It’s hard to dispute the global popularity of cats, whether you fancy them or not. From museums to memes, they are represented in ancient Japanese art and contemporary communications. That’s quite a narration for the four-legged creatures who reportedly first took up residence in Japan around 500 A.D. The cats were brought on as crew members of ships departing China for Japan, charged with the task of protecting religious documents against destruction by mice. Obviously, their missions as mousers runs deep.
Upon arriving in Japan, it didn’t take long for felines to establish a revered presence within ancient Japanese culture. However, even as celebrated as they were, according to Japanese folklore, cats were also viewed by some as devious and perhaps possessing of darker traits. Nevertheless, one thing is certain, the presence of felines in Japanese art is extensive, and dates back centuries. With that, here are 6 intriguing facts about cats in Japanese art.
- One of the masters of ukiyo-e woodblock art of the 17th century, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), was reportedly a serious fan of felines, often sharing his living space with multiple cats at any given time. In fact, it is said that he kept a record of the cats that died, and treated the passing of each with a great symbolic reverence.
- Another centuries-old applauded feline of Japanese art and culture is the Maneki Neko. Immediately recognizable for its raised and welcoming paw, the Maneki Neko (commonly referred to as Fortune Cat or Lucky Cat) is said to bear multiple telling symbols. For example, if the Maneki Neko bears calico colors, which is a traditional shading, it is said to hold the most potential for luck. You might also notice, the raised paw of a Maneki Neko figurine could be either the left or the right paw. Either way, the symbolism is positive, and is said to be a gesture of beckoning wealth and luck.
- In 1979, Japan issued a commemorative postage stamp featuring the painting “Black Cat,” circa 1910, created by Meiji-period painter Hishida Shunso (formal name was Hishida Miyoji) during a period of only five days. Interestingly, Shunso’s portrait also appeared on a postage stamp, as part of Japan’s Famous Japanese Personalities series in 1951.
- One of the most heralded modern exhibitions featuring cats in Japanese artwork was the “Life of Cats: Selections From the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection.” The exhibition was presented in 2015 by the Japan Society Gallery in New York. Nearly 90 examples of Japanese art, in various mediums, was included in the exhibition.
- The presence of cats in Japanese art isn’t limited to sweet and small. Big cats also appear in artwork dating back centuries. One of the largest and most diverse collections of Japanese art in the world can be found at The Cleveland Museum of Art. The collection boasts 1,950 pieces, including the impressive six-panel ink on paper work titled “Dragon and Tiger” by 16th century Japanese and Zen monk Sesson Shukei.
- Cats are also beloved characters within the storylines and art of modern-day manga – comics created in Japan. For instance, the character Minako Aino, in the wildly popular “Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon” manga of the late 20th century, is accompanied by her talking guardian and advisor, a white cat named Artemis. The manga is the vision of Japanese artist and writer Nako Takeuchi (1967). The illustrations and largely female-led cast of characters went on to influence the development of Magical Girl manga and anime.
Be it centuries-old ukiyo-e woodblock art or modern-day manga and anime art, the reverence for felines is a common thread within the art culture of Japan. Whether it’s because of their supposed mystical properties, elegant and mysterious characteristics, or something else altogether, the fascination with felines in Japanese art and society is alive and well.