Cats. You either love them or you don't. But if you're Japanese, chances are that your love for cats is bordering on obsession! If you know anything about Japanese culture it’s that cats make up a huge part of daily life. From clothing to cartoons, from food packaging to books, the Japanese love their cats.
This obsession started a long time ago when the first cats were brought to Japan by ship from China in the mid-sixth century. Since then, they’ve been inspiring Japanese artists and writers for generations.
But why do cats play such a huge role in the culture? Like Japan and its people, cats are often thought of as elegant, mysterious and sometimes, even quirky. In art, literature, and culture, cats represent many things for the Japanese. Let's take a look at some common cat themes you may find in Japanese novels and popular culture.
Protection and Good Fortune
In Japanese folklore, cats have protective powers and symbolize good luck and fortune. No example of this is more clear than the story of the maneki-neko.
As the story goes, centuries ago, a feudal lord was standing under a tree when he noticed a cat waving at him with his paw. Curious, he approached the cat and at that moment, a lightning bolt hit the tree where he had been standing. Thus was born the story of the maneki-neko that has inspired statues and likenesses world-wide.
You’ll often see the maneki-neko as a figurine in storefronts and restaurants, promising blessings and good fortune to its owners and all who enter.
Wise and Foreshadowing
In Japanese literature, cats aren’t used just as a background prop. Some cats actually take center stage as the main narrator. The original Japanese cat novel was written more than a century ago by Natsume Soseki. In ‘I Am a Cat’, the story is told from the perspective of a house cat, who happens to be quite educated and critical of his human companions. The result is a classic witty satire of upper-middle-class pre-modern Japan.
Decades later, Hiro Arikawa, drew inspiration from Soseki’s classic novel when she wrote 'The Traveling Cat Chronicles'. The narrator in this novel is a sarcastic cat who tells the adventures of traveling with his owner through Japan.
And when cats aren’t the lead characters, you can often find them in important roles, giving clues to the reader about impending doom or mystery. Just take a look at most any book written by Haruki Murakami and you'll see felines featured prominently.
Cute and Cuddly
We can’t talk about cats in Japan without mentioning ‘kawaii’. You may have heard of ‘kawaii’ before which is the word that Japanese use to describe their culture of cuteness. And nothing is cuter than cartoon cats. Whether it's Hello Kitty and Friends, Doraemon, the earless robot cat, or Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service, cats are the definition of kawaii in Japan.
Getting a daily dose of pets and purrs is also a top priority for many Japanese. Even though Japan is considered one of the countries with the highest rate of cat ownership in the world, some Japanese cannot own pets in their own apartment. Thus explaining the explosion of cat cafes, which has trickled into European and American culture as well. Cat cafes give cat-obsessed Japanese a chance to pay to play with these cute critters.
Ready for More Cats in Your Life?
Check out the book 'Land of the Rising Cat: Japan's Feline Fascination'. It's a visual and written exploration of Japan's cat obsession!
And don't forget to mark your calendar for February 22nd, which is “Nyan Nyan Nyan Day” in Japan or ‘Cat Day.’ It might just be your new favorite holiday!