Why are Japanese so Obsessed with Cats?
Sometimes when you watch anime, you might notice cats, and I mean hordes of them. These little furballs can be seen everywhere and because they are so cute, nekomimi are almost always associated with moe anime characters — paired up with a cat tail and a cute little fang and it will create a shockwave so explosive a second big bang will erupt, literally altering the laws of the universe.
The history behind the Japanese people and cats actually goes back almost a thousand years ago, when the upper classes of Japanese families were keeping cats as pets at the time. While having cats as pets was certainly for luxury if anything, the hobby eventually passed down to the middle-class people until it became widespread throughout the country — which would be something apparent even today. Famous painters and novelists have used cats as motifs for their works a long time ago, which also helps transcending cats into such an iconic presence in Japan. Newer works depicting cats would be ones from visual entertainment like Doraemon and Hello Kitty (yes, she’s still a cat to me damnit).
Another interesting to note is that in 1924, we saw the earliest portrayal of “catgirl” in a picture book titled “On the Fourth Day of the Narcissus Month” written by Miyazawa Kenji — yes, the same nekomimi-equipping moe anime characters that you have probably seen a hundred times by now. Although as you might have expected, this trope really doesn’t take off until the 1980s, and in 2000s — pretty much became a commonplace thing.
In the modern era, cats still have a strong media presence and in anime alone, the oft-mentioned names like President Aria (Aria), Sakamoto (Nichijou) and Nyanko-sensei (Natsume Yuujinchou) comes to mind. But indeed, the modern era also saw the boom of the nekomimi trope — moe anime characters donning on a pair of nekomimi for maximum damage. In fact, I personally think all visual novels suck, and NekoPara is the best thing that have graced us mortals with their presence (I may or may not be joking). Being the first of it’s kind, nekomimi has brought the entire kemonomimi trope into prominence and even just last season, we had anime like Urara Meirochou, Maid Dragon and Kemono Friends.
Nonetheless, cats have truly mingled with the lives of Japanese people, fiction and even reality. Outside of visual entertainment, cat cafes are not exactly an uncommon sight. There was even a popular cat called Tama which worked as a station master for more than a decade. Additionally, Japanese stores and companies love representing their brand via cutely-designed mascots and unsurprisingly, quite a few of them are cats — even the government mascot which goes by the name Hikonyan. Obviously, almost every single Japanese household owns one of these little feline creatures too. A lot of these Japanese people also live alone, so cats become great companions for them.
Companionship aside, cats symbolizes fortune and prosperity. There is a popular figure in Japan called the maneki-neko, which is said to bring good luck to the owner. In fact, most shop owners love having huge statues of the maneki-neko placed in front of the entrances to reign in the good luck. It’s really not hard to spot these figures in various places including houses, shops or shrines.
Speaking of shrines, cats are pretty much worshiped as Gods in Japan, and there are quite a few neko-jinja (cat shrines) located throughout Japan — each of them with their own intriguing stories. One cat shrine was built in hopes of good catch and safety of the fishermen. Another cat shrine was built so that people who lost their cats can pray for their pets’ safe returns. Another was even built in honor of two cats which participated in military service with samurai general Shimazu Yoshihiro during the 15-16th century.
Cats are truly iconic creatures in Japan. To the Japanese, they are their companions, their best friends, their idols and even their gods.
Cats are good.