Back in January a follower of JapanCulture•NYC’s Facebook page left a comment on a picture in an album created after my visit to Meow Parlour. He said, “I love animals but enough already with the cat posts, they have nothing to do with JapanCultureNYC. Maybe nobody there cares but you will lose me as a follower upon your next such post.”
My first reaction was to dispute him and to point out that of my last 20 posts, only four were related to cats, and they most certainly had something to do with Japanese culture. I was going to explain to him that my cat, Peter, was wearing a hakama bought at Hannari, a Japanese pet clothing store in New York. I was also going to point out that our New Year’s Day video featuring Peter paid homage to Shironeko, the sleepy Japanese cat whose owner balances all sorts of items on his head. The shironekoshiro YouTube channel has more than 100 thousand subscribers.
But did I really need to defend myself? No, Japanophiles across the globe know that cats are wildly popular in Japan. I responded, “Oh gosh, you do NOT want to check out our Instagram.” My next post was my article about Meow Parlour, which was recently picked up by RocketNews24, a site that focuses on the quirky aspects of Japanese culture.
The same follower finally unfollowed me on Valentine’s Day, after I posted this picture of Peter:
I was using the photo as a vehicle to explain the concept of giri choco and the fact that in Japan, women give men chocolate on Valentine’s Day.
The (former) follower may think that cats have nothing to do with Japanese culture, but they actually play a vital role. In fact today, February 22, is Neko no Hi, or Cat Day, an official day that celebrates cats in Japan. Established in 1987 by the Japan Pet Food Association to help cat owners take better care of their furry friends, February 22 was chosen as the designated day because the Japanese word for two, “ni” (pronounced “knee”), sounds like the sound Japanese cats make when they meow, “nyan.” And 2/22 is “nyan nyan nyan,” which is very cat-like indeed. Neko no Hi has become the perfect opportunity for Japanese cat lovers to blow up their Instagram feeds with even more cat pics than usual.
“Cats are an extremely important part of Japanese society,” says Miwako Tezuka, director of Japan Society Gallery, whose latest exhibition, Life of Cats, begins on March 13 and celebrates the long relationship between the Japanese and felines through art. “We’ll have rare ukiyo-e prints depicting cats in everyday life, as well as manga and porcelain on display.”
Tezuka says that cats were introduced to Japan from China in the mid-sixth century, and they have been fascinating Japanese people ever since.
Worth noting is that last July Japan Society’s screening of Neko Samurai, a comedy starring Kazuki Kitamura and a cat, sold out faster than any film in the history of Japan Society’s summer film festival, JAPAN CUTS.
“You don’t walk into a Japanese shop or restaurant without seeing maneki neko,” says Tomoko Omae, hair stylist and manager of Sei Tomoko Salon O2 in the East Village, referring to the “beckoning cat” that waves its paw. “Animals in general are special to Japanese culture, but cats are very important to Japanese businesses because they are a symbol of good luck, customers, and money.”
There’s even a ramen shop called Lucky Cat in Midtown, where diners can enjoy a bowl of ramen next to a giant maneki neko.
In addition to shironekoshiro, another cat that’s an Internet sensation is Maru, perhaps the most popular Japanese cat in the world. The rotund Scottish fold delights his fans by squeezing his large frame into small boxes. There are islands in Japan that have more feline inhabitants than humans.
Anthropomorphic cats are just as popular as the real ones. Sasuri neko are carved cats that bring good luck and have healing powers when rubbed. We all know Hello Kitty, and Doraemon, the cat-like robot from the 22nd century, is Japan’s anime ambassador. He was spotted everywhere at the recent Japan Week.
So happy Neko no Hi to all cats around the world, and may cats always have a special place in Japanese culture.