Bakeneko (化け猫, "monster-cat"), in Japanese folklore, refers to cat yōkai (spiritual beings) with supernatural abilities akin to those of the kitsune (fox) or tanuki (raccoon dog). There are a number of superstitions that detail how ordinary cat may transform into a bakeneko. Bakeneko then haunt and menace their household.
A bakeneko with a forked tail is referred to as a nekomata (猫又, or 猫股 "forked-cat"). The popular good luck totem, the Maneki Neko (招き猫, "Beckoning Cat") found in shop fronts, is also a type of bakeneko.
Most of the stories about the bakeneko are told orally in Japan.
Appearance and powers
According to Japanese folklore, a cat may become a bakeneko by meeting any of the following three conditions:
- living over 10 years of age
- reaching one kan (3.75 kg or 8.25 lbs) in weight
- growing its tail too long, which, according to myth, may fork into two. This particular kind of bakeneko is referred to as a nekomata.
The latter superstition about tail-length possibly led some Japanese people to cut the tails off of cats to prevent their transformation into bakeneko. It may also have some connection to the breeding of short-tailed breeds like the Japanese Bobtail.
Cats that were caught drinking lamp oil were also considered to be bakeneko. Cats may have regularly drank lamp oil as it was derived from fish oil.
The body of a killed bakeneko may be as much as five feet in length.
Once transformed, bakeneko gain a range of paranormal powers used to haunt the household they live in. These powers include:
- menacing (even eating) sleeping humans
- walking on its hind legs
- creating ghostly fireballs
- reanimating and controlling a fresh corpse by leaping over it
- shapeshifting into human form
They may use their shapeshifting powers to live a life as a human would normally, sometimes by taking the place of a member of the household after killing and consuming them in their sleep. They may take the form of a person they intend to kill or harm. Other stories tell about how a bakeneko may sometimes shapeshift into a beautiful girl, so that their owner would be able to marry them and have children.
Bakeneko also have the ability to eat anything in their way, regardless of size or edibility, including humans. Their main food is poison, particularly from a certain snake unknown to humankind.
Bakeneko are also sometimes said to have the power to enter someone's dreams. There is a story about a bakeneko who entered her owner's dream to tell her to manufacture its image in clay in order to bring her wealth (possibly resulting in the creation of the maneki neko myth).
In the early 17th century the Japanese used cats to kill off the rats and mice that were threatening the silkworms. During this time it was illegal to buy or sell cats. Most of the cats in Japan were set free to roam around the cities. Stories about these street cats became legends over time.
There are many legends about the bakeneko.
One famous bakeneko story is about a man named Takasu Genbei, whose mother’s personality changed completely after his pet cat went missing for many years. His mother avoided the company of friends and family and would take her meals alone in her room. When the family peeked in on her they saw a cat-like monster in the mother's clothes, chewing on animal carcasses. Takasu, still skeptical, slew what looked like his mother and after one day his mother's body turned back into his pet cat that had been missing.
Yet another story tells of a poor old couple who kept a small cat. Since they were unable to bear children, they came to treat the cat as their child. After the old man fell sick, a mysterious woman appeared on their doorstep, claiming to be the cat and swearing she would repay their kindness. She brought the couple much wealth; in some versions they were happy just to have a daughter. One of her admirers happened to see her in her true form so she pleaded that he not tell anyone. A few weeks later he broke his promise telling a fisherman and passengers on a ship what he'd seen. A vicious storm arose and the woman appeared in the clouds overhead. She grew into a large cat and killed him.
Not all bakeneko are bad; in some stories they are faithful and good-hearted to their owners. Three stories in particular tie benevolent bakeneko to the legend of the famous maneki neko.
One such story is about a bakeneko named Tama. Tama's owner was a very poor priest who lived in a rundown temple in Setagaya, west of Tokyo. The priest would tell Tama, "I'm keeping you in spite of my poverty, so couldn't you do something for this temple?" One day the daimyo of the Hikone district, Ii Naotaka, was standing under a tree to avoid the rain. Naotaka became aware of a cat beckoning him to a temple gate. As he began to walk the tree was struck by lightning. Afterwards, Naotaka became friends with the temple priest, and donated lots of money to have the run-down temple rebuilt. When Tama died, the priest built a grave for the cat; eventually, a shrine was built within the temple grounds dedicated to the "beckoning cat". Gotokuji temple still stands today; the nearby Gōtokuji Station on the Odakyu Line was named after it.
There is a story of a woman and her daughter, who seeing a wealthy young man travelling alone, decided to rob him. They laid out some food in a tent, gave him a robe to wear and secretly put some sleeping powder in his drink. But before he drank the drink, a deep sleep came upon the woman and her daughter. When they woke up,they saw a large tiger wearing the robe and eating the food. They fled away and returned much later to see that the young man and the tiger was gone. The only tracks leaving the tent were those of a tiger.
Another story is about a cat owned by a high-ranking geisha. Every time she would try to go to the toilet, the cat would claw at her robes to keep her away. Because of the cat’s strange behavior, the geisha killed it. But as she began to use the toilet, the ghost of the cat killed a snake that was lurking nearby.
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||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (October 2009)|
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