There is a Japanese saying: Feed a dog for three days, and he will
remember your kindness for three years. Feed a cat for three years, and she
will forget your kindness in three days.
The first cats were introduced to Japan by Fujiwara no Sanesuke,
a nobleman at the court of Emperor Ichijo (987-1011). They were
imported from China and were called "hand-fed tigers." They were very
popular pets but were soon looked upon with suspicion and even fear. Besides
being ungrateful, cats are destructive by nature. They tear straw
tatami mats, make holes in paper shoji doors, and sharpen
their claws on wooden pillars. They are also very fond of the oil in lamps
and will often lap them dry.
The Japanese looked upon cats as being under a curse. Only the cat and
the serpent did not weep at the death of Buddha. In fact, the cat killed the
rat that was sent to get medicine.
Like foxes and badgers, cats are able to bewitch human beings. Cats are
also able to control the dead, even making them dance.
Cats have a natural tendency to become nekomata, or "goblin
cats." This can only be controlled by cutting off their tails, which was a
common practice performed on kittens.
When a nekomata ages, it becomes an obakéneko.
Obakéneko (sometimes called kaibyo) literally translates
as "supernatural cat," though it is also called "ghost cat" or "vampire
cat." There is no single Western equivalent to this creature. Not only old
cats but also those killed or wronged by a person can become
obakéneko to take revenge.
There is a well-known story of the obakéneko of Saga Castle.
During the Edo Period, Lord Nabeshima, an avid player of the board
game go, challenged a blind champion, Matahichiryo Ryuzoji, to a
game. When it appeared that he was going to lose, Lord Nabeshima lost his
temper and killed Matahichiryo. The blind man left an aged mother who,
learning of her son's death, killed herself in grief. He also left a pet
cat, Tama, who lapped up the mother's blood and became an obakéneko
and, to this day, is responsible for strange occurrences in the castle.
Not all cats are regarded with malice, however.
Sailors prized cats, especially the three-colored mikeneko.
People who drown at sea never find rest but lurk in the waves and shout and
wail as ships go by and extend their arms in the whitecaps in an effort to
grab a victim. Cats, with their control over the dead, can keep those
The manekineko, or "beckoning cat," is found in a spot of honor
in many shops, because the cat with its raised paw invites customers in.
The Sleeping Cat carving of Nikko Shrine, the burial place of
Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, is said to keep the area free of mice and
will wink its eye with approaching rain.
Much of the research for this story came from Yokai Yurei
Daihyaku (Many Unnatural and Ghost Stories). Thanks to Bill
Mimbu for sending me this book and to my parents, Akio and Teruko Sakai, for
translating the sections on obakéneko and kaibyo. Also
used were: Myths and Legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis;
Japanese Animal Art: Antique and Contemporary by Lea Baten; The
Mystery of Things: Evocations of the Japanese Supernatural by Akeji
Sumiyoshi and Patrik Le Nestour; Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan by
Lafcadio Hearn; and Obaké: Ghost Stories in Hawai'i by Glen