Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat

Mizuki_Shigeru_Nekomata

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Yokai Jiten, Japanese Wikipedia, and other sources

Beware of keeping your sweet and patient house cat for too long. According to Japanese folklore, once that venerable pussy reaches an ancient enough age, its tail will split into two and it will begin to walk on its hind legs. Only then will your cat begins its second life as a nekomata, a cat-like yokai with a split-tail.

What does Nekomata Mean?

Nekomata is not an easy word to translate. Most translations for names of yokai depend on the kanji, and nekomata can be written in three different ways. Note that all three are pronounced the exact same way. The most ancient form was 猫また, which uses the kanji for cat 猫(neko), with the remainder written in hiragana. Words written in hiragana have no inherent meaning and often the definition can only be guessed at.

A later variation wrote nekomata as 猫股 which again uses the kanjI 猫(neko) for cat, but then uses 股 (mata) meaning “forked.” The meaning of this is straight forward, and translates as the descriptive “forked cat.”

But the most common variation is the most confusing. Nekomata is most commonly written as 猫又, which combines 猫(neko) with又(mata) meaning “again. This version directly translates as “the again cat,” but the reason for this is disputed. Some say it stands for the split of the tails, with “mata” being a numerical counter for tails, while some say it refers to the second life of a cat as a nekomata, thus the term “again cat.”

However, both of these kanji are most likely later additions trying to add explanations to a pre-existing word, what in English would be called a folk etymology. In its original form, with “mata” written in hiragana, is thought to relate somehow to the image of the nekomata living in the forest like a monkey, leaping from tree to tree. All of these explanations are, however, pure speculation. Nobody really knows what nekomata means.

The Kamakura Period – The Nekomata of the Mountains

Most Japanese yokai were born during the Edo period, but the nekomata has more ancient roots. Mention of the nekomata first appeared during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), where it was mentioned in the literary jottings of Yoshida Kenko in his scroll Tsurezure-gusa (徒然草; The Harvest of Leisure, also known as Essays in Idleness). Yoshida wrote “Deep in the mountains there is a creature called the nekomata. It is said that it feeds on humans.” At around the same period, Fujiwara Sadaie recorded in the scroll Meigetsuki (明月記; The Record of the Clear Moon, sometimes called Diary of the Clear Moon) that on August 8th in the first year of Tenpuku (1233) in Nanto (modern day Nara prefecture) a nekomata from the mountains killed and ate several people.

These are typical of Kamakura period accounts of nekomata. Far from the bizarre split-tailed cat of modern accounts, the ancient nekomata was a feared beast of the mountains rumored to attack, kill, and eat humans who wandered too deep into the mountain recesses. A physical description is given in the Meigestu-gi saying a nekomata has “eyes like a cat and a body the size of a great dog.”

There was nothing supernatural about these accounts of the nekomata during the Kamakura period, and it was treated like any other mountain predator. It is unknown if these accounts were based on an actual creature; there is fossil evidence of a small prehistoric Japanese tiger, and tigers were often imported from China and one could have gotten lose and made its way into the forest. Suggestions have even been made that ancient nekomata legends are based on a rabies-infected animal explaining its tendency to stalk and attack humans. But again, this is pure speculation.

The Early Edo Period – The Supernatural Nekomata

Like any good folk legend, the stories of nekomata began to change in the telling, and with each passing year nekomata increased in size. In 1685, in the book Shincho Monjyu (新著聞集; A Literary Collection of New Hearings) described the nekomata as being as larger than a wild boar. In 1775 the book Waku-shiori (倭訓栞; A Bookmark of Chinese Characters) described the nekomata to be as large as a lion or a panther, with a cry that resounded through the mountains. By 1809, in the book  寓意草 the nekomata was described as being over six feet long and large enough to carry a dog in its mouth.

The Middle Edo Period – The Nekomata Comes Indoors

The real transformation in the legends of the nekomata came during the mid-Edo period. While the mountains were still considered the abode of the great beasts, a belief arose that nekomata evolved from regular house cats that had lived a very long time. When cats grew old enough they changed into a new form and left they households to begin their new existence as nekomata in the mountains.Because of this, it was considered dangerous to keep a cat for too long in your house.

The belief was expounded on by Yusoku Kojitsu and Ise Fudatake, who wrote in their respective books Ansei Zuihitsu (安斎随筆; The Literary Jottings of Ansei) and Kazusai no Neko (数歳; Cats of Various Ages) that the tail of these old cats would split into two tails at the time of transformation. The scholar Arai Hakuseki further popularized this new belief in his essays on the mysteries of cats that were printed in widely-circulated newspapers.

One of the most famous accounts of nekomata is the 1708 Yamato Kaiiki (大和怪異記; Mysterious Stories from Japan) story The Nekomata Fire (猫股の火) which tells the tale of a samurai whose house is taken over by a poltergeist-like haunting that is only ended when the family cat is killed and revealed to have two tails. This story was later adapted by Mizuki Shigeru for his comic Nekomata.

