How do the Japanese think of Sosekis?

"Nya" - the Japanese adore cats, but at the same time they were scary to them for a long time

Whether Hello Kitty, the waving cat Maneki-neko, cat gods or cat petting cafés: Japan is hard to imagine without cats. The animals are caressed and adored. But the Japanese love of cats also has a dark side.

Writing about cats might not be very original. But was it ever? Was it that in the noughties when Grumpy Cat conquered the world and opened the first cat café in Osaka with the name “Neko no jikan” (cat time)? Since then, stressed, lonely or simply animal-loving customers have been enjoying a break from everyday life in the presence of lively cats in these pubs with fluffy interiors. A stroll through Japanese literature reveals an ambivalent relationship characterized by the constant oscillation between fascination and horror.

In Kyoto in the 10th century, the lady-in-waiting Sei Shonagon wrote a short essay on cats in her pillow book. And her contemporary Murasaki Shikibu described an episode in the famous story of Prince Genji in which Lady Onna San no Miya's cat plays the role of a messenger of love.

Countless horror stories

The cute animal, presumably a gift from an embassy from abroad, is kept in the women's chambers. Centuries later, a Ukiyo-e print from feudal Edo shows this scene with the kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro III as a princess, holding the little cat by a pink collar. Although cats have been sharing human habitat for a long time - preferably near the hibachi brazier - the countless horror stories show another side.

At night the cat spirit brushes the roofs and makes people shudder. In an 18th-century painting by Utagawa, an oversized Cheshire cat with fiery eyes fixes its prey - or is it just a painting on the screen? In addition to foxes and raccoon dogs, cats are among the most famous shape-shifters in Japanese folklore. A moment of inattention, and the inconspicuous little mother on the street has changed: the horror spreads silently in the dark. The velvet paws were to keep their eerie reputation for a long time to come.

This is testified by the story of an elderly neighbor who, to the displeasure of her neighborhood, bought a half-starved cat on the fourth floor of a department store in southern Kyoto in the 1960s and kept it as a pet. She was met with great suspicion that she had ingested such an eerie creature. This discomfort may also be the reason why a breed with short tails is preferred among domestic cats in Japan to this day: These cats cannot stroke the low dining tables and are therefore considered clean and hardworking, according to a common thesis.

According to every facon

And this, although the writer Natsume Soseki in his novel "Permit, I am a cat" (1905/06) lets the grumpy-lovable cat describe the life and customs of its owner, a Meiji-era intellectual. The hangover as the narrator comes across again in the novel by Hiro Arikawa (2015), a melancholy-poetic road trip across Japan.

Today in Japan the relationship to pets has changed fundamentally: cats, dogs and goldfish are welcome companions of humans. And if the real space is not enough, you keep virtual cats, such as cats. B. in the popular Büsi collection app Neko Atsume or with the “Merch” of the manga “Little Cat Chi” by Konami Kanata.

Today cats in Japan have magical powers like Luna and Artemis from "Sailor Moon". Or they can fly like Happy from the manga "Fairy Tail" - or even both together, like Shalulu. With the lovable blue Doraemon, the mascot of the Japanese Post Office also belongs to the latter category. Nya! (Meow)