Why Do Cats Hold Such Mythic Power in Japan?
IT WAS CHRISTMAS, and I was going to visit the cattiest place on earth, an island named Aoshima about 500 miles southwest of Tokyo in the Seto Inland Sea, the body of water that separates three of Japan’s main islands: Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Four years ago, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that Aoshima, which is less than 0.2 square miles, had six human residents, all of them elderly, and an unnamed number of cats — hundreds, certainly, though no one knew exactly how many. There are no restaurants on Aoshima, and no guesthouses. The only way to access it is by a 35-minute ride on a ferry that travels twice a day from the port town of Nagahama on Shikoku, an hour’s drive southwest from where my friend Mihoko and I were staying — a midsize city called Matsuyama, which in the Edo era (1603-1867) had been the home to a powerful daimyo, or lord, and was now known primarily for its production of oranges.
There had been high winds gusting across the country for the previous few days (in the airport in Tokyo, I heard an announcement for a flight boarding for Fukuoka: “Please understand that, due to winds, the plane may have to return to Tokyo”), and when Mihoko called the harbor to confirm that the ferry would be leaving on time, the harbor master told her that a combination of snow and winds had resulted in unusually strong currents, which meant that the ferry, which had been canceled the day before, would also be canceled today. “What about tomorrow?” Mihoko asked. “I can’t really say,” said the harbor master. “Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t,” which is a very Japanese answer.
T’s Travel Issue
Three writers go to extremes with journeys to the driest, darkest and cattiest places on earth.
– Hello, Kitties: In Japan, cats are revered, adored and sometimes seen as actual demons. What’s at the root of their mythic power?
– Darkness Visible: After the sun vanishes in Svalbard, Norway, one starts to see strange things in the polar night.
– Dust to Dust: What a road trip through Chile’s Atacama Desert — one of the world’s driest places — reveals about life and death.
I was distraught; I had come to Shikoku only to see an island full of cats, take lots of pictures of them and show them off to my cat-loving friends. I had enjoyed imagining how jealous they’d be. Mihoko was disappointed, too — she had gone to the convenience store next to our hotel and bought a heavy bag of cat food and some cat treats, which she’d now have to lug back to Tokyo and give instead to her own cat, Muncheetah.
“Don’t worry,” said Mihoko, who is also a magazine editor and who had moved quickly into salvage mode. “There are plenty of places in Japan where you can see cats.”
“But I wanted to see these cats,” I wailed.
“You don’t need to see those cats,” Mihoko said. “Aoshima isn’t the only place in the country that has a lot of cats.” We were eating dinner by that point: My despair had lasted from brunch at an American-style coffee shop, the kind that no longer exists in America but became popular here after occupation; through a visit to Matsuyama Castle (built in 1627), one of Japan’s dozen or so extant castles; a stop at an orange juice bar (where you could order juice squeezed from different local varietals, some sweet, some tart); and, finally, dinner at a restaurant where we both ordered gyu, thin slices of grilled marinated beef, served rare over rice with grilled burdock and leeks. Throughout the day, as I sulked and broke into intermittent rants at the gods, the weather and the harbor master, Mihoko patiently pointed out cats — here was one licking itself near a makeshift shrine; there was another, staring at us through slit eyes — and fed me cat trivia: Natsume Soseki, perhaps Japan’s greatest modern writer and the author of “I Am a Cat” (1906), a satire of early 20th-century society narrated by a cat, had once taught English to middle schoolers in Matsuyama; earlier, at a gift store, we’d seen cookies stamped with an image of his face.
The interior of an abandoned school on Aoshima, an island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea where there are now just a few human residents — none of them children — and many more cats.Credit…Kyoko Hamada
The next day (no ferry), we returned instead to Tokyo, where Mihoko and I spent the evening texting about cats in Japan and trying to figure out if there were easy ways to get to one of the country’s 10 other cat islands, or its cat theme parks or cat shrines, most of which are located in the west. Yet they were all too far for a train journey, and the continuing winds made reaching any of them unpredictable.
