Sourced and translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Hyakumonogatari, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, Yokai Jiten, Nihon Kokugo Dai-ten, and Other Sources
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Late at night, a sublimely beautiful woman walks the street alone. As she passes by the light of a paper lantern, you notice something about her shadow—it is not human. Cast by the flickering light of the paper lantern is the clear shape of a cat.
She is a bakeneko.
What is a Bakeneko?
Bakeneko has been rendered in English in a variety of ways. Monster cat. Ghost cat. But the most accurate translation would be “Changing Cat,” as that is the defining characteristic of bakeneko.
The word bakeneko (化け猫) consist of two kanji; “Bake-“(化け) means to change form, to transform. The kanji is often used with yokai, and indeed a general term for monster in Japanese is obake (御化け) meaning “changer.” “-neko” (猫), of course, just means “cat.”
The word bakeneko is often used as a catch-all term for the mysterious and magical cats of Japan. Nekomata in particular are sometimes called a type of bakeneko. But this is a misuse of the name. Kaibyo(怪猫) is the general term for paranormal cats in Japanese. Bakeneko, just as their name implies, are defined by their ability to transform.
Specifically, bakeneko are able to take human shape, or near-human shape. Some bakeneko maintain a cat form, but they are able to speak human language and wear human clothes. Some legends say that these cat-shaped bakeneko put towels on their heads and dance on their hind legs. Much, much rarer legends are humans who change shape into cats, but which are also called bakeneko.
Because of their shape-shifting abilities, bakeneko belong to a class of yokai called henge (変化), or changing yokai. This includes other shape-shifters such as tanuki and kitsune.
Like most of Japan’s magical cats, bakeneko are said to be cats who have lived a long time. There are stories of split-tailed bakeneko, who appear similar to nekomata. The primary difference between the two is the bakeneko’s ability to adopt human shape. Also like other magical cats, there are stories of bakeneko manipulating the dead, or cursing humans.
Bakeneko Origins – The Lamp Lickers
For the origins of most yokai, there is at best a definitive “maybe” on how they arose. But for the bakeneko, there is a general scholastic consciences that the legends began with fish.
Cats are not indigenous to Japan, and the little “hand-fed tigers” were imported in later years and served as house pets and rat-catchers. Most of Japan at the time lived on a diet of vegetables and grains, with very little supplementary meat or protein. Cats were fed leftovers. However, cats are carnivorous. They don’t do well on a diet of vegetables and grains, and when they are hungry they will take their protein where they can get it. And many households had a ready supply, even if they didn’t know it.
Oil lamps as the time often used rendered fish oil as fuel. To a protein-starved cat this was exactly what they needed, and they would stand on their hind legs to reach up to the lamp to lick out the fish oil. Frightened pet owners looking at the lamplight-cast shadows would see their tiny cat suddenly elongate and stand on two legs as if transforming into a human. Thus was established the connection between bakeneko and shadows.
The cries of cats have also been known to mimic human words and sounds. To an ear already disposed to think their little tabby is shape-shifting at night, imaginations were allowed to run wild and people heard their cats speaking Japanese.
The Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima
While there are many, many bakeneko legends in Japan (too many to tell here), the most famous is the Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima.
This story takes place in Hizen province (modern day Saga prefecture) during the rule of Nabshima Mitsushige (1632-1700). Nabeshima employed a man named Ryuzoji Matashichi to serve as his opponent for Go. One day Matashichi fell out of favor with his lord Nabeshima, and Nabeshima had him put to the death. Matashichi’s mother was heartbroken by this, and poured out her sadness to the family cat they kept, then killed herself with a knife.
The cat licked the blood from the mother, and from this transformed into a bakeneko. Every night the cat would sneak into the castle to torment Nabeshima. The curse only ended when Nabeshima’s loyal retainer Komori Hanzaemon battled the cat and won, saving the Nabeshima house.
The story is famous not only as a legend, but also because it coincides with a real succession conflict in the Nabeshima household. It was made into a kabuki play that debuted at the Nakamura-za theater in the 1840s, titled Hana Sagano Nekoma Ishibumi Shi ( 花嵯峨野猫魔碑史; The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano). The play was a hit, but the Nabeshima family successfully petitioned to have the production closed. They were too late, however. The cat was out of the bag, and the bakeneko became a popular monster for future kabuki productions.
Bakeneko also became a popular subject for Edo period ukiyo-e artists. Many of these portray a giant cat in the background, although the cat is often just a symbol showing the true soul of the human character crouching in the foreground, the true bakeneko.
Bakeneko Yujo – TheBakeneko Prostitutes
In the Edo period, books called kibyoshi (yellow books)and sharebon (which translates as “Books of Fashion”) told stories of near-do-wells and salacious tales of life in the pleasure quarters. Considering the Edo periods mania for kaidan weird tales, it was only natural that these two genres should combine to tell tales of bakeneko prostitutes who haunted the lantern-lit lanes of the Yoshiwara.
These stories usually followed a familiar pattern, where a popular prostitute would escort a customer too her room and perform her usual service. Late at night, the customer would wake up and find his lady not there. He would sneak into a different part of the house where he peeked at her, and the dainty woman would be revealed as a bakeneko, usually engaged in tearing the heads off of live fish and shrimp, blood dripping on her face.
Seafood was the dead giveaway for these bakeneko prostitutes, and sometimes customers would present a woman with a live fish to see if her true nature would be revealed. Strangely enough, this plot device was used by Mizuki Shigeru for his character Neko Musume, a bakeneko that appears as a cute little girl but suddenly transforms into a ravenous beast in the presence of fish or mice.
Read more yokai magical animal tales on hyakumonogatari.com:
Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat
Kasha – The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon
Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat
The Cat’s Grave