27/05/2022

Nekomata & Bakeneko, The Mystical Cat Demons of Japan and Anime Featuring Cat Yokai

Discover the world of Yokai with our article focusing on Japan’s demonic cats Kaibyo. Introducing the most famous of cat Yokai, the two tailed beast Nekomata, Bakeneko, and some other cat Yokai you may not have heard of. Finally, our top recommendations for anime featuring cat Yokai that you definitely don’t want to miss. 


Table of Contents

  1. What is Yokai? What is Kaibyo? 
    1. Yokai
    2. Kaibyo
      1. Why do people yokai-fy cats? 
      2. Kaibyo, A Sub-Genre of Japanese Horror Films 
  2. Nekomata & Bakeneko, The Most Famous of Cat Yokai 
    1. Nekomata
    2. Bakeneko 
    3. They Are Not All Bad
  3. Other Types of Japanese Cat Demons and Their Folklore
    1. Bakeneko Yujo
    2. Nekosho
    3. Kasha
    4. Nekogami
    5. Yama Neko
  4. Catch Japanese Cat Monsters (Yokai) in Anime
    1. Natsume Yuujinchou 
    2. Mieruko-chan
    3. Mononoke 
    4. Yokai Watch
  5. Takeaway

What is Yokai? What is Kaibyo? 

Yokai

Yokai (妖怪) is the Japanese word for “demons”. It does not refer to the Western world’s image of a demon, called akuma (悪魔) in Japanese, but to a class of supernatural beings and spirits that originate from Japan

The existence of Yokai stems from animisme, the belief that spirits dwell in everything - from living things to inanimate objects; animism is also the basis of Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion.   

Yokai are also known as Ayakashi (妖) or Mononoke (物の怪).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kaibyo

Kaibyo (怪猫) means 「monster cat」in Japanese.
Breaking down its Kanji:  

from 妖怪 Yokai

meaning cat 

Kaibyo includes all types of cat Yokai including Nekomata, Bakeneko, Yamaneko, Kasha, etc. 

Why do people yokai-fy cats? 

What is it about cats that people choose to monsterize them? 

  1. Cats are nocturnal, they roam around at night. 

  2. Their eyes appear to glow, especially at night when light shines on them.

  3. Their pupils can change shape throughout the day. 

  4. Sometimes their meows sound like actual human words. 

  5. They have sharp retractable nails. 

  6. They walk silently and sneak up easily on you. 

  7. Cats have a wild side to them more so than dogs

  8. Their unexplainable disappearances (cats hide when they are very sick or dying but people did not know that back in the old days) 

Kaibyo, A Sub-Genre of Japanese Horror Films 

Image Credit: Kaibyo Rhapsody / © 2021 3Y

Kaibyo is also a sub-genre of Japanese horror movies featuring, of course, cat Yokai. This sub-genre of films were quite popular during the 1930s to 1970s but have since been left in the past. Some titles include Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷 bourei kaibyou yashiki), Blind Woman’s Curse (怪談昇り竜 kaidan nobori ryuu), and more. DVDs and VHS tapes of Kaibyo horror movies are still available for purchase online (Amazon JP) and for rental at places like TSUTAYA. You may even have luck finding some titles on Amazon Prime Video.

Or so we said, but early this year, a new Kaibyo movie was released. Kaibyo Soukyaku (怪猫狂騒曲), or Ghost Cat Rhapsody, is a 50-mins long movie bringing back the subgenre of horror films that is Kaibyo in a musical film. The movie brings back Watanabe Michiaki (渡辺 宙明) whose film debut works included Kaibyo films like Black Cat Mansion, Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (怪猫お玉が池), and Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝).

The film is no longer showing in cinemas but we look forward to its release on alternate platforms. Visit the link below for the film’s trailer.  

Kaibyo Rhapsody Official Homepage

Warning: Viewer’s discretion is advised. 