My desperation was, I could sense, beginning to perplex Mihoko. To her, Japan itself was cat obsessed. After all, cats were so elemental to the country that it had popularized the cat cafe, where you can pay to have a coffee and hang out with cats. So who needed Aoshima when you could get your fix right here in Tokyo? Who needed to travel to an island full of cats when you were already on an island of cats? To be in Japan is to be surrounded by cats: All you had to do was realize that.
LIKE MANY THINGS that the Japanese came to consider quintessentially theirs — such as tempura, the cherry tree and miso — the cat was an import. The scholar Tadaaki Imaizumi suggests that the first cat arrived in the sixth century, a Silk Road novelty from India via China (other historians suggest it arrived via Korea). One imagines that cat was immediately put to work in one way or another: Japan was for centuries a largely agricultural country, and a cat would have been treasured in a farmhouse or granary for its ability to scare away mice. Yet Japan was also a court culture, and a cat would have provided entertainment for the ladies of the palace, who would have delighted in watching it do all the things that cats have been doing since the beginning of their species — jumping, stalking, playing, preening.
By the 14th century, the cat had appeared in several foundational texts, among them “The Pillow Book” of Sei Shonagon, “The Tale of Genji” and the “Tsurezuregusa” of Kenko. (The cat even contributes to an important plot point in “Genji.” While scampering away, it pulls at a blind, allowing a courtier to glimpse the young princess behind it and fall desperately in love.) Cats also appear in significant visual or literary works from subsequent eras, particularly the Edo and the Meiji (1868-1912): Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1857 print “Rice Fields at Asakusa, Shrine Visiting at Tori-No-Machi,” a beloved image in his “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” depicts a plump white cat staring out the window, facing away from the viewer. Like its owner, a courtesan — you can tell from the fine lacquer hair ornaments slid into a cloth on the ground — it’s both pampered and prisoner; adored, but captive.
The country’s two most enduring feline icons were born centuries apart. Hello Kitty, created as a cartoon figure in 1974, became the ambassador of first-wave kawaii culture, her image printed on erasers, aprons and sanitary pads and shipped around the world (according to her official origin story, Hello Kitty doesn’t even live in Japan but in a London suburb and, according to her creator, is a human, not a cat). But long before her, or her cartoon predecessor, Doraemon, a blue, earless, grinning cat-robot, there was the maneki neko, or “welcoming cat.”
The maneki neko is a blank-eyed cat figurine — usually white, often ceramic, its expression inscrutable but benign — with a bell around its neck and one paw raised near its ear as if in greeting. You’ve probably encountered one in your local Japanese restaurant; in Japan, they’re so ubiquitous that the eye stops registering them after a while. A few days after returning from Matsuyama, I met Mihoko for a trip out to Setagaya, a district in western Tokyo, where there was an Edo-era temple, Gotokuji, dedicated to the maneki neko.
It was a brilliant day, cloudless and cool the way the city often is in December, and the part of Setagaya we walked through from the train station was a reminder of the patchwork nature of contemporary Tokyo; unlike in London or New York, most of the buildings here are postwar, undistinguished and plain, built during the country’s great economic renewal after the capital had been flattened by bombs. In almost any neighborhood in central Tokyo, you can turn off a boulevard of skyscrapers and suddenly find yourself on an essentially suburban street, lined by two-story townhouses with snub-nosed little cars in their driveways, and hedges of waxy-leaved camellia bushes and glossy, rooster-size crows perched in persimmon trees whose harsh, unsettling cries provide one of the city’s soundtracks.
After 15 minutes of walking, we came to a high stone wall surrounding the perimeter of the temple, which occupied almost an entire block. Gotokuji isn’t just a temple but the burial place of Naosuke Ii, a minister who served the Tokugawa shogunate. But it’s better associated with a myth: Once upon a time, the temple was small and poor, and the monk who oversaw it worried about its upkeep. He had little food, but what he had he shared with his cat, who was devoted to him. One day, the monk said to the cat, “If you want to help me, bring some good fortune to the temple.”
A few months later, a group of samurai approached the temple. They told the monk they were about to walk past when they saw his cat waving at them. Surprised, they entered the grounds, where the monk served them tea. As they rested, he chanted; the samurai, hearing the chants, were moved to listen to the way of the Buddha and donate land and money to the temple so that other people could experience what they had. When the cat died shortly after, the monk decided to honor him and the luck he’d brought to the temple. This is how the maneki neko was born, and why this temple honors him. The end.
