invention to sell massively to tourists. It is more of an object japanese origin. When we think of cats, the first thing that comes to mind is their relationship with Ancient Egypt, but these little cats have a very long history in Japan.

“Cats have a long history in Japan, but they are not native“, explains Zack Davisson, scholar and author of the book Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan (2017, China Music Press). At first, they landed in the archipelago as a gift from one emperor to another, after traveling the Silk Road from Egypt to the Korean peninsula.

“One of the first descriptions made of this animal appears in the memoirs of a japanese emperor that told how amazing his new pet was,” explains Davisson. If the emperor had it, the high Japanese aristocrat wanted it in his collection too. And if the high aristocrat bought it, the common people also wanted it, since having a cat was a symbol of status.

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This is what usually happens with extraordinary gifts. “In many societies, when someone from the elite has something, everyone wants it too,” explains the expert.

mysterious beings

Cats, due to their peculiar characteristics, such as their ability to move stealthily in the dark or their photosensitive eye apparatus, were the object of fascination by the Japanese. And they became mysterious and strange beings, gradually integrating into Japanese folklore.

It was easy to integrate the cats into the mix of stories about supernatural beings from Japanese folklore: “They already had stories about shapeshifter foxes [kitsune] and magical dogs [tanuki]Davison recalls.

In Japan, unlike other places, such as the United States or Spain, there is a peculiar nuance in the fascination with cats: “Everyone is fascinated by them, but in Japan there is an element that makes them more mysterious,” says the expert. . And he explains it: “There is a feeling that cats shouldn’t be in japan. In fact, from the beginning they did not come to present themselves as an intimate animal”.

Illustration of a Nekomata, taken from Hyakkai-Zukan (The Hundred Demons Illustrated Volume) by Sawaki Suushi

Illustration of a Nekomata, taken from Hyakkai-Zukan (The Hundred Demons Illustrated Volume) by Sawaki Suushi

Sawaki Suushi

Thus, through the stories about mythological cat-shaped beings (kaibyo), As the obake (also called bakenekothe maneki-neko or the nekomata)the myth was built around these felines.

The bakeneko most popular supernatural catowes its fame to the pleasure districts. “These districts were a kind of Moulin Rouge, the explosion of art and sexuality was happening in the pleasure district,” explains Davisson.

Illustration of Bakeneko-yūjo (bakeneko prostitute)

Illustration of Bakeneko-yūjo (bakeneko prostitute)

Torii Kiyonaga

In it yukaku (red light district) of Yoshiwara, one of the clients of the services of the pleasure district swore to have seen a bakeneko. “During one night, a client waking up with a severe hangover saw a prostitute crouched in such a way that her shadow resembled the shadow of a cat.”

This is how the rumor spread that there were prostitutes bakeneko working in the district. In addition, the censorship of art showing the figures of sex workers also contributed to the myth. “Artists painted the same kind of art, but replacing human heads with cat bustsDavisson says.

Doraemon, Hello Kitty and ‘neko’ browns

In Japanese popular culture, the cat occupies a special place. Even the spell we suffer for them has transcended its borders, exporting it in the form of art and entertainment. If you ask a millennial who is Doraemon or MeowthMany will nostalgically remember two Japanese animation (anime) characters with whom they grew up.

In an interview, the creator of the famous cosmic cat Doraemon, Fujiko Fujio, explained that this character is inspired by two very everyday events: He saw a yellow cat enter through his window and tripped over one of his daughter’s toys.

[¿Los animales tienen sentimientos?]

There are other cat characters in the culture of Japanese advertising articles, such as Hello Kitty (of British nationality), the Sanrio company’s mouthless doll, whose inspiration is not so clear. But the proliferation of cats in Japanese daily life is a proven fact. There is an estimated population of 7.25 billion cats in Japan, making it the tenth country with the most cats per capita in the world.

In Japan, the cat cafes (neko coffee), where patrons can come inside, have a hot drink or snack, and play with the resident felines. It is estimated that there are around 150 establishments of this type open throughout the territory. This idea has even permeated Spain, with refuge-cafeterias such as La Gatoteca (Madrid), the Passatge dels Gats (Barcelona) or Cat Relax (Alicante).

pest control

But the obsession with cats is also rooted in the use they were given in the past: to control pests. This also explains the existence of 11 cat islands, where there are more cats than people. Within this group, the island of cats par excellence is aoshimalocated in the Ehime prefecture, a destination that thousands of tourists visit each year.

Around the 15th century, Japan had a powerful silk production industry for the manufacture of robes of this material, highly coveted by the aristocracy. At that time, this industry was threatened by a worrying threat from rat infestations.

For this, the shogun At that time, he issued an edict prohibiting keeping cats at home as pets, forcing owners to expel kittens from their homes to combat the dreaded rats.

“This was the origin of the islands of catswere islands where worm silk was produced,” explains Davisson. This led to an exponential growth in the population of cats that roamed the streets. Now, they can be found in almost any corner of the Japanese territory.

And the lucky cat?

“The lucky cat it’s completely falseDavisson explains. “But I think that’s okay.” The existence of the ‘inviting’ cat (maneki-neko, in Japanese) has various explanations, most of which come from Buddhist temples. But, as the expert says, they all share an element, their purpose: “Someone made them and they want you to buy them. Although you are not going to buy just the statue, they want you to also buy the story.”

“It’s like you think of Mickey Mouse. He exists to sell you Mickey Mouse. That’s what he’s for. He wants to sell himself, and the lucky cat is the same,” explains the Japanese folklore expert.

And sentence: “I think that when you investigate folklore, you realize that much of folklore was founded by someone who wants to sell you something. And that continues today.”

From Doraemon to the lucky cat: why the Japanese are obsessed with these cats