For more about Japanese horror movies:
Afraid of the Dark? Famous Japanese Horror Movies

Nekomata & Bakeneko, The Most Famous of Cat Yokai 

Without a doubt, Nekomata and Bakeneko are the most well-known cat Yokai amongst the many others. Naturally, we’ll dedicate this part of the article to them. 

Nekomata

Nekomata (猫又 or 猫股) are often depicted and described as a cat with two tails. In Japanese folklore, there are actually two types of Nekomata:

  1. A cat that has lived past 10 years of age transforms into a Nekomata.

  2. A monster cat that lives in the mountains

Some say the second type were runaway cats that transformed into Nekomata after having made the mountain its new home. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first mentions of Nekomata can be traced back to China in the 6th century. At this time, they were called Byouki (猫鬼). Whilst in Japan, Nekomata was first mentioned during the Kamakura Period within a diary of a famous Japanese poet, Fujiwara Teika (藤原定家). He described the Nekomata as,

Having the eyes of a cat, and a body as large as a dog, it attacked 7, no 8 people.

- National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, "明月記"

Around the same time, Kyoto was suffering from a plague called Nekomata Disease (猫股病) that the people believed was caused by the Nekomata, a curse of sorts. (Actually, it was rabies and there’s a theory that it wasn’t humans but dogs that suffered from it.) 

A people-eating monster called Nekomata lies in the depths of the mountains

Not just the mountains, cats that live long will transform into Nekomata and attack people. 

- National Diet Library, "つれつれ草 : 新註対訳"

These are more literary accounts of the Nekomata from the Kamakura Period as written in Tsurezuregusa (徒然草), an anthology of essays. 

As the years passed, more and more people came to believe that 「if your cat lives a long life, it’ll transform into a Nekomata」and with it danger and misfortune. Still, at this point there was no mention about Nekomatas having 2 tails, until the mid-Edo period when this started to spread, 

[old cats’] bodies will grow bigger, tail will split into two, a nekomata that brings disaster…

From then on, the image of Nekomatas being large cats with 2 tails was established. 

Bakeneko

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bakeneko (化け猫) are another type of cat Yokai that are often mistaken for Nekomata. The biggest differences between Bakeneko and Nekomata are:

  1. Nekomata have 2 tails; Bakeneko only have 1.

  2. Many tales speak of Bakeneko that transform into humans, lick candle oil, dance with towels covering their heads, and stick close to humans. 

  3. Bakemono are created from a cat’s vengeance and hatred; Nekomata are from the wild or elderly cats transform into them. 

  4. Nekomata existed before Bakeneko. 

Continuing on from Nekomata’s story of origin, as the belief that once your cat grows old of age it will transform into a Nekomata spread, people started to put a “time limit” on their pet cats or chop off their tails so it won’t split into two.

Many cats were put down before they reached 10 years of age (on average 7 years old) in an attempt to stop their transformations. The cat returns as a ghost to haunt and seek vengeance for its unjust death; some cats come back as guardians to protect their fellow cats. There’s also a saying that the more abuse and worse treatment that cat receives, the stronger its hatred, and the more powerful it will be as a Bakeneko. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

The most famous of Bakeneko folktales is the Nabeshima Bakeneko Disturbance (鍋島の化け猫騒動 Nabeshima no Bakeneko Soudou). The tale is set in the old Saga Domain, now part of Saga Prefecture, during the reign of Feudal Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige (鍋島 光茂). During a game of Go, Nabeshima killed his Go partner and retainer, Ryuzoji, who had displeased him. Ryuzoji’s mother grieved over her son’s death with her cat, telling it of her sorrows. Ultimately, she commited suicide. Her cat transformed into a Bakeneko upon licking her blood and sought out Nabeshima seeking revenge for its master's death. 

The tale has been adapted into plays and movies. Putting aside the fact that there is a horrible monster cat tormenting someone, isn’t the cat’s love for its master sweet. 

They Are Not All Bad

Depending on the folklore and region in Japan, different people have different ideas as to what Bakeneko and Nekomata are truly like. For that matter, artistic interpretations of cat Yokai also paint different images of Bakeneko and Nekomata. Basically, no matter what the artist has drawn, if he/she says it's a Nekomata/Bakeneko then that’s what it is. 