(So goes the tale on the sheet of literature the temple hands out to visitors, but “that’s not the story I heard,” Mihoko said. “The story I heard is that one day, a group of travelers were passing by a temple. It began to rain, and they noticed a cat beckoning to them. They hurried into the temple and were able to take shelter there, and that’s why the maneki neko is a sign of luck and hospitality.”)
Anyone who’s been to Japan knows that virtually every neighborhood in every town has at least one Buddhist temple and one Shinto shrine. Most of these places are humble: a clean-swept yard and a darkened main building, opened only on New Year’s Day. But some are rich: their gardens well maintained, their trees trimmed, their bamboo fences fresh and green. Gotokuji is a rich temple; in the middle of the central walkway, we encountered a large, spectacular iron incense brazier with Ii’s mon, or family crest, an orange blossom, stamped in gold on its base. It’s rich because cat-loving pilgrims have come here for decades to make donations and ask for good fortune, and because (like many other savvy temples) it sells irresistible merchandise, in the form of ceramic maneki neko, which were offered in five different sizes. The largest was about a foot high; the smallest, just an inch.
The temple maintains a series of shelving units to hold the thousands of maneki neko that visitors have bought, scribbled their names and wishes on and left behind for luck. Encountering so many of the cats together in one place was wondrous and also a little eerie; there was something about the sunny quiet of the afternoon, and the cats’ unreadable expressions, that made it easy to imagine them coming alive en masse at night, transforming into real cats and prowling the temple grounds in silence, before resuming their ceramic form at dawn. Japan had only recently begun allowing in tourists after years of stringent Covid restrictions, and the temple was mostly empty that day, with just a few determined Korean and Filipino visitors taking selfies in a businesslike way.
Mihoko and I walked among the shelves, looking for just the right place to leave our cats, before finally placing them beneath a window ledge of one of the temple buildings. Despite being outdoors, the cats were all remarkably clean, their scarlet-painted collars bright. A few small maple leaves, of the kind the Japanese call momiji, had settled atop their heads like berets, and the ones more exposed to the elements had light tracings of dirt on their foreheads, which made them look more alive, as their raised paws resembled the movement a cat makes when it rubs its front leg across its face and then licks it clean. (Which, frankly, is probably what that long-ago cat was doing when those travelers encountered him — he wasn’t beckoning them; he was selfishly attending to his needs. That selfishness is what cat lovers adore in cats.)
There were, I noticed, no actual cats at the temple, presumably because they would have knocked over the maneki neko. Seeing this many inanimate objects perched, unprotected, on shelves would have been too much for even the most disciplined cat to bear. Had a real cat found its way into the temple, the grounds would be silty with crushed pottery; thousands of people’s hopes destroyed, reduced with a swipe of a paw to dust.
THE JAPANESE, OF course, aren’t the only culture that loves cats, nor can one argue that they love them more than anyone else. But one might be able to say that they’ve spent more time mythologizing them than anyone else.
One might even say that the Japanese regard the cat with something more complicated and therefore powerful than love: fondness, yes, but also fear and awe. There are sacred animals in Japan — most notably the deer, which in Shinto, the most dominant of the country’s native belief systems, is often believed to be the messenger of the gods — but the cat might be said to be more closely related to a different group of animals, one that includes foxes and badgers: animals that must be appeased.
