It’s no secret: the Japanese love cats.   Their folklore abounds in felines — from Manekineko, the beckoning feline who brings good luck to Bake-neko, the “changed cat” who shape-shifts, sometimes taking the form of a woman or a Neko-Musume (“the daughter of a cat”). And with the exceptions of the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima (who waves his two tails happily in the air while he feeds on a victim) and some other highly questionable felines, they bring luck with them wherever they go.

That’s not the only place we find cats.  They frequently show up in Japanese art as well.  “The Japanese have always excelled at portraying the cat in art,”  Fernand Mery writes.  Sometimes the sculptures and paintings “achieve such effective realism that the works themselves are said to have a magic effect,” keeping rats and mice away from homes and temples. 

This love affair with all things feline began when cats arrived in Japan 1200 to 1300 years ago to deal with the rodents who were wreaking havoc on religious scrolls, rice, and silk.  So the new arrivals were definitely viewed as saviors.  The Japanese didn’t deify their cats the way the ancient Egyptians did, but they came pretty damn close.  “It is only in Japan that the cat has this religious significance after its death,” Mery observes.  It was “symbolically pure enough” to be a messenger between Buddha and his followers.

As love affairs go, this is a good one, and it’s not ending any time soon.