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Culture and Education

Objections to the History of Cats as Commonly Portrayed

Masayuki Manabe
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

What's Missing from the History of Cats

After more than a century since this unprecedented "cat boom" started, it's become more than just a popular craze. Our world is filled with cat-related stories and merchandise. The world of books is not an exception, with a large number of cat-themed books being published every year. This wave has even infiltrated the realm of history books, and in recent years, books about the history of cats are being published one after another.

However, books that are written about the history of cats generally tend to cover either stories of cats that were the beloved pets of famous people, or stories set in pre-modern times, with little written about the modern era. These famous people are relatively more affluent than the average denizen, so these stories do not reveal what life was like for the average cat. Moreover, the most dramatic change that happened to the life of cats began in the modern era. Without studying the lives of cats in modern history, we cannot know the historical background of the modern relationship between humans and cats, and how it developed. Most importantly, most of the history written about cats to this day only explores the positive relationships between cats and humans. However, cats were not always just loved by humans. They have often been the target of abuse. Any serious history of cats cannot leave out this crucial information.

Do Cats Lack Morals?

Cat deity at Shunrinji Temple in Shiroishi, Kishima-gun, Saga Prefecture. In the legends told throughout the Edo and Meiji periods, demonic cats and other mythical monster cats appeared in books and plays, portraying cats as sly and dreadful creatures. This engraving was carved into a nekozuka, or cat mound, to enshrine a cat depicted in Saga's legend of the bakeneko, the demonic cat. It glares at visitors with a splintered tail and sharp fangs (built in 1872).

Let’s take a look at one example. The cats of the Edo (1603–1868) and Meiji (1868–1912) periods, including Kuniyoshi's cats and the stories of cat gods prevalent in regions practicing sericulture, are from time periods in which cats were considered inferior to dogs in the literary world. A representative example of this is Neko Inu Setsu (Theory of Cats and Dogs) by Rai Sanyo, who is also known as the author of Nihon Gaishi (Unofficial History of Japan). Sanyo criticized the habit of keeping dogs outside of the house, which he claimed to be loyal creatures, while cats, which are visually lovable but are totally self-centered, are taken good care of inside of the house. He compares this to the interactions between humans, where the most visually attractive and obsequious among us are better treated than the rest. Since that time to around the beginning of the Meiji period, much of the debate surrounding the comparison of cats and dogs were heavily influenced by Sanyo's argument, which led to the succession of defeats the cats suffered in the moral competition between cats and dogs. Of course, as Sanyo had criticized, there were many people who loved their cats. However, without the knowledge of the discourse that had condemned cats, the folktales from the Edo and Meiji periods, such as tales of cats repaying favors, cannot be understood as the backlash by cat lovers against the negative portrayal of cats.

Cover of the second volume of Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (illustration by Goyo Hashiguchi). The adorable drawing of the cat can be said to be the predecessor of the modern image of cats. However, the actual cat depicted in the story is not always adorable, and the book was sharply criticized by cat lovers.

Even Natsume Soseki's Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I Am a Cat), which has a cat as the protagonist, and is often referred to as work that elevated the status of cats in the literary world, was also an example of this traditional view on cats, and was criticized by cat lovers of that time. Cat lovers of his time criticized Natsume's work, claiming that the cat in this book ends up becoming a villain, and made comments such as "We resent Natsume's portrayal of cats not as lovable creatures, but as evil creatures that expose private secrets." ("Koneko wo Mukafu" by Magotaro Ishida, Eisei Shimpo, July 1906) It is true that there are very few parts that portray cats in a positive light—they are more often portrayed as immoral creatures. There are scenes where cats are struck on the head, and even characters that cook cats and eat them. It's no wonder that cat lovers of the time objected to this book.

Cats are Useful for the Nation!

Ad for Neko Irazu (Yomiuri Shimbun, November 14, 1912). Slogans such as "Cats out of a job" and "Making rat traps obsolete" were used. It had the effect of preventing rat corpses from decaying, and was therefore more sanitary than using cats, which left corpses to rot.

Starting at around the end of the Meiji period, cats, which had the reputation of being morally inferior, became recognized as useful creatures by the state. The German bacteriologist Robert Koch claimed that domesticated cats are effective for pest control. Upon this discovery, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the police began encouraging keeping cats as pets. Domesticated cats, which traditionally bore the contempt of the public for their perceived moral inferiority, suddenly found their status dramatically elevated after the state began encouraging keeping them in homes. This prompted the import of cats from overseas, and the value of cats increased. Cat shops appeared in areas like Asakusa Senzoku and Honjo Matsukura-machi, and were extremely profitable.

However, the sequel to this story of the encouragement of keeping cats is rarely discussed. In fact, this encouragement did not continue long. The end of it all coincided with the emergence of rat poison. In particular, the brand that dominated the market was "Neko Irazu" (No Need for Cats). Incidentally, if you read through newspapers from the time period spanning the Taisho (1912–1926) and Showa (1926–1989) periods, you will frequently come across headings referring to "cat suicide." This, of course, is not the title of articles reporting on actual cats committing suicide. They were stories of people who committed suicide using Neko Irazu. Neko Irazu even killed cats. According to the political commentator Shinnosuke Abe, there were cases where cats consumed rat poison and died, and even a case where every cat in an entire village was killed, while the rats survived. ("Neko no Apartment" by Shinnosuke Abe, Bungeishunju, December 1951) Alas, the elevated status of domesticated cats due to state support was short-lived.

The main reasons rat poison became so widespread was partly because it was easy to acquire, and also because of Koch's miscalculation. Koch neglected to consider the difference between Western homes and Japanese homes.

