Cats in Japanese Woodblock Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Animals Came to Star in Its Popular Art

Few coun­tries love cats as much as Japan does, and none express­es that love so clear­ly in its var­i­ous forms of art. Though not eter­nal, the Japan­ese incli­na­tion toward all things feline does extend deep­er into his­to­ry than some of us might assume. “In the sixth cen­tu­ry, Bud­dhist monks trav­elled from Chi­na to Japan,” writes Philip Kennedy at Illus­tra­tion Chron­i­cles. On these jour­neys, they brought scrip­tures, draw­ings, and relics – items that they hoped would help them intro­duce the teach­ings of Bud­dhism to the large island nation.” They also brought cats, in part as car­ri­ers of good luck and in part for their abil­i­ty to “guard the sacred texts from the hun­gry mice that had stowed on board their ships.”

Bud­dhism made a last­ing mark on Japan­ese cul­ture, but those cats prac­ti­cal­ly over­took it. “Today, cats can be found near­ly every­where in Japan,” Kennedy writes. “From spe­cial cafés and shrines to entire cat islands. Indeed the own­ers of one Japan­ese train sta­tion were so enam­ored with their cat that they appoint­ed her sta­tion­mas­ter.”

By the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the ukiyo‑e wood­block print mas­ter Uta­gawa Kuniyoshi could keep a stu­dio over­run with cats and not seem too ter­ri­bly eccen­tric for it. “His fond­ness for felines crept into his work, and they appear in many of his finest prints. Some­times they crop up as char­ac­ters from well-known sto­ries; oth­er times, they are beau­ti­ful­ly expres­sive stud­ies.”

Kuniyoshi made his name illus­trat­ing tales of his­tor­i­cal war­riors, but his artis­tic capac­i­ty also encom­passed “every­thing from land­scapes and ani­mals to ghost­ly appari­tions and scenes from pop­u­lar kabu­ki the­atre.” When the Toku­gawa Shogu­nate sensed its pow­er declin­ing in the 1840s, it banned such “lux­u­ries” as the depic­tions of kabu­ki actors (as well as geisha).

To accom­mo­date that demand, Kuniyoshi cre­at­ed humanoid cats endowed with fea­tures resem­bling well-known per­son­ages of the era. This in addi­tion to his series Neko no ate­ji, or “cat homo­phones,” with cats arranged to spell the names of fish, and Cats Sug­gest­ed As The Fifty-three Sta­tions of the Tōkaidō, a feline par­o­dy of Hiroshige’s ear­li­er Fifty-three Sta­tions of the Tōkaidō. Rat-eat­ing aside, cats aren’t known as espe­cial­ly use­ful ani­mals, but many a Japan­ese artist can attest to their inspi­ra­tional val­ue even today.

A col­lec­tion of Kuniyoshi’s prints fea­tur­ing cats can be found in the book, Cats in Ukiyo‑e: Japan­ese Wood­block Print.

via Illus­tra­tion Chron­i­cles

Relat­ed con­tent:

Cats in Medieval Man­u­scripts & Paint­ings

Insane­ly Cute Cat Com­mer­cials from Stu­dio Ghi­b­li, Hayao Miyazaki’s Leg­endary Ani­ma­tion Shop

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Preda­tor to Sofa Side­kick

Two Cats Keep Try­ing to Get Into a Japan­ese Art Muse­um … and Keep Get­ting Turned Away: Meet the Thwart­ed Felines, Ken-chan and Go-chan

Dis­cov­er the Kat­tenK­abi­net: Amsterdam’s Muse­um Devot­ed to Works of Art Fea­tur­ing Cats

In 1183, a Chi­nese Poet Describes Being Domes­ti­cat­ed by His Own Cats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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