Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara and Japanese Wikipedia
If you wake up on a cold morning to see a fire mysteriously roaring in what should be a cold fireplace, don’t be afraid. It just means the gotokoneko has been by, stoking up the hearth into a nice, satisfying, roaring blaze. Just the kind this magical cat enjoys.
Gotokoneko the Fire Builder
A type of nekomata, the gotokoneko has the split-tail and advanced age of all its kind. But the difference from average nekomata is the gotokoneko’s love of fire. Most animals—magical or otherwise—are naturally terrified of fire. They enjoy the warmth, but fear the flames. The gotokoneko is not only not afraid of fire, but is often found stoking up the fire in a cold hearth, using a hifuki-dake, a bamboo blowing tube, to coax flames from the coals.
The gotokoneko is not the only cat-yokai associated with fire—the kasha is a flame-wrapped cat demon who drags corpses to hell. Kasha and some bakeneko are said to be able to transform into hi-no-tama fireballs. Even the eyes of ordinary cats are said to be able to capture fire within them, sparkling in the dark. But of all the various cat demons and magical cats only the gotokoneko will actually sit down at a hearth and busy itself with the process of making a fire.
What is a Gotoko?
In traditional Japanese homes, trivets (gotoko) were often found near the sunken hearth. Hot utensils from the fire — like tea kettles or pots and pan — were set on trivets so as not to char the tatami mats. As the name implies, the gotokoneko wears a trivet on his head like a hat.
In his book Mujyara, Mizuki Shigeru points out that nobody knows why the gotokoneko wears a trivet on its head. It just does.
The History of the Gotokoneko
The gotokoneko first known appearance is in Tomi Mitsunobu’s Muromachi-period yokai collection Hyakki Yagyo Emaki (百鬼夜行絵巻; Illustrated Scroll of the Night Parade of 100 Demons). There is no description of the yokai, just a background figure of a cat marching in the Night Parade with a trivet on its head. It is thought that later artists copies this trivet-wearing cat and developed a mythology to go along with it.
The gotokoneko next appeared in Toriyama Seiken’s Edo-period Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (百器徒然袋, A Bag of 100 Tedious Objects). Toriyama made a pun in the title of this collection, replacing the kanji –ki (鬼; demon) with the homophone –ki (器; objects). Sure enough, most of the yokai in this collection are either tsukumogami—a type of yokai that is an ordinary object come to life—or are associated with some object like the gotokoneko with the trivet on its head.
And Toriyama was nowhere near finished with his puns.
The Five Virtues
Toriyama wrote on his illustration:
“As the man who danced the Dance of the Seven Virtues forgot two of them, perhaps you will also forget this cat or think it just a dream.”
He makes both an allusion and a pun. Because the term “gotoko” refers to the trivet, but it also can mean “The Five Virtues. “ This is a reference to an old story by Shinano no Zenji Yukinaga.
In the story, a man is supposed to dance the Dance of the Seven Virtues—embodying all of the manly virtues required to be a warrior –before the Tang Emperor of China. Unfortunately, the man has forgotten two of the virtues. He figures if he can’t remember them, no one else will either, and announces his “Dance of the Five Virtues” that he then performs magnificently.
So Toriyama is making a pun, drawing a link between the object gotoko and the Five Virtues gotoko. This leads to the gotokoneko sometimes being translated into English as the “Five Virtues Cat,” but that is not correct. Aside from the homophone of the name, the gotokoneko is clearly not an embodiment of manly virtues, but is at home in front of a hearth, blowing his bamboo tube to stroke the flames, and wearing a trivet on its head.
Another magical cat story! And just when I think I know them all, I find a new one to write about. The gotokoneko is a pretty rare beast—I don’t think he shows up much outside of Toriyama and Mizuki Shigeru. But I could be wrong.
The kanji for gotokoneko is exactly the pun Toriyama created. Go (五; Five) + to (徳; Virtues) + Neko (猫; cat). It is rare in Japanese for homophones to share the same kanji, but that is exactly the case here. However, the “trivet” version of the word is far more common than the “Five Virtues” version.
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