This version of the nekomata has completely taken over the Kamakura period beliefs, and it is almost impossible to find a modern depiction of nekomata that does not show the split-tailed monster.

Nekomata Art

During the Edo period, illustrated reference books called zukan were published, including the popular kaidan emaki—illustrated kaidan manuals. Nekomata regularly appeared in these manuals.

Possibly the most famous picture of a nekomata comes from the book Hyakki Zukan (百怪図巻; An Illustrated Manual of One Hundred Weird Tales) by Sawagi Sushi. Sawagi drew an unconventional and ironic picture of a nekomata looking like a young woman playing the shamisen. At the time, shamisen were made from the stretched skin of female cats, and the cat looks to be singing a melancholy song while playing an instrument possibly made from a relative. Because the nekomata is dressed in the garb of a geisha, it is also a possible reference to a geisha whose nickname was “Cat.”

Toriyama sekien’s picture of a nekomata from his Gazu Hyakki Yako (画図百鬼夜行; The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons) is also tinged with humor. His illustrations shows three cats, one a nekomata with a split-tale and two regular cats. The nekomata appears to be showing off walking on its hind legs, while the younger cat tries to imitate it can’t, because it isn’t old enough to transform yet.

Like many Japanese folklore creatures, in modern times the nekomata is depicted as cute and is far removed from the ferocious, man-eating beast of the Kamakura period. Probably the most famous modern nekomata is the character Kirara from the comic book InuYasha.

Nekomata and Other Supernatural Cats

Japan is full of supernatural cats and cat-lore, of which the nekomata is only one. Because of the glint in a cat’s eyes and their mysterious nature, cats have been thought to be supernatural from ancient times, and able to deliver curses. It was said that to kill a cat would result in seven lifetimes of inauspicious rebirth.

Other cat yokai include the kasha (火車), a type of demon that arouse from a cat owned by someone who died. If people weren’t careful, the cat would transform into a kasha and steal the body away before a funeral could be held. Nekomata are often mistaken for bakeneko(化け猫), another transformed cat, although they are two different creatures.

You can still see the lingering evidence of nekomata beliefs in place names around Japan. In Echu province (modern day Toyama prefecture) there was a mountain that was said to be the site of several nekomata slayings named Nekomata Mountain, and in Aizu provice (modern day Fukushima prefecture) a mountain named Nekomata Peak is has several nekomata legends associated with it.

Translator’s Note:

This was posted by request for reader Aub Driver, who was looking for references for a nekomata tattoo.  I found a whole lot of history, but not a whole lot of images.  Sorry Aub!  Hope the article sparks some inspiration though!

Further Reading:

Read more yokai magical animal tales on hyakumonogatari.com:

Bakeneko – The Changing Cat

Kasha-The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

The Cat’s Grave

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

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27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Korin Thyans
    Apr 21, 2012 @ 03:17:19

    Great blog. Any idea where Nekomata kill pic comes from?

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Apr 21, 2012 @ 12:34:34

      Thanks! The pic comes from Gojin Ishihara’s 1972 book “Illustrated Book of Japanese Monsters” (妖怪画集). Its a great book full of illustrations of yokai.

      Reply

  2. angrygaijin
    Apr 22, 2012 @ 21:30:54

    Wow! I love all this ghost stuff. Makes me want to look up ghost and spirit stories from back home.

    Reply

  3. angrygaijin
    Apr 22, 2012 @ 21:32:39

    Btw, since I read your post about the kappa monster and shirikodama, I think I started a trend my workplace. Whenever someone has a left over avacodo pit after lunch, everyone apparently reaches for the shirikodama jokes, haha.

    Reply

  4. LediaR
    Apr 25, 2012 @ 04:56:31

    Reblogged this on Mysterious Japan.

    Reply

  5. toshidama
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 12:04:37

    I’ve only just come across this blog – thanks Ledia R! – what a great collection of yokai etc!!

    Reply

  6. mcur
    Apr 30, 2012 @ 00:23:26

    “However, both of these kanji are most likely later additions trying to add explanations to a pre-existing word, what in English would be called a backronym.”

    I think you mean a folk etymology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_etymology
    A backronym is something different.

    Reply

  7. Bruna M.
    May 05, 2012 @ 21:53:30

    I really love your blog, and searching for more ghost and yokai stories, i found this image: http://uploads4.wikipaintings.org/images/utagawa-kuniyoshi/tiger-1.jpg from Utagawa Kuniyoshi, I guess [I don't really trust this site]. If you take a good look at the pic, you will see that this tiger have two tails. And remembered me of this post. What do you think? xD

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      May 12, 2012 @ 12:44:21

      Thanks! And that is an Utagawa Kuniyoshi painting, but I don’t believe it is supposed to be a nekomata. That painting has no title, but it is a depiction of a tiger walking on a windy day, and I think the two tails is an attempt to depict motion. The painting starts at the bottom, and with each transitional “wipe” the tiger is in a different place in time.