The Japanese have a wary affection for foxes, which across East Asia are known for being shape-shifters. While not always malevolent, they’re noted pranksters, and a good deal of time is spent trying to keep them happy. An Inari jinja, or Inari shrine, is a type of Shinto shrine popular with businessmen and housewives alike, as it celebrates a god, the kami Inari, who’s known for protecting wealth, the household, rice, sake and foxes. Over time, though, Inari’s various beneficiaries have come to be symbolized by the kitsune, or fox. It is the fox, not Inari, who likes rice; the fox one asks for good luck. At one of the country’s most famous and beautiful Inari shrines, the 15th-century Fushimi Inari Taisha in southern Kyoto, there are dozens of stone carvings of foxes, at whose feet people have left packages of Inari sushi, sushi rice wrapped in pockets of deep-fried tofu, said to be foxes’ favorite food. Foxes are also known to take the form of beautiful women, so they might seduce some hapless man for fun or money; I once went to Fushimi with my friend Bitter, until recently also a Tokyoite, who was convinced that every third woman we saw was a fox in disguise. “Did you see her?” he whispered as a pretty young woman in a long black pleated skirt walked past us. “She has to be a fox.” Then there’s the badger, or tanuki, which is technically a Japanese raccoon dog, although colloquially, “tanuki” can also refer to an actual badger. Tanuki are Falstaffian figures: big-bellied, jolly, drunk, playful (the popular rendering of the tanuki shows him wearing a straw traveler’s hat, grasping a bottle of sake), but dim and undependable. They, too, are shape-shifters, though their intentions are less nefarious and more selfish — more food, more sake, more harmless mischief.
Most of the time, these animals coexist with humans peaceably. (As long as proper respect is paid; while wandering in Matsuyama, we passed a makeshift shrine to a tanuki, just a worn stone statue about a foot high, with a couple of wildflower bouquets propped against its side and a miniature flask of sake. It was a humble, amateurish thing, and yet Mihoko stopped and made a quick bow, as did many of the other passers-by.) But sometimes, through no fault of humans’, creatures in this category become enraged or possessed and, suddenly, your cat is no longer a cat: It is a demon.
YOU CAN EASILY spend a lot of time in Japan talking about demons. When they come up in conversation, the tone is usually casual and matter-of-fact. Once, trekking downhill from a temple high in the woods above Kyoto, Bitter and I passed an older couple accompanied by a middle-aged tour guide. “You don’t want to come here at night,” the woman was telling them cheerfully, “because the hills are full of things.” Bitter, a software engineer and a passionate believer in demons, was struck by her word choice — mamono: “evil things” — and by how the couple murmured their assent.
Cats are especially prone to becoming demons. I’m using the term “demon” broadly, to refer to both yurei, which are ghosts, and yokai, which are spirits. (Actual demons, as well as shape-shifters and ogres, are yokai.) Zack Davisson, the author of the entertaining “Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan” (2021), identifies five major categories of kaibyo, or “strange cats”: “the split-tailed neko mata (again cat), the shape-changing bakeneko (changing cat), the cat/human hybrid neko musume (cat daughter), the beckoning maneki neko (inviting cat) and the corpse-stealing kasha (fire cart [cat]).” No other animal, he notes (with some admiration), has as many demonic variations as the cat.
Within this taxonomy are varying degrees of malignance. The best known among these demon cats is the bakeneko. But what is the bakeneko? Is it a cat who’s become humanlike? Or is it simply a cat who, one day, stands on his hind legs, an announcement of his overnight possession? (In traditional woodblock prints, the bakeneko is often depicted as monstrously large, with exaggerated fangs like mastodon tusks and wild, gleeful yellow eyes.) Does it mean us serious harm, or is it merely alarming? Here is where one runs into the limitations of folklore, which is both undeniable and highly subjective. This is true everywhere, but perhaps most vividly so in Japan. Everyone agrees, for example, that most animals and some humans can become demons, but no one agrees on how or why. According to some people, though, the bakeneko evolved as a kind of response to the zashiki warashi. There was once a custom of infanticide in certain regions of Japan, practiced when the family had too many children to feed. The practice was called usugoro, and meant “mortar killing.” Often, however, the dead baby returned as a ghost, the zashiki warashi, shaking the walls of the house and yowling. The theory was that the bakeneko’s cry resembled a human baby’s — and it was far more palatable to imagine oneself haunted by a cat than by one’s murdered baby.
But “I’ve never heard that,” said Bitter. “What I heard is that when a cat lives to be very old, say more than 10 years, it becomes very large and turns into a demon.”
“What do you mean, ‘it turns into a demon’?” I asked.
“It just becomes a demon because it’s old,” he said.
“So you’re telling me that any cat over the age of 10 either is or is on its way to likely becoming a demon?”
“Yes,” he said. (Bitter has two cats, one of whom is 10 and, Bitter said, probably becoming a demon soon. Part of Japanese folklore is a widespread belief that superannuated creatures are in general vulnerable to demonic transformation and, in the Edo era, when such a belief became popular, 10 years was indeed an old age for a cat.)
