Bakeneko, the Japanese Cat Demon !

September 06, 2021 5 min read

Bakeneko, the Japanese Cat Demon !

As the object of many superstitions all over the world, the cat is not an exception in Japan.

An evil creature, the Bakeneko (化け猫 or "changed cat") is a cat demon at the origin of many legends. He is a member of the yokai family: the spirits of Japanese folklore.

Behind his singular appearance of a big-tailed tomcat hides a fearsome monster capable of haunting his home, throwing fire or even devouring his master...

Learn more about the origins of the Bakeneko and the legends surrounding this scary feline. Beware, after reading this article, you won't see your pet the same way 🙀.

😼 The origins of Bakeneko

In the 17th century, during the Edo period, the textile industry developed, resulting in the appearance of sericulture in Japan. At that time, cats were valued for driving away rats and mice that were threatening the silkworm farm. These protective animals were therefore forbidden from being sold. Thus, many alley cats populated the streets, causing legends to be born in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The term Bakeneko means " changed cat " or " cat demon ". Indeed, it was said that this feline could transform into a demon to haunt its house and take possession of its master. Not a very friendly cat 😾!

💪 The magical powers of the Bakeneko

Originating from Japanese mythology, this ordinary looking cat is actually a yokai (supernatural creature) with many powers such as the ability to metamorphose, to take possession of humans or even to make people dance.

Differentiating a Bakeneko from a domestic tomcat is not easy, nevertheless, it is said that he likes to lap up oil lamps. Okay but... it must be noted that these are made from fish fat 🐟 and thus not very surprising for a cat.

Bakeneko by Utagawa

Representation of a Bakeneko tormenting humans, by Utagawa Kunisada

The story goes that the Bakeneko's demonic spirit is able to adopt a human form by standing on its hind legs, or even throw fireballs. Similarly, this yokai is never left in presence of corpses, as it can wake up the dead ☠️ by jumping on them.

However, not every cat becomes Bakeneko! To be transformed, the cat must meet one or more characteristics such as age, weight and morphology. Somewhat like the criteria of the fashion model!

As a result, the cat must be:

  • ✔ Thirteen years old
  • ✔ Weight more than 3.5 kg
  • ✔ Possess a long tail

😺 The different types of Bakeneko

Although most Bakeneko are devious creatures, ready to devour their master to achieve their ends, there also exists some gentler ones: the Maneki Neko, for instance. Remember those little lucky cats, who greet you by raising their paw at the entrance of Asian stores 😻 ? Benevolent in nature, they bring luck and prosperity into the household.

bakeneko and nekomata

Representation of a Bakeneko (left) and a Nekomata (right).

When the Bakeneko's tail splits in two, you're dealing with a Nekomata 👹 a very dangerous creature that you'd better not cross paths with, and even less so welcome at home. This malefic cat is renowned for persecuting its home.

Thus, Japanese people sometimes cut off the tails of kittens, fearing that they would turn into demons later on. From these scary superstitions, the Japanese Bobtail was born.

🐱 Some legends around the Bakeneko

The legend of the Japanese Bobtail

Have you ever heard of this strange breed of cat with its short tail called a Japanese Bobtail? Behind this cat breed lies a Japanese legend that we will tell you about.

While he was warming himself near the fire, a cat accidentally burned his tail. Panic-stricken, in front of his appendix which was burning, the cat fled into the city and caused the fire to spread to all the houses. Following this disaster, the Emperor of Japan decided to cut all cats' tails to avoid this incident to ever happen again.

Japanese bobtail cat

Photo of a Japanese bobtail, the cat without a tail.

The legend of the vampire cat

Haunted by a Bakeneko, O Toyo, the favorite lady of prince Nabeshima, had trouble finding her sleep. One night, while she was waking up from a terrible nightmare, the young woman was attacked by a monstrous cat. After killing her, the cat immediately took on the appearance of her victim in order to seduce the prince. Blinded by the beauty of the false O Toyo, Nabeshima did not notice any change. He liked to spend time with his beauty.

Later, the prince fell ill and despite the arrival of many healers, no one could find the reason for his ailments. He too had nightmares and woke up weaker and weaker every morning, until he lost his mind.

Every night, guards watched over Prince Nabeshima. Strangely enough, the guards could not resist sleep and always ended up falling asleep. Among them, a young soldier named Itô Sôda took his mission particularly to heart.

Bakeneko illustration by Patrick Jannin

Illustration by Patrick Jannin

While all the guards who were watching over the prince had fallen asleep, Itô Sôda, feeling tired, cut his knee with his dagger. Using his pain to stay awake, the young guard succeeded in braving the sleep that was making him dizzy. Thus he saw O Toyo going to the prince's room. He understood that this beautiful woman was in fact a vampire who fed on the blood of Lord Nabeshima. When she was caught, O Toyo was quickly executed. It is said that when she died, the young woman turned into a big black cat.

The legend of Takasu Genbei

After she lost her cat, Takasu Genbei's mother's behavior changed dramatically. Usually sociable, she began to isolate herself regularly, avoiding the company of her relatives. While she was taking refuge in her room to eat, Takasu Genbei saw a cat-like figure through the open door, devouring a carcass. Curiously, the monster was wearing his mother's clothes. Terrified, the man killed the abominable creature, which suddenly took on the appearance of the missing cat.

👻 The Bakeneko, a cat demon that fascinates the Japanese

Bakeneko and mangas

Mangas are also largely inspired by the cat-monster. We can quote Kuro, the demonic cat in the Blue Exorcist series, the characters of the anime Neko no ongaeshi (The Cat Returns) or the manga Bakemonogatari where one of the heroes is possessed by a Bakeneko.

Character of Kuro in Blue Exorcist

The character of Kuro in the Blue Exorcist series.

In the world of video games, the Bakeneko has not been left out. Note the appearance of Nekomata in Final Fantasy or Pokemon through the character of Mentali.

A popular yokai in Japanese art

The cat has been a particularly popular animal in Japanese culture for centuries now. After the famous Maneki Neko that populates many shops and restaurants, the Bakeneko remains an essential figure in Japanese art.

Thus, the Bakeneko is represented in many works such as Kabuki plays, Toriyama Sekien's illustrations, Utagawa Kunisada's paintings and Yosa Buson's drawings.

The star of Japanese folklore

Both frightening and fascinating, the cat demon is honored with a festival, every year in Tokyo. This festival includes costumes, parades and dances to celebrate the most famous cat in the Kagurazaka district during Halloween in October. Besides, the Bakeneko Matsuri is a real must-see event for cat lovers.

If you plan to go there, don't forget to bring your Japanese cat mask!

Bakeneko Matsuri

Photographs taken at the BakeNeko Matsuri in Kagurazaka.  (Source : lejapon.fr)

As a revered cat demon, the Bakeneko is an evil creature that inspires fear and respect through legends, art and Japanese folklore. This mysterious and devious feline haunts screens and homes alike.

Cover image: Illustration by Ayako Ishiguro.


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