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.
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.
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!
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