Cultures all over the world have superstitions about cats, creatures we took into our homes like dogs
but never quite tamed, and whose wild, predaceous instincts, although they benefit us when they exterminate
pests, are all too unnervingly and visibly well-developed. So it is not surprising that the cat in Japanese
folklore is, like the fox and raccoon dog, prone to monstrous transformations.
Long ago many ideas existed about when a cat might become a bake-neko; sometimes it changed when it had
been fed in a place for thirteen years and sometimes after only three; sometimes it would be after the cat had
reached one kan (about eight pounds) in weight.
Indeed bake-neko could exceed normal cats in size by orders of magnitude, reaching their enormous arms
in through doors looking for human prey like an average feline pawing around in a mousehole. They could also
take a humanoid form, sometimes devouring people and stealing their identities. A famous bake-neko
story involves a man named Takasu Genbei, whose pet cat of many years went missing just as his mother's
personality changed completely. The woman shunned company and took her meals alone in her room, and when
the curious family peered in on her, they saw not a human being but a feline monster in the old lady's clothes,
chewing on animal carcasses. Takasu, with much reluctance, slew what looked like his mother, and after a day
had passed the body turned back into the same pet cat that had gone missing. After that Takasu miserably tore
up the tatami mats and the floorboards in his mother's room, only to find the old woman's bones hidden there,
gnawed clean of flesh.
Cats were also strongly associated with the dead, and a cat belonging to a recently deceased person was viewed
with much suspicion, sometimes locked away to keep it from becoming a kasha, a kind of demon that
descended from the sky to steal corpses, and which often had a cat-like form. A kind of bake-neko with
a forked tail, called a neko-mata, was said to be capable of manipulating corpses like puppets.
As old-fashioned lamp oil was often made from fish, cats could be as fond of stealing the stuff as
any yōkai, perhaps further cementing their association with the spirit world.
And while cats had a reputation for being ungrateful, they still could have their faithful and even
self-sacrificing side, especially when fed by poor owners. Numerous stories of good-hearted cats
with magic powers or human-like intelligence exist to explain the symbol of the maneki-neko,
the famous ceramic beckoning feline which as a good-luck charm for storekeepers has spread all over
the world. There is the cat at a poor temple who beckoned a rich man away from a tree about to be struck
by lightning, causing him to become the temple's benefactor; the cat owned by a high-ranking geisha who
clawed at her robes to keep her away from the toilet, and even when killed for its strange behavior, still
managed to use its ghostly head to bite to death the lurking snake that threatened her; and the cat who appeared
in a dream to its poverty-stricken mistress, telling her to manufacture its image in clay in order to bring
her wealth. There are also stories about cats taking the forms of women and girls to become wives like foxes, or
daughters to childless couples, once again trying to help their human companions make ends meet.