The Japanese cat

by Stefan Chiarantano, Aug 30, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

The Japanese cat has captured my attention. I've run across them here and there but they seem quite at home in Komagane. They prance about in gardens, stretch out languidly along the edge of a rice field or scurry along the paths and roads making their way gingerly to their next destination. Sometimes, they notice me and stop in mid-track to have a look at this stranger. I can hear them thinking. I have seen this in little Japanese children who when they notice me for the very first time stare and look and wonder why I look so different from the others. The Komagane cats do the same thing. They are charming and come in a range of colours and shapes and many have the characteristic curlicue tail.

They amuse me and remind me of the cats that lived along the canals near the day market near my former home in Hsintien, Taipei. They have character and personality and are a delight to watch.

They have an interesting history in Japan, which is shrouded in mystery, legend and folklore. They are said to have come originally from China more than a 1,000 years ago but legend has it that they first arrived around 600 AD when Buddhism was introduced to Japan.

They were the playthings of royalty and nobility but when the silk trade was threatened by a plague of vermin several centuries ago they were set free. Perhaps, that explains their appearance in the streets and farms of Komagane. Buddhist temples to protect sacred documents from being eaten by mice also kept them. Yet, according to Buddhist tradition, they are excluded from nirvana because they were to busy chasing rats to bother with the ceremony commemorating Buddha's passing into nirvana. What a pity! Perhaps, they don't really mind.

A friend tells me that the cat wasn't included in Noah's ark either. However, there is a Shinto shrine, the Gokokuji Temple, in Tokyo dedicated to the cat.

Perhaps, you've seen the maneki neko, the lucky cat otherwise known as the beckoning cat, in shops or shop windows. I have seen them here and back home in Toronto. It sits with its left paw raised and bent as if it was beckoning you near. They are usually made of clay. They are considered a good luck charm and are often presented as gifts at business openings. I had always been curious about the maneki neko and lucky for me that I had the opportunity to learn about its history here in Japan.

My curiosity has been peaked. I plan to pay a visit to Gokokuji Temple on one of my next visits to Tokyo.

* * * * *