Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara

Iriomote Island in the Okinawa island chain is sometimes called the Galapagos Island of the East. When the Iriomote yamaneko (Iriomote mountain cat; 西表山猫) was discovered, it came as no surprise to the inhabitants.  In fact, the islanders insisted there were two distinct species of feline predators on the island, the house pet-sized yamaneko and a great cat the size of a panther. Biologists deny the existence of any “great mountain cat,” even though islanders have several names for the beast.

Yamamaya is the local name for the discovered Iriomote yamaneko, “maya” being the word for cat in the Iriomote dialect.  His larger cousin is alternatively called the yamapikaryā (meaning “the glittering thing on the mountain”), the mēpisukaryā, or the pingimaya. The names mēpisukaryā and pingimaya mean “shinning eyes.” All of the terms come from the beasts’ mysterious eyes that glow  in the dark of the forest.

The Iriomote Yamaneko was discovered in 1965 by Ryukyu University professor Takara Tetsuo. Before the official discovery, the island was investigated by animal-author Togawa Yukio who claimed that there was good evidence for the existence of the yamapikaryā as well.  He estimated that the population was even smaller than the elusive yamamaya, which numbers about 250 cats.  Although evidence of the yamapikaryā has never been found, Iriomote islanders can tell terrifying stories of walking through the dense mountain forests and finding themselves under the gaze of a pair of lamp-like eyes staring out from the dark.

Hearing that, I think the great mountain cats still exist today.

Translator’s Note:

I found this oddity while flipping through my Mizuki Shigeru books looking for cat yokai that would fit with my current theme. The Iriomote yamaneko is an actual animal, a rare endemic cat species discovered as stated in 1965 by Takara Tetsuo.

I think this is an interesting Shigeru entry because it shows just how wide is Shigeru’s definition of the word “yokai.”  In English, the “great mountain cat” is what we would categorize as a cryptid, along the same lines as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other “great cat” legends such as England’s Beast of Exmoor. To Shigeru, however, these are all yokai.

Japan has a few legends of big cats.  The original stories of the neko-mata was of a great beast like a tiger, and not the split-tailed cat we know today. It is unknown if these accounts were based on an actual creature; there is fossil evidence of a small prehistoric Japanese tiger, which could be a factual basis of the yamapikaryā.

Further reading:

Read more yokai magical animal tales on hyakumonogatari.com:

Kasha – The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat

The Cat’s Grave

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mazyrian
    May 23, 2012 @ 08:18:16

    This made think of the tsuchinoko, another creature I would think of as a cryptid but which I’ve seen categorized as youkai (granted, mostly in fiction).

    Reply

  2. Zack Davisson
    May 23, 2012 @ 19:22:15

    I was thinking of the tsuchinoko too when I was translating this. I think it shows just how broad Mizuki Shigeru treats the term “yokai.” He takes it at face value, meaning “mysterious apparition,” which includes pretty much every mysterious monster from cryptids like the oyamaneko and the tsuchinoko to urban legends like tofu kozo and the kuchisake onna. In many of his books he talks about Western yokai like bigfoot, Dracula, and werewolves.

    Others tend to think of yokai with a smaller definition, meaning only traditional Japanese folklore creatures.

    Reply

  3. vilajunkie
    May 24, 2012 @ 11:46:21

    Issie/Isshī in Lake Ikeda and Kussie/Kusshī in Lake Kussharo too. But I think Issie has a folkloric background, so not just a modern cryptid like Kussie and the Loch Ness Monster. (Yeah, I know there’s that infamous story of St. Columba fighting Nessie; however, there’s no verifiable evidence of Nessie in the original biographies and legends.)

    Reply

    • Richard Freeman
      Sep 28, 2012 @ 17:01:48

      It is said that in ancient times a mare and her snow white foal used to graze beside the lake. One day a samurai came and took the foal to be his steed. The mare searched vainly for her foal then in desperation plunged into the lake and became a monster.

      Reply

  4. Zack Davisson
    May 24, 2012 @ 13:08:03

    Well, come on now vilajunkie. We all know, as was revealed in “Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack,” that Issie was actually a Mothra larva …

    Reply

  5. Dr Karl Shuker
    May 28, 2012 @ 03:12:01

    I’m a little mystified by the names used here for the two Iriomote cats – the small, discovered species and the much larger, undiscovered species – because when the former cat was discovered in the 1960s, I saw an article by Togawa (his name was given in it as Yukio Togawa, rather than the other way round) published in the English monthly wildlife magazine Animals, in which he referred to it as the pingimaya and to the bigger mystery cat as the yamamaya. I have since seen these names referred in this way elsewhere too. For further details re both of these cats, see my book Mystery Cats of the World (Robert Hale: London, 1989) and The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Coachwhip Publications: Landisville, 2012). Best wishes, Dr Karl Shuker

    Reply

    • vilajunkie
      Sep 08, 2012 @ 22:06:00

      (Sorry about such a late reply to this!)

      Dr. Shuker, I wanted to say I’m a fan of your “Dragons: A Natural History” book. I’ve had my copy since 1995, and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve leafed through it. I’m really interested in learning more about those leech-dragons you mentioned. To this day I haven’t really heard much of them in other books.

      Thanks so much for writing “Dragons”; it gave me the inspiration to start on my own encyclopedia of mythological and folkloric creatures. :)

      Reply

  6. Zack Davisson
    May 29, 2012 @ 16:06:29

    The naming convention can be confusing. The English Wikipedia gives all the names as variations for the regular yamaneko, and doesn’t mention the big cat at all. It looks like there was some mistranslation at some stage in the English material that has lasted through the years, with everyone pulling from the same source.

    This article is a direct translation from one of Mizuki Shigeru’s books, who is the leading authority on Japanese phenomenon. I just double-checked some other Japanese language sources, and they all confirm yamamaya as the regular, confirmed cat, and yamapikaryā as the mystery big cat, with both mēpisukaryā and pingimaya as alternative names.

    Unlike the English site, the Japanese Wikipedia has a separate section on the yamapikaryā, including some modern sightings and first-hand accounts. I feel pretty confident that these are the accurate names.

    Reply

  7. angrygaijin
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 14:42:45

    Good morning! Back for more all ready. I love blogging, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never been so eager to get online to read someone’s blog. Super eerie stuff~

    Reply

  8. Zack Davisson
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 13:17:26

    Thanks again! I just wish I had more time for new translations! I keep up as best I can.

    Reply

  9. Richard Freeman
    Sep 28, 2012 @ 16:59:39

    I’ve written about this beast myself. sounds to me like a sub-species of the clouded leopard.

    Reply

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