      Reply

  8. Mariah
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 04:53:19

    i love all of the cat-related stories! but i was just curious,are you sure bakeneko and nekomata aren’t related? i could be wrong of course,but i read that when some cats died,they became bakeneko,and sometimes the tail would split and they’ed become nekomata,and cat owners would prevent this by cutting the tails off cats. But i’m sure there’s lots of ways to tell the stories,i just thought i’d share my information :)

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Jun 18, 2012 @ 10:34:29

      Hey Mariah,

      Glad you are enjoying the cat-lore! As to the bakeneko and nekomata being related, well, they are both yokai cats, so you could say they are “related” in that sense. They have the similarities shared by all Japanese cat-folklore; they are long-lived cats who transformed.–Although not after death. The cats have to be alive to transform. And they also share the cat-tail power. It is true that people used to cut the tails off of their cats. That is sometimes seen as the origin of the Japanese bob-tailed cat that still exists, probably bred through selection.

      But they are different folklore creatures–0 And I have seen several Japanese sources that go out of their way to state that bekeneko and nekomata are not the same. The real difference is that bakeneko are shape-changers, and nekomata are not. Think of bakeneko as cats-in-human-form, and nekomata as big monster cats. I’m sure you could find a story or two that goes against type–It is folklore, and there are no hard and fast rules. But that is the general distinction.

      And I would be wary of many of the English-language sites dealing with yokai. I have seen quite a few that are simply incorrect … usually bad information posted somewhere that is then endlessly repeated.

      Reply

  9. Anonymous
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 22:16:00

    Amei as histórias *–*

    Reply

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  11. Joe Marshall
    Sep 09, 2013 @ 14:11:58

    In the manga Naruto, there is the Two-Tailed beast (demon) that is a cat.
    Now I know where it’s orgins come from thanks for the great posts

    Reply

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  14. Mark Schumacher
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 01:45:02

    You are a gifted translator and teller of tales. I enjoy your site immensely. As for your Nekomata (split-tailed cat), I would like to mention two “probably” related items:

    Cats and Shamisen. In your story, you mention the famous nekomata picture from the Edo-era book Hyakki Zukan (百怪図巻, An Illustrated Manual of One Hundred Weird Tales) by Sawagi Sushi. This picture portrays a woman-like cat playing the shamisen. There is an old Japanese proverb that goes 風が吹けば桶屋が儲かる (Kaze ga fukeba, okeya ga mō karu), which literally means “When the wind blows, the barrel maker makes money.” The proverb signifies the “interconnectedness of all things” (i.e., the domino effect). The story behind the proverb employs cats and shamisen. To wit: “When the wind blows, it kicks up dust. Dust gets into people’s eyes and causes some people to go blind. Blind people in old Japan turned to music to make a living, commonly becoming shamisen-playing storytellers. The shamisen is made from cat skin. An increase in the population of blind people equates to a decline in the cat population. Fewer cats equate to more rats. More rats equate to more scavenging of rice supplies. More rat scavenging forces people to order more barrels to protect their rice. Hence, when the winds blows, barrel makers get rich.

    Split Tail of Cat “Probably” Linked to Ancient Fox Lore. In your story, you say that when a cat reaches a certain age, its tail will split into two and it will begin to walk on its hind legs and become powerful. This is strikingly similar to Chinese/Japanese fox lore. Foxes grow in power as they age. They grow a tail for each century of life. When they reach 900 years of age, a nine-tailed fox 九尾狐 gains the power of infinite vision (in some texts, the creature is a good omen, in others a bad omen). For many more details, see http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/tanuki.shtml#origins

    Finally, the picture you present of a dancing white cat dressed in a red robe comes from Kawanabe Kyōsai 河鍋暁斎 (1831-1889), a spoof of a 12th-century hand scroll known as Frolicking Animals & Humans (Chōjū Jinbutsu Giga 鳥獣人物戯画). The latter work is a national treasure at Kōzan-ji Temple 高山寺 (Kyoto). In any case, if you look at the entire painting, you could also “justifiable” call the creature a white fox (not a white cat), for beside it is a tanuki — and the tanuki is very closely related to the fox. The color white is also important, for white foxes are considered especially powerful and serve as the mount or animal companion of Inari (kami of rice) as well as the mount of Dakiniten and various Tengu. At the end of the day, however, we can only speculate, for Cat/Fox/Tanuki lore is a very complex topic.

    Reply

  15. fernandoBR
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 12:22:46

    So, after a lot of years old, the cats in Japan change to Nekomata. Japan is a strange land. It’s ajoke, hontou. Man, I love youkais and your blog is great.

    Reply

  16. fernandoBR
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 12:26:11

    Nekomata design by Shin Megami Tensei team: http://megamitensei.wikia.com/wiki/Nekomata?file=NekomataSMT3.jpg

    Reply

  17. Trackback: Nekomata | Spiritueller Wiki - Informnationsportal für für Spirituelles und Bewusstseinsentwicklung
  18. Wraith
    Oct 14, 2014 @ 07:32:03

    Very interesting article! Nekomata are one of my favourite yokai.I also love Tengu, but haven’t found an article on them yet.How about writing one ? =)

    Reply

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