Seeing as it’s Halloween this week, I thought it’d be appropriate to take a look at one of my favourite creatures from Japanese folklore – the bakeneko or “monster cat”. There’s no shortage of demon and ghost stories in Japan but there’s also no shortage of blog posts rounding up all of said stories. As a cat-lover and a blogger who has shamefully not written about Japanese folklore for a long time, I decided to go with the bakeneko.
The tale of the bakeneko stems from a very old belief in Japan that cats that live to an old age develop supernatural powers and transform into demons, or yokai. A cat that has recently become a bakeneko may look like a regular cat but they soon begin to walk on their hind legs and can grow very large, sometimes as big as a human. They often disguise themselves as humans, even their own masters, and dress up with towels on their heads and dance around.
Doesn’t sound too scary so far, does it? But, wait, there’s more! Many bakeneko learn to speak the human language and eat things much bigger than them, even poisonous things, without any difficulty at all. There’s nothing to stop them from eating their own master, either, then take their form and live in their place. If they don’t kill their owner, they’ll probably bring down curses and great misfortunes on them. Add to the list of damages the abilities to summon ghostly fireballs and reanimate fresh corpses, you can see why the bakeneko were considered to be a menace to any house they lived in or near.
So, how did people spot a bakeneko? If your cat lived a long life (generally over 13 years), grew to a certain size, licked up large quantities of lamp oil or had an exceptionally long tail, you might start to worry. The last sign led to a custom of bobbing a cats tail at an early age to prevent it from transforming into a yokai. This might explain the popularity of bobtail cats in Japan.
One particularly terrifying breed of bakeneko is the neko-mata, or “fork-tailed cat”, which grew to immense sizes and retreated to the mountains where they feasted on bears and, of course, wandering humans.
Unsurprisingly, the story of the bakeneko inspired Japanese art and theatre. In the Edo period, bakeneko often appeared in ukiyo-e art, usually hiding in the background to portray human nature, and bakeneko prostitutes haunting Yoshiwara also featured in books. The succession conflict of the Nabeshima household in the 19th century inspired the kabuki play Hana Sagano Nekoma Ishibumi Shi, which set the stage for bakeneko being popular monsters for future performances.
Here is one famous bakeneko tale to get you in the mood for Halloween: “A famous bake-neko story involves a man named Takasu Genbei, whose pet cat of many years went missing just as his mother’s personality changed completely. The woman shunned company and took her meals alone in her room, and when the curious family peered in on her, they saw not a human being but a feline monster in the old lady’s clothes, chewing on animal carcasses. Takasu, with much reluctance, slew what looked like his mother, and after a day had passed the body turned back into the same pet cat that had gone missing. After that Takasu miserably tore up the tatami mats and the floorboards in his mother’s room, only to find the old woman’s bones hidden there, gnawed clean of flesh.”