There are also more positive stories about these two yokai. In a more wholesome twist of their myths, Nekomata are also believed to be ghost cats that return to protect their masters as gratitude for being well cared for when they were alive. As for Bakeneko, some people believe that the Maneki Neko (Japan’s fortune cat) is also a Bakeneko that blesses people that worship it.

For more about Japan’s Lucky Cat Maneki Neko:
Bring Fortune Into Your Life with Japan’s Maneki Neko: Uncover the Lucky Cat’s Meaning - Colours, Accessories, Paws

Other Types of Japanese Cat Demons and Their Folklore

Wondering “What other types of Yokai cat are there?” Check out this lot. 

Bakeneko Yujo 化猫遊女

During the Edo period, when men frequented brothels for the services of prostitutes. Some male clients that fall asleep after being serviced would wake up in the middle of the night to see a woman with a cat’s head (or a shadow of her) hunched over a plate of fish or fish bones. The man would either run away terrified or be devoured having been caught looking by the Bakeneko. 

Other versions of the story include men approached by a beautiful woman at the red light districts. Whilst walking together, he would notice her shadow cast by the moon’s light was that of a cat’s. 

Nekosho 猫魈

The next level of Nekomata; when a cat reaches 30 years of age, it is said it will transform into a Nekosho. Nekosho are described as having 3 tails, with the intelligence of humans. Not much is known about the Nekosho as cats that can live till the age of 30 are rare. 

Kasha 火車

Literally translated to “flaming chariot”, Kasha are Yokai that eat corpses. The more aggressive Kasha are said to attack funeral processions to steal the corpses, whilst others would steal from graves. Kasha are described as a humanoid cat wrapped in flames, or just with flaming tails. 

Though nobody believes in Kasha (or Yokai) anymore, the belief is still entangled in culture. Some funeral practices influenced by the past belief in Kasha include keeping cats away from funerals and wakes. 

Info: Alternative descriptions of Kasha is an Oni who ferries the dead to hell on a flaming cart.

※ International Research Center for Japanese Studies, “猫,火車

Nekogami 猫神

Although many Yokai cats are evil, there are also good ones. Nekogami (Cat Gods) are cats that have been enshrined and worshipped by people. There are a number of cat shrines and temples in Japan like Imado Shrine, Gotokuji Temple, Kokage Shrine, and more. 

Why are cats worshipped as Gods? 

  1. They protect the house from mice.

  2. They are symbols of fertility.

  3. They protect humans from dangerous animals like snakes.

  4. They have a mysterious aura that some people interpret as evil but some as ethereal (like a god). 

  5. Grant blessings like good / big catch (for fishing), and safety from disasters (When a cat washes its face, it means it’s going to rain soon).  

Yama Neko 山猫

Image Credit: © kakimono.com

The Yama Neko is said to be a Yokai that lives in the mountains, or visits the mountains occasionally. Similar to the Nekomata, it is said to originally have been a normal cat. They are described as being larger than Nekomata and leave footprints with forked toes. They take on the form of ordinary house cats to conceal their true identity. 

Whether Yama Neko’s are good or bad depends on the story, some say they eat children and animals that wander into the forest, whilst others say they keep to themselves and only torment those who have done bad deeds. 

※ International Research Center for Japanese Studies, “山猫” “山猫

Catch Japanese Cat Monsters (Yokai) in Anime

Now that you know so much about Yokai cats, seeing them in action is the next step right? Here are some of our favourite anime featuring Japanese cat demons.

Natsume Yuujinchou

Natsume Yuujinchou (夏目友人帳 Natsume’s Book of Friends) is one of the best Yokai anime you can find. There are altogether 6 anime seasons, 2 OVAs, and 2 movies adapting author Midorikawa Yuki (緑川ゆき)’s manga. 

