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Where Are Cats Seen in Japanese Culture? History & Popular Breeds

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By Nicole Cosgrove

Cat in Japan with Buddhist

If you’ve ever walked into a Japanese restaurant, you’ve likely seen a decorative cat waving at you in the window or statues of them on the counters. You may be surprised to learn that in Japan, cats are perhaps even more popular than dogs. There are so many things about Japanese culture that seem to foster this feline fascination.

In Western countries such as the United States and Canada, cats are a popular pet, but they pale in popularity when compared to dogs. Let’s take a close look at why Japanese culture seems to have such genuine love and adoration for our feline friends.

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Origins of Cats in Japan

The earliest evidence of cats being brought to Japan was during the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868. This was when the Dutch East India Company was trading goods in Japan. As trade increased, more cats were imported from Europe to control the rodent population. It was believed that cats would be useful for fishing villages that were located near the sea and that the cats could lure insects (and ultimately) fish to the surface of the water by tapping it.

Around the 1940s and 1950s, cat breeds and the fancy for cats began to be popular again, though for a different reason. During World War II, many people lost their homes, and it became common to keep cats in order to keep the rodents away. As the war ended, many people lost their homes again due to the Great Tokyo Air Raids of 1945. It was then that keeping cats again became commonplace in order to get rid of the rodents that were attracted to unattended buildings. While it’s unclear why cats became so popular in the decades leading up to the war, it seems that people needed a little comfort in their time of hardship.

Other Cat Uses in Japan’s History

Cats have been used for their aesthetics in Japan for centuries. This may seem a bit strange to Westerners, but cats were used as weaver birds that could catch rodents and snakes. During the feudal period, a kind of cloth called “neko-momen” was used. It was made from the fur of cats and was used to wrap up and protect swords.

It was later used to wrap other weapons and items. During the feudal period, another use for the furs of cats was to create a kind of hood that was worn by samurai. Wearing this hood was a sign of rank. During the feudal period, a lot of samurai wore a kind of tabi boot. This boot had fur on the top and was made from the fur of cats.

Cat in Japan
Image Credit: Pabkov, Shutterstock

Cats and Cleanliness in Japanese Culture

Cats are seen as being very clean creatures in many cultures. And cleanliness is an important aspect of Japanese culture that’s often tied to the use of cats. One example of this is the use of cats to keep rodents away from rice crops. Keeping these pests away from rice crops is important because rice is an important staple in the Japanese diet.

The importance of keeping rice crops clean and uneaten by rodents is tied to the tradition of serving rice at every meal. And since rice is such an important food source, keeping it clean and away from pests is very important. Cats have been used to help keep rice fields clean for centuries. It’s actually common to see a small ceramic figurine of a cat on the roof of a Japanese home – this is believed to keep insects, mice, and other pests away from the home.

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The 8 Most Popular Cat Breeds in Japan

The love for cats in Japan is so widespread that there are even entire villages inhabited solely by felines. Keep reading to learn more about the various breeds of cats that are common in Japan and where exactly you can find them.

1. Japanese Bobtail

Japanese bobtail on platform
Image Credit: Jaroslaw Kurek, Shutterstock

If you’ve ever seen a cat in Japan, chances are you’ve seen a Japanese Bobtail. This is the most common type of cat found in the country, known as the “nyanko” in Japanese. It’s believed that this particular breed of cat was brought over to Japan as early as the 6th century, when Chinese traders brought it over to help keep the grain stores free of rodents.

Because of this, they are often seen entering rice warehouses to keep the place clean. These cats are known to be very social and affectionate pets that are very skilled at getting what they want.

2. Japanese Shorthair

Calico cats are domestic cats with a spotted
Image Credit: Jo Theera, Shutterstock

Next on the list is the Japanese Shorthair. Unlike the Bobtail, this cat isn’t as common in Japan and is more likely to be found in American and European homes. It’s a larger short-haired cat that is known for being very gentle, easygoing, and affectionate. It’s highly intelligent and has a fairly even temper, which makes it a great choice for families with children. You can find this breed in a variety of colors and spot patterns. Common colors include blue, white, red, black, brown, cream, and silver.