But even the cat’s complicated reputation might be interpreted as further evidence of its importance in a culture that seems to respect unpredictable creatures. Cats are often credited with being guardians of the earliest Buddhist scriptures to reach Japan; however, as every child raised in the Japanese Buddhist-folkloric tradition learns early on, when the Buddha died, the only two animals who failed to publicly mourn him were the serpent … and the cat.
Another country or culture might have shunned the cat for this, but the Japanese did not. Rather, the knowledge of this, centuries after the Buddha’s death in 483 B.C., seemed to elevate the cat in people’s eyes — any culture that values manners as much as the Japanese do also secretly values rebellion, and in the cat they might have seen a kind of enviable defiance, a commendable self-possession. Here was a creature that wouldn’t do as you said, nor as you expected. Here was a creature that would choose its own inexplicable way. Here was a creature, then, to be cherished — but also to be feared.
CATS WEREN’T THE only culture-shaking arrival to Japan in the sixth century. Buddhism was the other.
Before Buddhism, Japan had Shintoism. Many belief systems seek to limit the sacred to a few beings or forms, if not one; Shintoism does the opposite. Depending on your perspective, this is either generous or bewildering, because in Shintoism anything can be divine: people, animals, even rocks or trees. The Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo’s signature question about objects potentially doomed to the garbage bin — “does this bring me joy?” — gives humans the right to make such decisions, when really, in Shintoism, everything might be able to ask the same question of everything else: “Does it bring me joy? Does he?”
It’s arguably because of Shintoism that animals are given so much personhood in Japan. When you’re there, you’re reminded of how relatively little space animals occupy in the narratives of Christianity or Judaism or Islam; those religions’ concerns are the souls of humans. In Shintoism, however, people are placed amid a universe of living things — if we are more important, it’s only barely.
Although Buddhism spread quickly throughout Japan, it never displaced Shintoism, which was at any rate elastic enough to accommodate it. The two systems — along with that imaginative and vibrant folkloric tradition — informed and enriched each other to create a distinct syncretic culture, one that officially lasted until 1868, when the government formally separated Shintoism, which was remade as a symbol of ethnonationalist faith, from Buddhism, a foreign intervention, ordering Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to distinguish their rituals and practices. Just 15 years earlier, the U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry had forced Japan open to the West after a millennium of self-imposed isolation; nationalist sentiments, which would crest in the following century, had already begun.
Despite the separation, known as shinbutsu bunri, little changed on a daily level. Buddhist monks and temples continued to provide funeral and ancestral rites; people continued to pray at Shinto shrines. If Buddhism defines death in Japan, Shintoism defines life.
Shintoism is no doubt also one of the reasons places like Aoshima exist. In Japan, there aren’t just (11) cat islands: There’s a monkey island. There’s a rabbit island. There’s a deer island (and deer cities, too, most notably Nara, Japan’s eighth-century capital and home to more than a thousand sika deer, who dominate the main park and occasionally try to butt visitors, who are warned by signs not to antagonize them). The Nara deer are exciting to encounter until they begin chasing you but, in general, the attitude in Japan seems to be that the animals are there to stay and, despite some annual culling, it’s our job to accommodate them.
I have always sensed in Japan an odd sort of ambivalence about being human at all, given what humans have done to the natural world. In his films “Princess Mononoke” (1997) and “Spirited Away” (2001), the animator and director Hayao Miyazaki offers visions of a posthuman Japan, as well as worlds in which the hierarchy between humans and animals is unstable. In “Spirited Away,” set in an enchanted turn-of-the-20th-century bathhouse, humans are transformed into animals as punishment, but animals, some of them admittedly chimeric, are also humans’ betters, responsible for making them work and for meting out punishment. Among them, gods, some fearsome, some jolly, all desiring a bath, flit in and out, observing the mortals with curiosity.
