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Motif Information
Motif neko 01.jpg
Rōmaji Neko
English Cat
Kana ねこ
Season All-season
Seasonal Exceptions None
Auspicious No
Motif Type Animal

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.[1]

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.[2] 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

Nemuri-neko (眠り猫) carving by Hidari Jingorō on the Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shrine

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

The supernatural cat of the Tokaido (五拾三次之内猫之怪, 1847) by Utagawa Yoshifuji

Neko are known for a dual symbolism. Along with kitsune, neko are represented in folk tales as having the power to possess humans.[3] 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.[4]

Auspicious Nature

Detail of Characters from Plays as Merchants and Customers (浄るり町繁花の図(部分)より 丸〆猫, 1852) by Utagawa Hiroshige

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. [5]

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

Tama the cat (1926) by Takahashi Hiroaki

Motif Examples

Motif in Literature & Other Usage

Black cat(黒き猫図 菱田春草筆,1910) by Hishida Shunso

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.[7] Allusions to this incident will often combine a cat with kicho, kemari, sakura or kashi kamon.

Natsume Sōseki's I am a Cat (吾輩は猫である, serialized 1905-6) is a famous satire of Meiji era society from point of view of a cat.

In Poetry

mugimeshi ni
yatsururu koi ka
neko no tsuma
From barley and
love has the she cat
grown thin?

- Matsuo Basho

Article Notes

Relevant Threads / Discussions

  • Link to any relevant threads on IG


  1. Wikipedia article on cat mutation types. Accessed December 2, 2016.
  2. Robbins, Nancy, ed. Domestic Cats: Their History, Breeds and Other Facts. 2012. p. 168.
  3. Kurstin, Joseph. Netsuke:Story Carvings of Old Japan. Joseph Kurstin. 1994. p.64.
  4. Wikipedia article on bakeneko. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  5. Wikipedia article on Maneki Neko. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Image Credits

  • Ainokimono
  • Muhvi
  • Rebecca Steedley

Authors & Contributors

Author/s: Claw789 (IG Username) tzippurah (IG Username)