The bakeneko ( “changed cat”) is a type of Japanese yokai, or supernatural entity; more specifically, it is a kaibyō, or supernatural cat. It is often confused with the nekomata, another cat-like yōkai. The distinction between the two is often ambiguous, but the major difference is that the nekomata has two tails, while the bakeneko has only one.
There are bakeneko legends in various parts of Japan, but the tale of the Nabeshima Bakeneko riots in Saga Prefecture is especially famous.
Origin of Bakeneko
The reason why the cats are seen as yokai in Japanese mythology is attributed to many of their characteristics: for example, the irises of their eyes change shape depending on the time of day, their fur can appear to cause sparks when stroked (due to static electricity), they sometimes lick blood, they can walk without making noise, their wild nature that remains despite the gentleness they may show, they are difficult to control (unlike dogs), their sharp claws and teeth, nocturnal habits, and their speed and agility.
Many other animals appear as yokai in ancient tales and display similar attributes: the profound tenacity of the snakes the ability of the foxes (kitsune) to transform into women and the bake-danuki’s brutality in eating humans described in the Edo-period folktale Kachi-kachi Yama. However, cats figure in a large number of tales and superstitions because they live with humans but retain their wild essence and air of mystery.
A popular belief about bakeneko is that they lick lamp oil. In the Edo period encyclopedia Wakan Sansai Zue, it is said that a cat licking this oil is an omen of an impending strange event.
People in the early Modern Age used cheap fish oils in lamps, for example. Also, at that time the Japanese diet was based on grains and vegetables, and although cats were fed on leftovers, as carnivores they lacked protein and fat, so they were even more attracted to lamp oils. Furthermore, the sight of a cat standing on its hind legs to reach a lamp, its face lit up in anticipation, might have seemed creepy and unnatural, like a yōkai.
The theft of household objects is commonly associated with many Japanese ghosts, so the disappearance of lamp oil when a cat was present helped to associate the cat with the supernatural.
The mysterious air possessed by cats was associated with prostitutes working in the red light districts of the Edo period. This was the origin of a popular character in the kusazōshi (among other publications), the bakeneko yūjo.
Legends about the Bakeneko
As with the nekomata, another cat-like yōkai said to have evolved from a cat whose tail split in two as it aged, there are folk beliefs throughout Japan about elderly cats becoming bakeneko. There are accounts of cats that became bakeneko after being raised for twelve years in Ibaraki and Nagano prefectures, and for thirteen years in the Kunigami district of Okinawa prefecture.
In Yamagata district, Hiroshima prefecture, it is said that a cat bred for seven years or more will kill whoever bred it. There are also many regions where, because of this superstition, people decided in advance how many years they would raise a cat. Depending on the area, there are stories in which cats that were brutally killed by humans became bakeneko and cursed that human. The bakeneko stories are not only about old cats, but also sometimes about revenge against cruel humans.
The abilities attributed to bakeneko are diverse, including shapeshifting to become human, wearing a towel or napkin on their heads and dancing, speaking human words, cursing humans, manipulating the dead, possessing humans, and stalking in the mountains and taking wolves with them to attack travelers.
The legend that cats could talk may have arisen from misinterpreting cat meows as human speech; for this reason, some would say that the cat is not a type of yokai. In 1992 , in the Yomiuri newspaper, there was an article arguing that when people thought they heard a cat speak, upon hearing it a second time, they realized that it was simply the cat’s meow and that it was just a coincidence that it resembled a human word.
In the Edo period (1603-1867), there was a popular belief that cats with long tails like snakes could bewitch people. Cats with long tails were disowned and it was customary to cut off their tails. It is speculated that this is the reason why there are now so many cats with short tails in Japan, as natural selection has favored those with short tails.
Popular beliefs that cats can cause strange phenomena are not limited to Japan. For example, in Jinhua (Zhejiang, China) , a cat raised by humans for three years is said to start bewitching them. As white-tailed cats are said to be especially good at this, a custom was imposed not to breed them. As their ability to bewitch humans is said to come from the spiritual energy of the moon, it is said that when a cat looks at the moon, it should be killed on the spot, whether its tail has been cut off or not.
A famous bakeneko story is that of a man named Takasu Genbei, whose mother completely changed her personality after her pet cat disappeared for many years. His mother avoided the company of friends and family and ate alone in her room.
When the family peeked in to see her, they saw a cat-like monster in the mother’s clothes, chewing on animal carcasses. Takasu, still skeptical, killed what looked like his mother, and within a day his mother’s body turned back into his pet cat that had disappeared. Takasu tore up the floorboards of his mother’s room and found her skeleton hidden away, its bones clean of flesh.
