A bakeneko (化け猫?, "ghost-cat able to appear in disguise") is, in Japanese folklore, a cat with supernatural abilities akin to those of the fox or raccoon dog. A cat may become a bakeneko in a number of ways: it may reach a certain age, be kept for a certain number of years, grow to a certain size, or be allowed to keep a long tail. In the last case, the tail forks in two and the bakeneko is then called a nekomata (猫又?, or 猫股 "monster"). This superstition may have some connection to the breeding of the Japanese Bobtail.
A bakeneko will haunt any household it is kept in, creating ghostly fireballs, menacing sleepers, walking on its hind legs, changing its shape into that of a human, and even devouring its own mistress in order to shapeshift and take her place. When it is finally killed, its body may be as much as five feet in length. It also poses a danger if allowed into a room with a fresh corpse; a cat is believed to be capable of reanimating a body by jumping over it.
In Japanese folklore, any cat that lives over thirteen years old, reaches one kan (3.75 kilograms) in weight or is allowed to keep a long tail can become a bake-neko (化け猫) or cat monster (Addis 2001). A bake-neko is a cat that gains paranormal powers after certain circumstances. They also have the ability to eat (bigger or smaller) anything in its way, no matter what it is. Poison is its main food, for example, a certain type of snake (unknown to man). It is rare to see people with a 'bake-neko' though some people have been known to see it. The breeding of the Japanese Bobtail may have some connection with this superstition. After a bake-neko tail grows long enough it forks into two tails, then the bake-neko is no longer called a bake-neko, but a neko-mata. Other forms of bake-neko are Maneki-neko (Addis 2001). Most of the stories about the bake-neko are told orally in Japan.
In the early 17th century the Japanese used cats to kill off the rats and mice that were threatening the silkworms. During this time it was illegal to buy or sell cats. Most of the cats in Japan were set free to roam around the cities. Stories about these street cats became legends over time. There are many stories about the supernatural abilities of the bake-neko: talking, walking on their two rear legs, shapeshifting, flying, killing people, and even resurrecting the dead. Because of the stories about the bake-neko some Japanese people may have cut their cat’s tail off to stop them from becoming a bake-neko. Cats that were caught drinking lamp oil were also considered to be bake-neko. Cats may have regularly been drinking lamp oil as it was based on fish oil.
There are many legends about the bake-neko. One in particular may have given birth to the Japanese Bobtail. As the legend goes, a cat was warming itself near the fire and set its tail on fire. The long-tail cat then ran through the town burning many buildings to the ground. For retribution the Emperor decreed that all cats should have their tails cut off.
Another famous bake-neko story is about a man named Takasu Genbei, whose mother’s personality changed completely after his pet cat went missing for many years. His mother avoided the company of friends and family and would take her meals alone in her room. When the family peeked in on her they saw a cat-like monster in the mother's clothes, chewing on animal carcasses. Takasu, still skeptical, slew what looked like his mother and after one day his mother's body turned back into his pet cat that had been missing.
Not all bake-neko are bad; in some stories they are faithful and good-hearted to their owners; three stories in particular tie benevolent bakeneko to the legend of the famous maneki neko, or the "beckoning cat". One such story is about a bake-neko named Tama. Tama's owner was a very poor priest who lived in a rundown temple in Setagaya, west of Tokyo. The priest would tell Tama, “I’m keeping you in spite of my poverty, so couldn’t you do something for this temple?” One day the lord of the Hikone district, Naotaka, was standing under a big tree in front of the temple to avoid the rain. Naotaka became aware of a cat beckoning him to the temple gate. As he began to walk to the temple gate the tree was struck by lightning. The cat who called out to the lord was Tama. After the incident, Naotaka became friends with the priest of the temple. The lord chose the temple to be the family temple and change its name to Gotokuji, and donated lots of money to have the run-down temple rebuilt. When Tama died, the priest built a grave for the cat; eventually, a shrine was built within the temple grounds dedicated to the "beckoning cat". Gotokuji temple still stands today; the nearby Gōtokuji Station on the Odakyu Line was named after the temple.
Yet another story tells of an old couple living in poverty. They kept a small cat and did all that they could to feed her for many years. Since they were unable to bear children, they came to treat the cat as their own child. One day, after the old man fell sick, and couldn't work, a mysterious woman appeared on their doorstep, claiming to be the cat herself and swearing she would repay them for their kindness. She came to work as a Geisha or artist (depending on the diff. variations) and brought the old couple much wealth, in some stories the old couple were more than happy just to have a daughter. One of her admirers happened by chance to see her in her true form one night, and after she pleaded he promised to not tell anyone he had seen her true nature. One afternoon, a few weeks later, he was on a fishing barge and, breaking his promise to the nekomusume, (meaning cat-daughter) told the fishermen and passengers on the ship what he'd seen. A vicious storm arose and the woman appeared in the clouds overhead. Her body changed and grew into that of a large cat, giving out a betrayed and feral cry, she took the man and it is assumed killed/ate him for his two-facedness.
Another good bake-neko story is about a cat whose owner was a high-ranking geisha. Every time she would try to go to the toilet, the cat would claw at her robes to keep her away from the toilet. Because of the cat’s strange behavior, the geisha killed it. After that she proceeded to the toilet. As she began to use the toilet, the ghost of the cat bit to death the snake that was lurking near the toilet, saving its owner from harm.
Sometimes the bake-neko had the power to enter someone’s dreams. There is a story about a bake-neko who entered her owner's dream to tell her to manufacture its image in clay in order to bring her wealth. Other stories tell about how a bake-neko may sometimes shape-shift into a beautiful girl, so that their owner would be able to marry them and have children.
Though the "bake-neko" has been known for other mysterious dreaming experiences, it is also known to become a human, and live a life as a human would normally. They often look just like the person they are after to kill and/or harm.
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- Addis, Stephen, ed. Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural. George Braziller, 2001.
- Kiej'e, Nikolas. Japanese Grotesqueries. C. E. Tuttle Co., 1973.
- Kaii-Yōkai Denshō Database (KYDD). Online bibliographical database of supernatural folklore published by the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.
- Morgan S.H. (2000). “Bake-neko”