Rewatching the film recently, I thought of those humans on Aoshima — their number now down to five — whose responsibility it is to feed all those cats. They aren’t alone in this; there is a volunteer group on Shikoku that brings additional food and supplies over to the island when the waters are calm. And yet no one seemed to suggest that those five humans should leave — for one, it’s their home. For another, it’s their duty to feed those cats. Cats, for all their independence, aren’t monkeys or foxes or even deer; they depend on us, and the refuse we create, which in turn attracts rodents, to live.
Aoshima presented an inversion of the modern food chain: too few humans, too little waste, too few mice, too many predators. The resulting relationship was something from either a Miyazaki nightmare or a Miyazaki fantasy, which are often indistinguishable: Were the cats holding the humans hostage, or were the humans privileged to be caretakers? Who was really in charge on Aoshima? Or was it wrong to consider the island’s situation in terms of hierarchy? Was it in fact the perfect example of a Shinto-inspired symbiosis, where, depending on context and circumstance, a human might one day be in charge, only to wake and find that they no longer were? The age of humans was growing late. From animals we had taken — to animals, we would be returned.
AFTER GOTOKUJI, MIHOKO and I decided we’d attempt once more to find a society of cats and took the train to a neighborhood called Yanaka in Tokyo’s north. Yanaka is one-third of a larger district named Yanesen, which also includes the neighborhoods of Nezu and Sendagi. Once, the area was rice fields, and during the war it largely escaped bombing; today, it’s a living time capsule of the prewar capital, with mid-20th-century wood-and-paper houses and small neighborhood temples. Tokyoites call districts like this shitamachi, which literally means “downtown” but more atmospherically means “old town,” a memory of a time when every neighborhood had its own tofu maker, or store that specialized in traditional waxed-paper umbrellas or senbei shop, with its glass jars of crunchy rice crackers.
The area, which is pretty and quiet, with few cars and many pedestrian walkways and arcades, is known as well for cats: living ones, but also a number of stores selling cat memorabilia and cat-shaped sweets. I had last visited it a decade ago with Bitter, back when his soon-to-be-demonic cat was just a kitten, and had a clear memory of walking out of a shop in which he’d bought two cat-patterned hand towels and encountering a clowder of cats resting in the middle of the sidewalk. Bitter had fallen to his knees, shrieking; other passers-by did the same. The cats themselves, however, had seemed impervious to the attention. They had laid in the sun in a puddle of orange fur (many Japanese cats are either orange or tortoiseshell patterned) and flicked the tips of their tails and yawned and ignored us, which only made everyone more excited, as another thing cat lovers adore about cats is their impassivity.
This time, though, there weren’t any cats. I was excited to finally spot an unusually large, handsome white cat perched atop a vegetable store’s awning, surveying the street below, but when we drew closer, we saw that it was fake. As we walked down one of the threadlike streets, we noticed more of these fiberglass or plastic cats, peering down from the tops of awnings or balconies onto displays of winter daikon and Kyoto carrots, which are the color of tomatoes. Whoever had made them had done an excellent job capturing their essential catness, the way that cats are somehow able to convey that they’re only one whim away from causing complete chaos, and that we should be grateful to them for resisting the impulse.
On the Covers
Now the sun was fading, and Mihoko and I went to a coffeehouse to discuss the lack of cats. Until 2014, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had practiced a policy of euthanization — a humane implementation, they might have tried to argue: If the cats were allowed to procreate unchecked, there would be no way for all of them to find food, and many of them would starve, a slow, sad, painful death. (Later, I also thought that the cats’ relative scarcity made them more precious; at one number, they were curiosities. At a greater number, they would be pests. The same was true with the deer in Nara: It was as if the government understood that a certain management was required in order for us to keep valuing these animals, which meant we were being managed, too.) But when we asked the waitress where the cats were, she looked untroubled. “It’s cold,” she said. “They’re elsewhere” — though she didn’t explain where elsewhere might be, and we didn’t press her; it was more comforting to believe the cats were simply, temporarily gone, hiding as cats do, as if they were paid actors and had been allowed a furlough, as if in some cozy house not far from here were all the cats of Yanesen, sleeping and purring and waiting for spring, when they’d once again lie on the brick walkways and be surrounded by admirers.
