Neko Or Japanese Cats

Legends, anime characters, and real cats

By Elena Lisina    - 4 min read

Cats seem to have a special place in the culture of many countries, and are often regarded as cute, beautiful, independent and mysterious creatures. With all of these traits, cats are universally loved. The Japanese are no exception to this, and they too like cats, or ‘neko’ as they are known in the Japanese language!

During my trips to Japan I met many cats and they always looked like masters of their surroundings, whether it was at a shop, on a street, or in a park. On the Japan Travel website I read about Cat Islands in Miyagi Prefecture and in Fukuoka, also about a Cat Café in Hiroshima. I haven't had the chance to visit those places yet, but would like to someday.

When traveling throughout Japan, you can see images of maneki neko (beckoning cats) quite often, although they are not the only cat-based legend in Japan. More ancient legends picture bakaneko and nekomata, two different kinds of supernatural cats. According to legend, any cat becomes a bakaneko when it reaches the age of 13 and a half years old, or becomes big in size and weighty. Bakaneko are also said to be able to shapeshift into women. The legends of bakaneko and nekomata often confused for one another, but a key difference is that nekomata are said to have a forked tail. Being ancient legends, those characters seem scary and sometimes I’ve really noticed gazes of neko towards me…

Nekomata with a forked tail
Nekomata with a forked tail

Aside from the mythological cats in Japanese folklore, there are many cute images of cats in Japan, with several of them being well-known all over the world. Perhaps the best known is Hello Kitty, the iconic little white kitten. Hello Kitty appears on TV and is the main character of the indoor theme park Sanrio Puroland in Tokyo and Harmonyland in Oita. The image of Hello Kitty is very popular among young girls and is pictured on many accessories available in stores like Sanrio World in Ginza and other retailers across Japan.

Hello Kitty appears on many girls accessories
Hello Kitty appears on many girls accessories

Often for boys, a favorite character is the cat-robot Doraemon that first appeared in a manga created by the writing duo Fujiko Fujio in 1969. The manga series was very popular and a total of 1344 issues were produced. Later, in 1979, Doraemon appeared on TV and the anime series was also very popular. There is a Fujiko-F-Fujio Museum located in Kawasaki City.


I like those characters and some of my favorites are Nekobasu (Catbus) from the film Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) and the black cat named Jiji from the film Kiki’s Delivery Service, both by Hayao Miyazaki. You have the chance to meet those characters at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.


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Elena Lisina

Elena Lisina @shiroi.tenshi

I love Japan very much! I like small towns of Japan where I can watch people doing their business and talk to them carefully. They're always friendly. I like Japanese gardens where I can just sit or walk and take my time. Also I like Shinto Jinja as being there I feel in peace. I like to watch sunsets and then to dine in some small local places. I like to soak into onsen after a long day of wandering. I like Japanese crafts very much as all items are made with great taste and skill. Nihon wo daisuki desuyo! My photos from Japan I also place here: Matane!

Join the discussion

Elena Lisina Author 6 days ago
One of the enclosed shots is quite mystical. Walking in Ueno Park I spotted black & white cat that was very alike my cat left at home. The only one difference - my cat had fluffy fur. On that day when I saw that similar cat in Ueno she died. Mashka was 19 years and 3 months old. Isn't that strange?
Sleiman Azizi a week ago
A forked-tail cat... you don't see that everyday!
Elena Lisina Author a week ago
Legends are always 'strange'! ;)
Kim B a week ago
I didn't know about those ancient legends! So interesting!