Sourced and Translated from Japanese Wikipedia and Other Sources
After enjoying the delights of one of the famed courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure district, a young samurai settles into his futon to sleep off his illicit encounter. But in the middle of the night he suddenly awakens, and sees his beautiful companion hunched over a rotting fishbone, stripping the flesh away with her teeth. The dim lantern-light casts an inhuman, cat-like shadown on the wall. The samurai shudders with the knowledge that he has passed the night with no human being, but one of the dreaded bakeneko prostitutes of Edo.
The bakeneko prostitutes were a common urban legend / folklore during the Edo period. Stories of them appeared in kiboshi illustrated storybooks, sharenbon accounts of the pleasure districts, kabuki plays, and in ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
Most stories follow the same basic pattern—a customer of one of the beautiful courtesans spends a night in pleasure, then curls up to sleep. He is awoken in the middle of the night to see the woman dimly outlined, either with the head of a cat or casting a cat-like shadow, while gorging herself on fish or other sea food popular with cats.
Most of the stories stop there, but darker legends continue with the yokai prostitute then turning to slake her hunger on some human meat, provided by the customer of course.
The Bakeneko Serving Maid of Shinagawa
The bakeneko prostitute legend is thought to have begun as a rumor—or urban legend if you like—of a bakeneko working as a meshimori onna, a type of low-rent waitress/maid/prostitute, at the Ise Inn in the Shinagawa-juku area of Edo, one of the fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō sea highway.
The gossip spread as gossip does, and soon enough people were writing about it with a fervor. In 1775, “The Courage of Genji at the Sumo Tournament” has a scene with a bakeneko prostitute scattering fish all over the room with her mouth. This scene was adapted into an ukiyo-e woodblock print, with what looks to be a human arm. Whether this is part of her costume or her meal is left up to the imagination of the viewer.
The legend appeared in rapid succession slightly re-told in several books. In 1776 it appeared in Urikotoba (The Words of Seller), and in 1798 in Haratsuzumi (Belly-drumming), which has the bakeneko prostitute chomping on shrimp. In 1796, one of the scarier legends from the book Koame Shuame Miko Matsukasu (Anticipation of Things Seen in the Rain) tells of the customer peeping in on his companion to see her in cat-form gnawing on a human arm.
The stories were often told as true accounts, as traveler’s tales of wanderers who stayed at the inn and survived an encounter with the supernatural creature.
The Bakeneko Prostitutes of Edo
Interpretations of the story changed over time, and spread away from Shinagawa to the Yoshiwara pleasure districts of Edo. More rumors of bakeneko prostitutes spread, but instead of a creature of horror they attracted fascination—customers went in search of any ladies of the night rumored to be bakeneko in disguise. Artists sold prints of samurai walking with their bakeneko mistress happily in tow, not at all bothering to disguise her cat head.
Ever the clever businesswomen, the courtesans of Yoshiwara were quick to capitalize on this new fad. Many adopted names that ended with –no, such as kono – because that was reminiscent of the name of the famed serving wench of Ise inn. Women kept cats as pets, and plied their companions for expensive fish and seafood treats, anything to play up the image and create the mystique that their companion for the night was something more than human.
Truth Behind the Legend?
Like with many yokai, there have been attempts to rationalize the story of the bakeneko prostitutes with actual history. The most popular account is the most simple—it was considered bad manners for courtesans to eat in front of their customers. The women were there for the man’s pleasure, and so while men could feast and drink all night, their women had to suppress their own hunger. Once the customer was snoozing, I’m sure many a clever woman took advantage of the time to snatch some leftover nibbles from whatever had been on the menu. And the hunched over posture, trying to hide the illicit snacks, could have appeared as a cat to a tired, drunken man awakening in the middle of the night.
Neko or Neko?
A further connection between cats and sex lies in the word neko. Cat in Japanese is neko, using the kanj i猫. But you can also use the kanji 寝子 (ne ; sleeping + ko; young girl) to draw an obvious allusion to the delights of the Yoshiwara.
Modern Cat Girls
An obvious connection can be drawn between the bakeneko prostitutes of Edo and the modern cat-girl phenomenon. Japanese comics, animation, and video games are filled with cat-eared and cat-tailed girls who can transform into cats like a true bakeneko. And real-life girls even buy nekomimi “cat ears” to wear as accessories. What people think of as a modern fad actually has deep historical roots.
Japanese men have been attracted to cat-creaztures for hundreds of years. And it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
I found this legend while I was doing research for my bakeneko article, and I promised I would give a deeper account of it someday. So here it is! This legend shows how deeply people believed in the reality of yokai and the supernatural during the Edo period. Many took the rumors at face value, and spent good money for the chance to spend the night with what they believed to be a supernatural creature.
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