From Hello Kitty to Maneki Neko–Japan is the epicentre of global cat culture!
Whether lurking in corners or taking center stage, cats are a ubiquitous presence in Japanese art. Depending on the situation, they may invite good fortune, prompt the viewer to meditate on a tale or provide evidence of an unseen world of magic and supernatural happenings.
In 200 charming woodblock prints, paintings, screens and figurines spanning three centuries, Japanese art expert Rhiannon Paget celebrates the rich symbolism and surprising stories surrounding the feline image in Japan. Her book contains essays on the following fascinating topics:
Domestic Companion or Household God? Japanese artists represent the great affection and sense of pride which bonds cat owners to their pets
The Feline Muse: Feline figures as ideal subjects for artists to explore in fluid lines and organic forms, their glossy fur and markings lending themselves to the interplay of textures and materials
Lucky Cats: Auspicious creatures in Japanese culture, symbolizing health, longevity and prosperity
Mischief and Mayhem: Japan’s rich visual record of cats as witches and feline monsters
Philosophers’ Cats, Teachers’ Pets and Moggies with Messages: The felines deployed to illustrate philosophical and religious ideas, and as conveyors of folk wisdom
Plus much more!
Japan is the epicenter of cat culture. 1000 year old diaries mention pet cats outside of mere rodent control. In the Edo Period (1615-1868) cats began to be portrayed in the increasingly popular woodblock illustrations of the day. As sericulture – specifically the silk industry, became more important, the value of cats skyrocketed until some were valued at 5 times the cost of a horse. Females were preferred as they were thought to be keen mousers while males “were considered to lack aptitude.” Thus cats were often depicted in woodblocks of pastoral sericulture. If one couldn’t afford a cat, images of them were produced to be sold as a way to ward off rodents. At other times cats were viewed as furry status symbols with some cats being granted court ranks.
Cats were often depicted in images of the “floating world” – especially as the pets of women working in brothels. Modernist/minimalist versions of cats arrived near the turn of the twentieth century while maneki neko figurines have a long history of being used for good fortune. Opposite to that are the supernatural cats sometimes seen as cat demons. I could see a few of these being inspirations for Halloween horror costumes this year. There are netsuke and tsuba (sword guards) with cats. A National Treasure of Japan is a 17th century carved nemuri neko or wooden cat. I found Otsu-e (folk paintings) of cats to be delightful. And last but not least there are large felines such as tigers – more or less realistically portrayed – and shisi – guardian lions. The illustrations here are plentiful, gorgeous and (best of all) explained in context of time and place. B+
Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.