Cats (neko) are everywhere in Japan.
They patrol the grounds of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They stretch across signs and t-shirts, and curl up into tableware. They pose with geisha in pretty woodblock prints, or substitute for humans in more satirical ones. They star in anime and manga, either as too-cute kitties or as scary monsters, and serve as the narrator of popular novels, like Natsume Sōseki’s I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru). There are even cat cafes in Japan where people can order a very expensive cup of coffee in order to have the privilege of petting the felines who live there.
So I was surprised to recently read that only one-quarter of pet-owning families in Japan own cats. I’m sure that cat hashioki were not included in that household survey.
Cats were reportedly introduced to the Japanese imperial court from Korea and China during the tenth century. They were an immediate hit; they were known as O-koma-san (honorable person from Korea) and given a noble rank(1). Perhaps this is the origin of the not-necessarily-Japanese adage that dogs have owners, while cats have staff.
Cats are of course known for being athletic, but this cat hashioki is particularly agile — he can even hang from the side of a glass.
Cats are very popular with Japanese artists. This hashioki depicts cats in the style of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a 19th. century ukiyo-e print master. Kuniyoshi was famous for his bold and colorful samurai, beautiful women, mythical beasts, and cats, especially cats like this who are dressed and acting in human roles. Notice that Kuniyoshi’s cats are as fierce as samurai warriors.
The most popular breed of cat in Japan is known as a nihon neko (Japanese cat) or mi- ke, meaning three hairs. These are short-haired cats with white coats and black and rust colored spots.
I have a particularly fondness for these cats, and the hashioki that portray them, because my pet cat Munakata is a mi-ke, too. However, Munakata — unlike these mi-ke cats, is not allowed to sit on the table.
(Please also see my post on “Maneki neko” from January 2016).
(1) Frédéric, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 103.