Cats in Japan: Art and Culture

June 16, 2017 • 2:30 pm

JAC: Here’s the second installment of Greg’s travelogue about his recent trip to Japan. This one touches a subject dear to our hearts.


by Greg Mayer

Cats are an important element in Japanese culture. In Japan, images of cats, and, in some places, actual cats, are everywhere. While in Kyoto, we saw flyers announcing two cat based museum exhibitions, and we were able to go to one of them, at Museum ⌈EKi⌋ KYOTO, located on the seventh floor of the Isetan department store in the Kyoto train station.

Flyer for exhibit of photos by Mitsuaki Iwago at Museum [EKi] KYOTO.
The exhibit, on the cats of Kyoto, was of photographs by Mitsuaki Iwago, one of Japan’s greatest wildlife photographers, who specializes in cats (both wild and domestic). He discusses some of his earlier work in this written interview in English. The photos were presented in very large format, and organized around the theme of the four seasons. Many photos were repeat views of the same cats, often in different seasons, and often in association with people.

Reverse of flyer for exhibit of photos by Mitsuaki Iwago at Museum [EKi] KYOTO.
Iwago describes the exhibit (the translation may be imperfect) :

We look at Kyoto through cat.
We live in climate of Kyoto
If we photograph cat,
If it is difficult to approach all too soon
This capital which we should have thought of,
It became comfortable.
Their way of life
We let culture of the old no capital breathe.
Here that goes
Cat guided
Kyoto for cat

The exhibit has also been shown in Tokyo (native English version). It seemed odd to me that a department store should have a museum within it, but Museum ⌈EKi⌋ KYOTO seems to have a regular series of exhibitions, and the Tokyo exhibit also seemed to be associated with or promoted by a group of restaurants and shops (one of them a cat cafe). (I should perhaps also add that department stores in Japan provide the full service attention and amenities that disappeared in America decades ago [but still exist in the UK ,at least at Harrod’s, if James Corden is to be believed], so an in-house museum is not as big a step up for a Japanese department store as it would be for a Walmart.) Iwago has published many books, including one based on this latest exhibition. A number of his books are available in English, though not this latest one.

There was also a cat exhibit at The Museum of Kyoto, but unfortunately we were not able to get to it. The flyer shows many older images of cats, but also some modern ones, some statuary, and (on the reverse) a very interesting looking board game with a cat piece and several mouse pieces. The exhibit was entitled “Yes, We love cats anytime!” This was a substantial exhibition, of over 200 items. Do have a look at the exhibition details page, as it gives a concise summary of many aspects of cats in Japanese culture.

Flyer for exhibit “Yes, We love cats anytime!” at The Museum of Kyoto.

On the reverse of the flyer, note the Maneki-Neko statues (beckoning cats, for good luck) on the left, and the cat and mice board game on the middle right (click on the image to enlarge).

Reverse of flyer for exhibit “Yes, We love cats anytime!” at The Museum of Kyoto.

16 thoughts on “Cats in Japan: Art and Culture

      1. As of August 2007, Thai police officers who have committed minor transgressions such as showing up late or parking in the wrong place are forced to wear pink Hello Kitty armbands for several days as penance.[57]

        I was wrong…Wiki was interesting

    1. They are awesome. Some are cuddle-monsters while others can be a bit aloof but they all have very distinct personalities.

      My cat is half-Siamese and smart as a whip. I trained him to sit. He trained himself to open drawers. He also trained me to cater to his every whim. 🙂

  1. Have you visited Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo? There are many resident cats that are kept well-fed by locals, and are the subject of photos taken by tourists like myself (I think I sent some to Jerry at one point). Nearby temples and shrines have additional cherished cats, and there’s a street lined by numerous shops selling items for ailurophiles. I don’t remember the name of the street, but my friends and I referred to it as “Neko-Dori.”

  2. This is not about cats in Japan, but an op-ed has just gone up in the NYTimes from

    “Jacqueline Littleton is a rising senior at Evergreen State.”

    If you have been following this event, it’s outstanding how distorted the op-ed is. And note well, there is no chance to comment.

    (It’s interesting to also note that there have been 3 op-ed in the NYTimes about this, but not a single actual news article that I know of.)

  3. And if you don’t have room for a dat [and I presume many Japanese don’t] — you might want to adopt an insect.

    A buddy of mine, currently on a bug-quest in Japan, sent me pix of a display in the pet foods section of a Japanese grocery that was dedicated to food for stag beetles and scarabs. Also cages, special air filters, and toys for the beetles.

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