NIPPONIA No.26 September 15, 2003
Japanese Animals and Culture
Is It True Japanese Cats
Have Short Tails?
Written by Imaizumi Tadaaki

In Japan, domestic cats are found practically wherever people live. The Japanese cat, shown here, is known not only for its stubby tail, but also for its big ears and eyes. (Photo by Iwago Mitsuaki)

The domestic cat has been kept as a pet for centuries in Japan. Cats are now so common you see them everywhere. If you came across one in the street, you probably would not even remember it. They are so numerous, most people do not even consider whether they have seen them or not, let alone whether or not they have a long tail. Domestic cats are everywhere in Japan, and there are strays, too — from the old-growth forest of Yanbaru in sub-tropical Okinawa, to Tokyo's commercial Ginza district, to the isolated island of Teuri off northern Hokkaido, a famous habitat for sea birds.
Those stray cats live on their own, but they are certainly not the same as the Japanese wildcat (yama-neko). There are two species of wildcats in Japan, the Amur yama-neko and the Iriomote yama-neko, and both are entirely different from the domestic cat. The domestic cat is not native to Japan — it was brought from China some time in the distant past.
The oldest reference to the domestic cat is a picture of one found on an Egyptian tomb dating to around 1600 B.C. The picture has led to the theory that the ancient Egyptians had domesticated the wild Libyan cat at least as early as then.
It is said that the domestic cat first came to Japan in 538 (or 552) A.D. It is generally thought that cats were introduced at the same time as Buddhism, to protect sacred texts from the damage mice can cause. Genetic research indicates that the domestic cat probably came to Japan from India, via China. The first definite Japanese record of a domestic cat is found in a diary kept by the Emperor Uda (867-931). Its color was black, and from the diary it is clear that it was brought from China in 884.
The first recorded name of a cat in Japan is Myobu no Otodo, which means Chief Lady-in-Waiting of the Inner Palace. This aristocratic sounding name was given her by Emperor Ichijo (980-1011). The cat had a special rank at the court, and ladies-in-waiting were placed in charge of looking after her. Ancient records from those days tell of cats at the Imperial Palace having a red collar with a white tag, and fooling around with strings.
The oldest Japanese picture of a cat was drawn by Toba no Sojo (1053-1140). It is part of a narrative picture scroll called Chojugiga, and shows three striped cats with long tails, playing with other animals such as frogs, foxes and rabbits. From this it seems cats had become common in Japan by that time.
Once the domestic cat was seen all over the country, it was no longer thought of as an exotic animal worth bringing from abroad. Japan remained in seclusion for much of the Edo period (1603-1867), and during that time almost every single cat was native-born. Mutations occurred suddenly, perhaps because of inbreeding, and cats with short tails became increasingly common, starting around 1700. Before long, people began thinking of cats with stubby tails as Japanese cats, and those with long tails as cats with foreign ancestry. In an essay called Guzasso, written in the early 1800s, we can read, "Many people in Kyoto have Chinese cats, with long tails, while many people in Naniwa (Osaka) have Japanese cats, with short tails."
The Japanese cat, with its stubby tail, remained as a common, distinct breed until quite recent times. After World War II, different breeds were brought into the country, including Siamese and American Shorthair, and the genetically inferior short-tailed cat suddenly became quite rare. It was around this time that an American woman took several Japanese cats with her back to her own country, where she bred them and registered them as a breed called Japanese Bobtail. Thanks to her the Japanese cat lives on in the United States. In the feline world, too, globalization seems to have taken hold.


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