Literature and theater
There is a legend of the bakeneko that takes place in the time of Nabeshima Mitsushige, the second daimyō of the Saga Domain, in Hizen Province. Mitsushige’s servant, Ryūzōji Matashichirō, who served as the daimyō’s opponent in the game of Go, displeased Mitsushige and was put to the sword. Ryūzōji’s mother, while telling her sorrows to her cat, committed suicide. The cat licked the mother’s blood, turned into a bakeneko, entered the castle and tormented Mitsushige every night until his loyal servant Komori Hanzaemon finally killed it and saved the Nabeshima family.
Historically, the Ryūzōji clan was older than the Nabeshima clan of Hizen. After the death of Ryūzōji Takanobu, his deputy Nabeshima Naoshige held the royal power, and after the sudden death of Takanobu’s grandson Takafusa, his father Masaie also committed suicide. Later, as remnants of the Ryūzōji clan created disturbances of public order near Saga Castle, Naoshige, to appease the spirits of the Ryūzōji, built Tenyū-ji (now in Tafuse, Saga). This has been considered the origin of the disturbance and it is believed that the bakeneko was an expression of the Ryūzōji’s grudge in the form of a cat. In addition, the inheritance of power from the Ryūzōji clan to the Nabeshima clan was not an issue, but due to the death of Takanobu, and the sudden death of Nabeshima’s son Katsushige, some point out that this kaidan (ghost story) arose from a dramatization of this series of events.
This legend became a shibai (play). In the Kaei period (1848-1854), it was first performed in Nakamura-za as Hana Sagano Nekoma Ishibumi Shi. The “Sagano” in the title is a place in Tokyo prefecture, but it was actually a pun on the word saga. This play became very popular throughout the country, but a complaint from Saga’s domain caused the performances to stop quickly. However, since the machi-bugyō (a samurai official of the shogunate) who filed the complaint to have the performances stopped was Nabeshima Naotaka of the Nabeshima clan, talk of bakeneko riots spread further.
Thereafter, the tale circulated widely in society in the kōdan Saga no Yozakura and the historical record book Saga Kaibyōden. In the kōdan (a traditional Japanese oral storytelling style), as Ryūzōji’s widow told her grief to the cat, the cat turned into a bakeneko, and killed and ate Komori Hanzaemon’s mother and wife. It then transformed and appeared in his forms, and put a curse on the family. However, in the historical record book, this had nothing to do with the Ryūzōji event, and a foreign type of cat, which had been mistreated by the feudal lord of Nabeshima, Komori Handayū, sought revenge and killed and ate the lord’s favorite concubine, metamorphosed into his form and caused harm to the family. Itō Sōda was the one who exterminated her.
In the early Shōwa period (1926-1989), kaidan films such as Saga Kaibyōden and Kaidan Saga Yashiki became quite popular. Actresses such as Takako Irie and Sumiko Suzuki played the role of bakeneko and became well known as “bakeneko actresses.”
Cats as yōkai in literature date back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333). In the collection of setsuwa (oral tradition of folk tales prior to the 14th century), the Kokon Chomonjū, from this period, statements can be seen pointing to cats doing strange and suspicious things, noting that “these are perhaps the ones who have become demons. “Old stories about bakeneko from that era are often associated with temples, but the reason is believed to be that when Buddhism came to Japan, in order to protect the sutras (sacred texts) from being chewed by rats, cats were also brought in.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), accounts of bakeneko began to appear in essays and kaidan collections from various areas. Tales of cats transforming into humans and talking can be seen in publications such as the Tōen Shosetsu, the Mimibukuro, the Shin Chomonjū, and the Seiban Kaidan Jikki. Similarly, tales of dancing cats can be seen in the Kasshi Yawa, and the Owari Ryōiki.
In the fourth volume of“Mimibukuro,” it is stated that any cat anywhere living for ten years would begin to speak like a human, and that cats born from the union of a fox and a cat would begin to speak even before ten years had passed. According to tales of cats transforming, old cats very often transformed into old women. The Edo period was the golden age of kaidan on bakeneko, and with the realization of shibai such as the“Nabeshima Bakeneko Disturbance,” these became even more famous.
In Makidani, Yamasaki, Shisō District, Harima Province (now within Shisō, Hyōgo Prefecture), a tale was passed down about a person from Karakawa who was a bakeneko. The same type of tale was also found in Taniguchi, Fukusaki village, Jinsai District, of the same province, where it is said that in Kongōjō-ji, a bakeneko who annoyed a villager was killed by someone from the temple. This bakeneko was protected from arrows and bullets by the lid of a chagama and an iron pot. These, like the legend of the extermination of Yamata no Orochi by Susanoo, have in common that ancient local families in the area played a role.