Natsume Yuujinchou follows Natsume Takashi (夏目 貴志)’s ability to see Yokai. He discovers his late grandmother Reiko’s Yuujinchou, a “Book of Friends” in which Reiko collected the names of Youkai she had befriended. The problem? Everybody else wants the book too, whether it’s to get back their own name or to gain control over the Yokai whose names are listed in the book. Along the way, Natsume gains a companion and bodyguard in a powerful Yokai named Madara who is usually in his more compact form, a round and robust Maneki Neko fondly nicknamed Nyanko-sensei.

Image Credit: ©緑川ゆき/白泉社・「夏目友人帳」製作委員会

Nyanko-sensei usually takes on the form of a cuddly but fat Calico Maneki Neko, the identity of his true form however has yet to be revealed. A large powerful beast-like Yokai, some people guess that he may be an Inugami (dog god) but considering his abilities to shapeshift and his chosen form of a cat, we think it unlikely. 

Instead, Nyanko-sensei might be a cat Yokai called Ooneko (大猫) which literally means big cat. Ooneko are described to be large with a fox-like appearance, mostly white coloured with mottled patterns on its coat. Sounds like Nyanko-sensei! 

※ MyAnimeList, “Natsume Yuujinchou” 
※ Natsume Yuujinchou Official Homepage

Mieruko-Chan

Warning: Viewer’s discretion is advised. 

Mieruko-chan (見える子ちゃん) is both a comedy and horror anime/manga. Horror because the monsters drawn are super terrifying (more so in the manga), but comedic because of Miko’s unique way of dealing with the supernatural - pretend not to see them.

One dark and rainy day, Yotsuya Miko (四谷 みこ) found herself waiting for her bus soaking wet. It was any other ordinary day and Miko was texting her friend. When suddenly, her phone went berserk (?) with strange messages. Thoroughly spooked, Miko dropped her phone. Picking it up, the weird messages were gone. As she looked up, a monstrous figure looked her right in the eye asking, “Can you see me?”

Mieruko-Chan Official Homepage

Mononoke

Image Credit: (C)モノノ怪製作委員会

Mononoke (モノノ怪) is an old but gold horror, mystery and Yokai anime targeted at more mature audiences - Seinen (18~ years old male audience). 

Mononoke follows a Youkai slayer known as Kusuriuri (薬売り Medicine Seller) who travels across ancient Japan on the hunt for evil spirits. The anime is split into 5 arcs, each focusing on a particular type of Yokai. For your information, the Bakeneko Arc spans from episodes 10 to 12 as a finale to the anime.  

This year marks the 15th year since the anime’s release in 2007. To celebrate, television studio Fuji TV is hosting a special event on 18 June 2022 (Saturday) at their Head Office. Though reservations to attend are now closed, a live broadcast on Youtube is expected to be held on the day itself. Check the link below for more details. 

Mononoke 15th Anniversary Official Homepage

Yokai Watch

Yokai Watch (妖怪ウォッチ) is a huge franchise with everything from anime, manga, toys, and games. The premise is similar to Pokemon and Digimon - catching Yokai and summoning them when you need them. Instead of a Pokeball however, Yokai Watch utilises friendship medallions and a watch used with the medallion to summon Yokai with. And instead of catching Pokemon, you befriend Yokai.     

Image Credit: © LEVEL-5 abby Inc.

This is Jibanyan (ジバニャン), one of the main characters and a beloved mascot of Yokai Watch. Jibanyan is a Nekotama! Cuddly looking, adorable, and super charming, he's the most popular character in the Yokai Watch franchise. 

Yokai Watch Official Homepage

Takeaway

Enjoyed this article about cat Yokai?

We recommend reading about Maneki Neko who many believe is a benevolent Bakeneko:
Bring Fortune Into Your Life with Japan’s Maneki Neko: Uncover the Lucky Cat’s Meaning - Colours, Accessories, Paws

Plus, our collection of cat articles all on one page:
Cats in Japan, Find All You Need to Know About Japan’s Cats in One Page

You don't have to worry alone anymore A Q&A community about Japan

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