Neko is the domestic cat (Felis catus). Cats are not indigenous to Asia, but originate in the Middle East and were introduced to Japan from China in the Asuka period.
At some point, this small founding population of neko acquired the Japanese bobtail mutation. This mutation can arise naturally in any cat population, but due to the small number of imported founding individuals, the Japanese bobtail mutation is widespread throughout the population. The Japanese bobtail mutation is a recessive gene and is only fully expressed when an individual has received copies of the gene from both its parents. The gene only alters the number of vertebrae found in the tail. The Japanese bobtail has no other skeletal or lethal disorders associated with the gene, unlike the Manx.
At the beginning of the Edo period, an edict was issued that all cats should be set free to deal with the burgeoning rodent population that was threatening silkworm production and the sale of cats was criminalized. This paradoxically resulted in a decline in the over-all population of neko as the population became dependent on prey and scavenging as their only food source. Although semi-feral street and farm cats became common, ukiyo-e show some neko were still kept as pets during this period.
Seasonal Use, Exceptions & Pairings
Neko are a season-less motif and even kittens do not imply a particular season. If shown with a seasonal motif, they take on that motif's seasonality.
Motif Connotations & Symbolism
Neko are known for a dual symbolism. Along with kitsune, neko are represented in folk tales as having the power to possess humans. However, neko can also protect their owners from misfortune and danger.
Neko are able to maneuver in the dark, and thus symbolically ward off evil spirits as well as eliminate disease-causing rodents. Neko are common around Buddhist temples, as they are valued as a method of reducing vermin that could damage sacred texts.
It was believed neko could become bakeneko (化け猫, lit. changed cat), if they lived to a certain age. Bakeneko have two tails and supernatural abilities including shape-shifting, human speech, and the ability to curse humans. Some bakeneko were believed to be created when their owner was executed unfairly or committed suicide. The bakeneko would then avenge the owner who cared for them.
Maneki neko (招き猫, lit. "invitation cat") is a tri-color or calico bobtail cat with paw raised in greeting is considered an auspicious symbol, representing good fortune and luck, especially for businesses. The classic origin story typically involves a poor restaurant, bar, or temple where the owner takes in a hungry, neglected cat. After being cared for and loved, the cat sits in front of the store beckoning to people passing by, attracting customers, and thus returning the kindness of the owner by bringing prosperity.
Beckoning cat statuettes may have originated during the Edo Period and were documented widely through the Meiji period. During the Meiji Restoration there was “a ploy to minimize the negative image of Japan among the largely Christian Western world.” Brothels that had once displayed lucky charms in the form of male sexual organs disappeared while the maneki neko figurine increased in popularity. 
Unlike in Western culture, black cats are not considered unlucky, and black maneki are believed to have the ability to ward off evil spirits.
Common Motif Pairings
- Kingyo and other fish
- Chō - up through the Edo period it was believed neko ate butterflies
Motif in Literature & Other Usage
In a famous incident in Chapter 34 of The Tale of Genji, the Third Princess' kitten accidentally exposes her to view by pulling on the string tying back the kicho hiding her, causing Kashiwagi to fall in love with her. Allusions to this incident will often combine a cat with kicho, kemari, sakura or kashi kamon.
yatsururu koi ka
neko no tsuma
|From barley and|
love has the she cat
- Matsuo Basho
Relevant Threads / Discussions
- Link to any relevant threads on IG
- Wikipedia article on cat mutation types. Accessed December 2, 2016.
- Robbins, Nancy, ed. Domestic Cats: Their History, Breeds and Other Facts. 2012. p. 168.
- Kurstin, Joseph. Netsuke:Story Carvings of Old Japan. Joseph Kurstin. 1994. p.64.
- Wikipedia article on bakeneko. Accessed December 3, 2016.
- Wikipedia article on Maneki Neko. Accessed December 3, 2016.
- Nobuhisa, Kaneko. Cats in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Woodblock Prints of Utagwa Kuniyoshi. Miki, Pamela and Kirsten McIvor, translators. PIE International. Tokyo, Japan. 2014. p. 27.
- Nobuhisa, Kaneko. Cats in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Woodblock Prints of Utagwa Kuniyoshi. Miki, Pamela and Kirsten McIvor, translators. PIE International. Tokyo, Japan. 2014. p. 20.
- Rebecca Steedley
Authors & Contributors