A cat: ‘They smoked pipes, played dice’ | Helen Sullivan

We had gone to Japan, we told our daughter, to get her a maneki-neko: the good luck or beckoning cat. She is almost three. She would stay home with my mother, her grandmother. There is a maneki-neko that lives at the till of a manicure shop near our house, and she likes to stop and greet it. Japanese folklore has cats for many things, and we were grateful for this one. Before we left, we wrote letters outlining our progress towards this goal. I put the letters in envelopes for my mother to give to her, one each day. As the week passed, we would meet a mouse in the street, travel to Kyoto to catch goldfish in the river, buy a pizza – extra cheese – for the keeper of the cats.

Why we had actually gone there was to be cats ourselves: to do precisely what we felt like doing whenever we felt like doing it. We roamed the streets, we sat in sunny cafe windows. We hung out at an onsen, which cats would probably not do. We went to an exhibition about animals in arts and crafts and learned that in the late 1800s, people in Japan would affectionately greet cats and dogs using the honorific -san, like Mr or Miss.

Beware the fork-tailed cat. Photograph: Shim Harno/Alamy

Cats really can do what they like. In school, when exam time came around, I would stare enviously at our cats, doing whatever they felt like instead of studying. The fluffy black rescue who never grew much larger than a kitten, sitting on top of the video machine. A large black cat called Spike, lying in a patch of sun on the carpet.

I wrote the school exams, and later, when I would come home from university – yet another thing cats don’t have to do – Spike would leave dead birds under my bed. Naturally, I believed him to be superior to all other cats.

My university flatmate once got our cat so stoned that he watched a petal fall from a vase of poppies and, seconds after it had touched the table, reached out his paw to bat at it.

I wrote more exams, I got a job. I met my husband. He knows nothing about cats. He barely encountered them in Sydney, where he grew up. He thought cat litter was what cat food was called. He still has no idea how to interact with them. When he encounters one, he greets it loudly, pats his thighs to summon it, tries to pick it up all wrong (we have a dog), and gets scratched. It is like watching someone approach a piano and try to play it with their feet or paws.

I find this ignorance delightful, if a little dangerous. It is a good thing that he is not a small marsupial. Australia’s domestic cats kill a million native animals a night. Its feral cats – large, grumpy tabbies and gingers – kill 4 million a night.

There is a mythical Japanese cat for this, too: nekomata, or “cat monster”, a large, shapeshifting cat that lives in the mountains and eats wild beasts, men and dogs. It also has two tails, which it uses to bewitch people. It can perform necromancy, raising the dead and controlling them with a dance of its paws and tails.

In more than one illustration from the mid-1900s, they look hungover:

The nekomata is a cat monster with a forked tail and a taste for human flesh. The creature’s powers include the ability to talk, walk on hind legs, shape-shift, fly, and even resurrect the dead. The nekomata pictured here was encountered in the Nasuno area of Tochigi prefecture. Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy
The illustration depicts a Zenshu priest who was transformed by greed into a strange feline creature, with the tell-tale forked tail of a nekomata. Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy

But the first record of a cat in Japan, according to Zack Davisson, the author of Kaibyō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan, is from a diary kept by a 22-year-old young emperor in 889CE:

On the 6th Day of the 2nd Month of the First Year of the Kampo era. Taking a moment of my free time, I wish to express my joy of the cat. It arrived by boat as a gift to the late Emperor, received from the hands of Minamoto no Kuwashi.

The colour of the fur is peerless. None could find the words to describe it, although one said it was reminiscent of the deepest ink. It has an air about it, similar to Kanno. Its length is 5 sun, and its height is 6 sun. I affixed a bow about its neck, but it did not remain for long.

In the 1600s people began to tell stories about bakeneko the “changed cat”. Davisson explains that this may have happened because lamps burned fish oil, which attracted cats, whose shadows were enlarged and animated by the flames. Davisson again: “They smoked pipes. Played dice. And got up to all kinds of trouble that every hard-working farmer wished they could indulge in.”

This myth is still around today: domestic cats who live to be more than 10 years old become bakeneko. They kill their owners, walk around on their hind legs, and take over the home. Sometimes, they shapeshift into old women, or old women are said to actually be bakeneko. I hope this is my fate.

Bakeneko, the “changed cat”. Photograph: Alamy

We video-called our daughter from Kyoto. She had just read the letter where we met a mouse, and decided to bring it along on our journey – it would rather live with the beckoning cats than the alley cats. “But not a real mouse?” she asked. “Well, no,” I said. And she asked to see it, reaching towards the camera. I passed the imaginary mouse to her through the screen and took it into her palm and began to stroke it.

Above the telephone in the house my grandmother lived in when my sister and I were children, and where we would go for a few days at a time during school holidays, and where we would call our mom, was a framed haiku:

Rainy afternoon
Little daughter you will never
Teach that cat to dance

  • Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. She is writing a memoir for Scribner Australia

  • Do you have an animal, insect or other subject you feel is worthy of appearing in this very serious column? Email


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