Before there was Grumpy Cat, there was bakeneko. A supernatural cat monster from Japanese folklore, the bakeneko was capable of shapeshifting, speaking human words, manipulating the dead and casting curses – but is most often depicted dancing with a napkin on its head. Sometimes a good spirit, sometimes a bad one, the bakeneko is just one example of Japan’s longstanding cultural obsession with cats, an obsession tapped into by New York’s Japan Society Gallery exhibition, Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection.
Comprising 90 cat-centric ukiyo-e woodblock prints as well as manga, porcelain figures and books, the exhibition will run until 7 June. Miwako Tezuka, gallery director at the Japan Society and curator of the exhibition, studied 6,000 prints from Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation’s extensive archives as well as private American collections to put the show together.
The idea came from a current vogue in Japan for cat-themed exhibitions. “People are really crazy about cats in Japan,” Tezuka said. “Back in 2006, the director of the Hiraki Foundation decided to tap into this love, going into the collection to look for cat prints. They discovered so many cat images they organised an exhibition.” The show was a storming success, touring Japan and setting off a national trend of cat-related art shows. “We thought a New York version of this exhibition would be a great way to introduce Japanese art to a wider audience,” Tezuka said.
Japanese cat love didn’t start with Maru, feline YouTube star and noted fan of cardboard boxes, or even popular maybe-cat Hello Kitty. “Cats are not even native to Japan,” Tezuka said. “They came from China in the mid-sixth century, when they were brought on ships to protect the holy scriptures of Buddhism, which was just being introduced to Japan.” Tezuka said felines’ auspicious arrival as protectors of sacred texts was a starting point for long-term love. Cats are often cast in this protective role in Japanese folklore, where they can also symbolise good fortune.
Tezuka noted that Japan’s love of cats has more practical origins than America’s admiration of dogs. “Cats have played a functional role in many cultures throughout history,” she said. “Dogs are very loyal, and seem to almost understand human ethics in a way. Cats are different. We all know they can be pretty evil, but they were crucial to human survival.”
The paradox between cats’ cute outward appearance and inward capacity for wickedness (or at least sofa destruction) is crucial to their place in Japanese folklore. Whether sacred or cursed, they are undeniably influential (Tokyo is home to not one but two shrines dedicated to feline worship), although today their appeal may lie less in their ability to guard one’s grains than to look super kawaii.
Tezuka’s favourite piece in the collection is a print by 19th century ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival features a small white cat peering out of a window at Mount Fuji. “It’s actually an interior of a teahouse in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, so the cat is in a courtesan’s room,” she said. “You can really imagine the beautiful lady who’s not with the cat right now. Maybe she’s with a client in the other room, and the cat is jealous he’s getting all the attention. It’s a very playful image that triggers your imagination.”
Tezuka herself is the most tragic breed of cat fancier: allergic. “I love cats but can’t have any,” she said. “So I have this exhibition.”
- Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection is on at the Japan Society in New York. Details here
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