Although it may not be a problem in Western homes, in Japanese homes, which are made of wood and paper, the floors use straw mats that are meant to be walked on with bare feet or socks, and is also where people sit. Cats that have been walking around outside will also walk around the house. You might be able to discern what point I'm making. (Omission) Even with healthy rats, having creatures that have been feeding on their innards walk on the same floor is unthinkable. Furthermore, if these rats were to be considered as pests, this makes the situation even more dire, and is far from being a pest control measure. (Fujin Eisei Zasshi, July 1916)

This was something that cat lovers could tolerate, and probably dealt with it by limiting the areas that cats could walk on, but for those who wanted to keep cats for sanitation purposes, it was unthinkable. Thus, the spread of using domesticated cats for sanitation purposes was thwarted precisely for those same sanitation purposes.

Cats, the Creatures That Have Been Toyed with by Human Society

Nekozuka, or cat mound, located within the compounds of Matsunoki Daimyojin Shrine in the Nishinari Ward of Osaka (built in 1901). It is shaped like the body of a shamisen, a stringed Japanese instrument, as a way of paying tribute to the spirits of cats that were killed for their hide to be used as raw materials. Similar mounds are located all around Japan. The hunting of cats for the purposes of manufacturing shamisen had been a source of heated debate with cat lovers.

I cannot get into details as I have a limited amount of space, but as times moved on, things did not get better for cats. The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Second World War were disastrous for cats as well. The aversion towards keeping cats became greater in times of food shortages during the war, and organized cat-hunting took place to harvest fur for military use. As food shortages continued into the postwar period, some people also began eating cats. Later on, as the Japanese economy experienced rapid growth, one would think that the lives of cats also improved, but it was not necessarily so. In earlier times, cats were almost exclusively outdoor pets, and a large middle margin existed between house cats and pet cats. (Many cats had multiple owners, some of whom even used the cats as carriers for exchanging letters.) However, around this time, as living environments changed, the separation between house cats and stray cats became strikingly clear.

This development has led to various problems that affected cats, including frequent abuse. Most of the abuse that took place before World War II could be blamed on the disdainful attitude of people who considered cats to be vermin. Scenes where owners quarreled with the would-be abusers unfolded frequently, and led to many of these abuses. However, during and after the period of rapid economic growth, the people who became neglected by society, as well as those who lost the sense of regional community often became the culprits of abuse. Much of this abuse took place out of sight. Moreover, newspapers and magazines began frequently featuring articles that depicted cats as a nuisance. Following the incidents in Kawasaki in which many cats were found with severed legs, a person in charge of a health care center explained that "People who like cats will act in solidarity, but those who hate cats will act alone. This is what worries me." (Shukan Yomiuri, July 23, 1983) As was the case in these incidents, those who abused cats were often alienated from their community. On the flip side, animal hoarders who keep too many cats have also started to become a problem. These people are similarly alienated from society. In the climate of urbanization, as the sense of regional community gradually fades, much calamity is brought upon cats as well.

The lives of cats also changed dramatically during the period of rapid economic growth. Litter boxes appeared in people's homes, and the traditional nekomamma, food for cats made of discarded leftovers, was replaced by specially produced cat food. This was partially due to the inclusion of cats in the commodity market. As house cats and cat neutering became more commonplace, the number of overweight cats increased, as well as the number of abandoned cats. Furthermore, with the widespread use of bicycles and the servicing of traffic networks, the rate of cats in traffic accidents skyrocketed. The history of cats is not so straightforward. Their history is written in a space between happiness and misery, all the while being toyed with by human beings.

For the Future History of Cats

This is not just limited to cats, but many historians only want to write about the positive sides of history. These same people criticize any reference to Japan's loss of the history as a "masochistic historical view." But is there a bright future for a society that only likes to reminisce on the good parts, and refuses to acknowledge the negative? To raise an analogy, what would happen to a company that only focuses on the positive sides of their product, and ignores its shortcomings? Such a company would surely go out of business in no time. Societies and nations are the same. This is why I, a self-professed cat lover, want to write a comprehensive history of cats and people in modern Japan that includes the negative elements. I believe that this will lead to a more careful introspection among humans, and ultimately to a better world for cats.

It was from this perspective that I published my piece titled "Neko, Sono Junan no Rekishi: Nihon Kingendai shi no Naka de" (Cats, a Difficult History: A Story of Modern Japan) in the third issue of the journal Bungei Radio. Although the arguments I make are similar to what I have presented here, please have a read if you're interested. With that said, what I wrote is only a mere sample of the complete modern history of cats and people in Japan. In the future, I plan to compile it all into a book. In fact, I already have the material I need to write an entire book or two. Thus, this is my declaration that "I Am a Cat Historian," if I may allude to the famous work. However, after declaring that "I Am a Cat Historian," and I would have to borrow the words of the cat in Soseki's work, in clarifying that I do not, as of yet, have a publisher. Once that is settled, all I have to do is write it. If any publisher reading this is interested, please do get in touch. I'll be waiting, like a beckoning cat.

Masayuki Manabe
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Masayuki Manabe was born in 1973. He is an expert in modern Japanese history. Published works include Okuma Shigenobu: Min-i to Toji no Sokoku (Shigenobu Okuma: The Rivalry Between the Populous and the Government) (Chuokoron Shinsha, 2017), Tokyo Senmon Gakko no Kenkyu (Researching Tokyo's Vocational Schools) (Waseda University Press, 2010), Nishimura Shigeki Kenkyu: Meiji Keimoshiso to Kokumin Dotokuron (Study of Shigeki Nishimura: On the Meiji Enlightenment and Public Morals) (Shibunkaku, 2009), and more. In recent years, he has been researching stone monuments enshrining animals in East Asia, as well as the history of cats.