3. Japanese Calico

Japanese bobtail cat
Image Credit: slowmotiongli, Shutterstock

This breed is one of the only purebred Japanese cats and is a popular choice among cat lovers. It’s a small to medium-sized cat with a very pleasant temperament. It’s a very affectionate and loyal breed that gets along very well with children and other animals. The Japanese Calico is a very friendly cat that is often described as being like a dog in its friendliness and personality. It can be found in a variety of colors, including white, red, and blue.

4. Scottish Fold

Scottish Fold silver shaded
Image Credit: Sophkins, Pixabay

Next on our list is the Scottish Fold. This is a popular breed of cat that is common in Japan, the US, and Europe. It’s a small, fluffy cat with gray fur and beautiful yellow eyes. It’s very friendly and playful, but it can also be vocal at times. It’s a good choice for people who don’t have a lot of time to take care of a cat, as it’s very low maintenance. This breed is expensive to own, and they typically start at about $800-$2,000 if you purchase one from a reputable breeder.

5. Munchkin

adorable munchkin cat
Image Credit: MDavidova, Shutterstock

The Munchkin is popular all over the world, but they’re really popular in Japan. Munchkins are friendly and people-oriented and make great companions. They get along well with dogs, other cats, and humans. Munchkins love to play and wrestle with their feline friends. They don’t know that they are different from other cats in size, and they love to cuddle and sleep next to affectionate owners.

6. American Shorthair

cream american shorthair
Image Credit: studiogala, Shutterstock

You may be surprised to find that the American Shorthair cat is a common cat in Japan. This mild-mannered cat is known for its sweet and gentle personality. With its short, plush coat, this cat is easy to groom and maintain. It is also a very healthy breed, with few known genetic issues.

The American Shorthair is a loyal and devoted companion who loves to play and snuggle. It’s intelligent and can learn a variety of tricks, like playing fetch or going on walks with its owner. It is also a very social breed, loving to be around its family and other cats.

7. Norwegian Forest Cat

brown patched tabby norwegian forest cat lying on grass
Image Credit: Pascale Gueret, Shutterstock

The Norwegian Forest Cat is an exotic, majestic-looking feline that you may come across in Japanese households. It’s known for its long, thick coat and can survive in cold climates, making it well-suited to life in the colder months in Japan. It has a waterproof undercoat, making it less likely to get wet and cold in the rain.

This breed is full of life and loves to explore, so it’s well-suited to households with plenty of space to play. It’s also incredibly intelligent and highly trainable. Caring for this cat requires time and dedication due to its heavy coat. This is another expensive breed to purchase. A Norwegian will cost you anywhere between $800 and $1,500.

8. Ragdoll

white ragdoll cat walking indoor
Image Credit: Tatyana Vyc, Shutterstock

Ragdoll cats are also somewhat common in Japan. These beautiful cats typically cost around $800-$2,000, so they aren’t the most affordable breed. Not only are they gorgeous and loving, but they also have a unique personality that sets them apart from other breeds. Ragdolls are known for being very relaxed and affectionate, often following their owners around and wanting to be held and cuddled.

They’re often referred to as “puppy-like cats” because of their playful and easy-going nature. These cats come in a variety of colors and patterns, ranging from solid colors to tabby or tortoiseshell markings. They have soft fur and long, luscious tails that make them look like a fluffy teddy bear.


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Wrapping Things Up

Cats are very loved in Japanese culture and there are many reasons why. The Japanese have a long history with cats (and uses for them), and they even have an affectionate name for them, “neko”. It’s easy to understand why these beautiful creatures have become such a popular pet in Japan – after all, they’re adorable, cuddly, and considered very clean.

Featured Image Credit: SAND555UG, Shutterstock

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