Or maybe, even, it was possible to believe that the cats knew something we didn’t. Although Tokyo, with its 14 million residents, remains one of the largest cities in the world, other parts of Japan are emptying of humans. Every year or so, a bleak article appears in the Western media about how more and more young people are abandoning Japan’s small towns and villages for its metropolises; one of the most haunting was published in 2015 in Foreign Affairs and concerned a remote village on Shikoku called Nagoro. So many people had left — at the time, there were only 35 residents, almost all of them elderly — that one of the remaining villagers had taken to repopulating her hometown with life-size stuffed dolls, which she sewed, dressed and then placed in the gardens, houses and streets where people had once worked, cooked and played. There were no more children in Nagoro, so she had made them. There was no longer a need for a school, but she had filled the schoolroom anyway with her dolls, flesh and bone replaced by cotton wadding and thread. Eventually, this story — almost majestic in its resignation, its sorrow and pathos — was co-opted as more evidence of Wacky Japaneseness, which the West tends to do when presented with tales of such transcendent loneliness.
Yet the statistics are harder to dismiss. Japan is the most aged society in the developed world: Last year, data released by the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications showed that 29.1 percent of the population was over 65; by 2040, that number is expected to rise to 35 percent. Sometime within this century, Japan will be very old indeed and, although new creatures will be born every year, fewer and fewer of them will be human creatures. It’ll be us who’ll become the demons; instead of the bakeneko scaring us, we’ll be the ones scaring them — or trying to, anyway. Aoshima, after all, hadn’t always been a cat island; once, it had been populated mostly by people, fishermen, who brought the cats over to work as mousers. But although the humans hadn’t been able to replace themselves after a certain point, the cats had had no such problems. Now, the natives had been replaced by the interlopers.
THE NEXT WEEK, I was on a plane back to New York, looking out the window as we drifted east. Tokyo is so vast that, from the correct angle, it appears endless, a grid of concrete that repeats itself again and again. Somewhere beneath me was Aoshima, and its five humans and uncounted cats, and somewhere beneath me, too, were the cats of Yanesen and all the other cats of Japan. On Aoshima, they were waiting for their food; in Yanesen (or so I wanted to believe), they were waiting for the weather to turn. A cat knows how to wait — and although it would rather we feed it, it knows how to survive as well.
It made me wonder whether I had actually overestimated our importance in cats’ lives — not just those cats, as Mihoko had called them, but all cats. A 2017 study of ancient cats’ mitochondrial DNA suggests that unlike most other animals we now live among, including sheep and dogs and horses, cats domesticated themselves: There’s little genetic difference between the modern house cat and its wild brethren. That means that they decided they would tolerate us; they decided they would live among us. To think we had made the decision for them was hubris — a quality unique to humans. It also means that eventually, they could make the opposite decision; that we’re no longer amusing companions, that their communion with us is over. And then they would go — where? To another planet only they knew about? To another island yet to bubble up from the sea?
Maybe one day, many years from now, there would be no humans at all in the Japanese archipelago. There would only be monkeys here, and deer there and rabbits in between. And all around them, on empty, windy islets and in long-decayed villages, would be cats, millions of them, one for every person who had disappeared. Into the forests they would climb, scaling giant cedar trees and mewling because they were frightened to come down on their own. Would they miss us, our large, clumsy bodies, our incessant talking, our poor night vision and worse sense of smell, our agelong attempts to decipher them, our love for them? They didn’t care about the myths and art and stories we’d constructed to try to explain our fascination with them; the chronicling of our relationship was one-sided.
Or would they forget us, we visitors in their lives, and find another species they might choose to live among? Many of us who’ve had cats sometimes measure our lives by the number of cats we might have in them; a cat lives around 12 to 14 years, on average, which means that if we’re lucky, we might have six cats in our own lifetimes, one after the next, from kittenhood to death.
But if a cat could measure time, how would it do so? Not, certainly, by the humans in its life; but maybe (or so we could hope) by the human lives that passed before it: one, two, three, four. One century, two centuries, three centuries, four. On and on they would count and blink, count and blink, until they finally got bored. And then they would go find somewhere else. It wouldn’t matter where — anywhere they went, they’d be kings. Where their paws fell, a new mythology; where their whiskers touched, a new breed of supplicants. Japan wasn’t the end — it was only a beginning.
Production: Ayumi Konishi for Beige Company