Beware of the Cat: Tales of the Wicked Japanese Bakeneko and Nekomata – Part 1

Who knew innocent little Fluffy could be so devious?

Cats’ reputations have often swayed from good to evil over the years as they have been both revered and feared around the world. One of the most famous malevolent associations cats have had is undoubtedly with witchcraft. Another, arguably lesser-known connection comes from Japan, in the form of the mythical and legendary Bakeneko and Nekomata creatures.

The Mythical Bakeneko

Bakeneko has sometimes been translated as ‘Monster Cat’ or ‘Ghost Cat’, but the best definition in English may simply be ‘Changing Cat.’ The mythological Bakeneko are yōkai (supernatural creatures) that allegedly begin as regular domestic cats. Legends say that as cats get older they change. The process starts with them walking on their hind legs, although with time the cats gain more powers and grow larger (even to the size of a human), they then have the ability to change their forms and sometimes peak human languages.

Stories about Bakeneko suggest that the favorite form to shift into for these devious cats is their owners or other humans. This change reportedly makes the cats so happy that they put napkins on their heads and dance.

A dancing Bakeneko wearing a napkin. ( freehand /Adobe Stock)

Other powers of the mythical Bakeneko include summoning fireballs, using their tails as torches to set fires, controlling the dead, and cursing (or killing) their previous owners, if they see fit.

The Bakeneko’s Eviler Cousin – The Nekomata

Nekomata are essentially powered up Bakeneko. Legends of Nekomata begin in a similar way to the Bakeneko – with a domestic cat standing on its hind legs. However, Nekomata are the oldest and largest cats and have longer tails than Bakeneko. They are said to have two identical tails after their change, enabling them to create double the trouble.

It is believed that more Nekomata can speak human languages than Bakeneko and that they use this ability to create extra havoc in human lives. While legends show that not all Bakeneko are nefarious, all Nekomata are thought to be. The Nekomata are said to find great pleasure in creating chaos and are thought to be responsible for large fires and blackmailing or enslaving humans.

A Nekomata tormenting humans and starting a fire. (1847) Utagawa Kunisada

A Nekomata tormenting humans and starting a fire. (1847) Utagawa Kunisada ( Public Domain )

Legends place the homes of Nekomata in mountains, where they often are said to appear as large wildcats and live in small packs. If a human comes into the dwelling of the Nekomata, folklore states that they will almost certainly be killed for trespassing.

Understandable Origins for Monster Cats

As with many mythical creatures, the origins may in reality be quite ordinary for the Bakeneko and Nekomata. Some scholars say that the legends began as cats were licking oil from lamps that were fueled by fish oil. The appearance of a cat on its hind legs with shining, anticipatory eyes understandably shocked and unnerved some of the folks who saw it, and the myth arose soon after. As cats did not arrive in Japan until the reign of the Emperor Ichigo (986-1011 AD) during the Edo period, their particular ways were not well-known at the time of the emergence of many of the stories.

Scenes from a kabuki (traditional Japanese dance-drama) called “Ume no Haru Gojūsantsugi” (1835) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Scenes from a kabuki (traditional Japanese dance-drama) called “Ume no Haru Gojūsantsugi” (1835) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. A Bakeneko that has shapeshifted into an old woman, two more wearing napkins and dancing, and the shadow of a cat licking a lamp are just some of the Bakeneko features portrayed in this image. ( Public Domain )

In the end, many people would agree that an old, fat cat will (probably) not turn into a terrible monster, however, to be safe it became a common practice to bob young cats’ tails as a preventative measure. Following the trend, today the most popular cat in Japan is said to be the bobtail. Cats were not simply killed because the murder of a cat was believed to have put a curse on the family as well as a haunting for seven generations.

Blue-eyed female Japanese bobtail cat.

Blue-eyed female Japanese bobtail cat. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

With the strange or exceptional characteristic cats tend to have, it is not surprising that the stories of Bakeneko and Nekomata also took hold and the mythical world was enhanced with their legendary stories.

Cat Prostitutes Strike Fear

One of the most famous Japanese legends is about the Bakeneko Prostitutes of Edo (the former name of Tokyo). There are many of these stories, but all share a common thread. Often the client of the prostitute falls asleep only to awaken to see the beautiful woman picking at fish bones or other seafood while she has a cat head or shadow. Other versions have the cat shadow appear when the man sees a beautiful prostitute casting the shadow as she approaches him on the street.

Man walking with a Bakeneko prostitute by the Shinagawa Sea.

Man walking with a Bakeneko prostitute by the Shinagawa Sea. ( Public Domain )

Regardless of the beginning, the legends continue with the man being terrified that he is in the presence of a Bakeneko and escaping (if possible). Sometimes the stories go further as the Bakeneko pounces on her victim and kills him.

The mysterious Bakeneko prostitutes apparently rose as an urban legend from the case of a Bakeneko that was supposedly “working as a meshimori onna, a type of low-rent waitress/maid/prostitute, at the Ise Inn in the Shinagawa-juku area of Edo, one of the fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō sea highway” in the late 1700s.

There is a belief that the Bakeneko prostitute image began as it was not acceptable for prostitutes to eat in front of their customers so they hunched over their stolen meals as the client slept. When the man awoke he may have seen her in a distorted way (especially after the night of drinking he had). Perhaps unexpectedly, the fad of cat-girls remains prominent in modern Japanese manga, anime, and video games today.

A Bakeneko prostitute eating while the surprised client looks on. (1775) Torii Kiyonaga

A Bakeneko prostitute eating while the surprised client looks on. (1775) Torii Kiyonaga ( Public Domain )

Read Part Two Here

Top Image: Bekeneko or Nekomata, types of wicked Japanese yokai. Source: KIMASA /Adobe Stock

By: Alicia McDermott

Updated on August 10, 2021.


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