When I was a kid, a neighborhood boy told me a cat and rabbits could mate and give birth to “Cabbits”. Despite his insistence that he saw one, I never believed this ubran legend but turns out they exist(kind of). No, they are not the result of some unholy act of nature or a experiment like from The Fly that went horribly wrong. There is a breed of cat called the Japanese Bobtail that resembles a cat-rabbit hybrid with its short pom pom like tail and its love of jumping.
A brief history of Japanese Bobtail Cats
Japanese Bobtails are a breed of domestic cat known for their unusually short tail as a result of a genetic mutation. Their tail is often curled or very short , bearing a close resemblence to a rabbit’s tail. They also have long back legs which makes them excellent jumpers. Japanese Bobtails are native to Japan and Southeast Asia. No one knows for certain but it is believed they were brought by buddhist monks from Korea or China a thousand years ago to keep rats from eating the paper scrolls in the temples.For a fair chuck of Japan`s history, Bobtails were one of the only breed of cats that were kept. The cats were initially highly prized and only kept by the upper echelons of Japanese society. Those in the imperial court would take their beloved bobtails for walks in their garden using an ellegent silk leash.In 1602, an imperial degree had all cats released outside to help with the rat problem plaguing the silk industry. They went from being pampered by royals to living on the street as unpaid exterminators. Being left to their own devices, their numbers mulitipied which led them to be a common sight and something even a peasant could have as a pet.Beyond being pets, Japanese Bobtails are a fixture in art, folklore, religion, and pop culture in Japanese society. They have captured the hearts of Japanese people since they first appeared and you will soon understand why.
Japanese Bobtails as pets
Japanese Bobtails are very affectionate and make great family pets. They love their humans and want to be in their company at all times. They are very dog like and are one of easiest cats breeds to walk on a leash. They can be easily trained to do a variety of tricks. They are also unusually vocal, able to do almost a whole scale of tones. Because of this,there is a Japanese folk belief that they can sing. (I wish this was true, so me and a couple of Bobtails can go belt out some Queen together at a Karaoke box.) They come in a wide variety of colors but the most iconic and sought after is mostly white tri-colored Bobtails called(三毛, mi-ke, literally ‘triple-hair’) .
Heterochromia or different colored eyes while rare, is more common in Japanese Bobtails than most other breeds of cats. Bobtails are a genetically diverse breed and birth defects and kitten mortality are very low. This is in sharp contrast to Manx cat, who often suffer from health problems especially Manx Syndrome, a disorder that causes damage to a cat`s spine and/or nervous system. This is because Manx cats have a tail repression gene that cause severe deformities while Japanese Bobtails have a completly unrelated shortened tail gene that does not negetively affect their sketal struture or their health in general.
I want to tell you an interesting tale for the origin of the Japanese Bobtail cat`s unusual tail,you could call this a tail tale(so sorry). One day, a cat with a regular tail was resting by the fire but it got too close and set its tail on fire. The cat panicked and ran frantically around the town setting it ablaze. The furious emperor ordered all cats’ tails be cut off to prevent this from happening again. That is certainly one way to a solve a problem.
In the past ,Bobtail cats were seen as auspicious as Japanese people feared long-tail cats. It was thought that long-tailed cats could become monsters called Bakeneko of Nekomata. A Bakeneko has one tail while a Nekomata has two. These creatures can shapeshift and kill humans out of revenge or hunger. The older a cat, the longer it tail would grow and the higher the chance was that it could gain powers.(If only humans become more powerful as we age, we could have a bunch of 80 year olds dunking at the YMCA.) The drinking of lamp oil was also considered a sign a cat was secretly a Bakeneko/Nekomata. The image of a silhouetted cat standing up in the dark to lick lamp oil made it appear monstrous. In reality, they were just getting much-needed protein from the fish-based lamp oil which their table scrap diet lacked. In short, people preferred Bobtail cats because their short tail prevented them from transforming into a monster.As someone who had cats, I don`t find it that hard to believe people thought they could turn into ghoulish creatures. I mean I had two cats that in tandem would attack the side of my head at 6 am every morning so I would wake up and feed them and they had long tails. Coicidence? I think not.
Yokai.com is an excellent website for more information on Bake-Neko and Nekomato that goes beyond the scope of this post. Matthew Meyer is the creator of the website and the author of many books on Yokai that I have really enjoyed and I recommend you check out.
Japanese Bobtails were adored in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) and Ukio-e or woodblock prints of them were often bought. Ukio-e was a form of art that could be massed produced cheaply so those outside the aristocracy could afford them. You can see people’s fascination and amusement with these cats through Ukio-e. In the one below, you can see a women showering her cat with love and attention.
In another one, you can see people getting creative with cats as muses in Ukio-e. It was common to anthropomorphise cats and put them in human situations.
If you read my last post , you are already familiar with Maneki-Neko. For those that have not, Maneki-Neko are cat figurines with a raised paw, a gesture that is used to beckon people in Japan. Outside of Japan, they can often be found in American China-towns. The Maneki-Neko is modeled after a Japanese Bobtail cat. As Bobtails are seen as lucky, the statue is placed in restaurants and businesses to bring customers, wealth, or general success. A common interation of them is a mostly white tricolored calico,believed to be the luckiest of all colors of Bobtails.
The exact origin of the Maneki-Neko is uncertain but there is a popular legend about it. It is said that there was once a monk who lived in a small temple, despite being destitute, he shared what little food he had with his Japanese Bobtail cat. One day, a Samurai was caught in a storm and had to seek shelter under a big tree. The monk`s cat appeared and beckoned him to come to the temple which he did. As soon as he left, lightning-struck tree, obliterating it. Grateful for saving his life, the samurai funded the temple, giving it resources for repairs and expansion(and I assume a truckload of the fanciest fancy feast).
One of the most popular characters in the world and the harbinger of Japanese Kawaii(cute) culture is based on a Japanese Bobtail cat. Hello Kitty is mostly seen from the front but when her tail is shown, you can clearly see her Bobtail ancestry. There is a theory that Hello Kitty`s name is translation of Maneki-Neko in English.
Fun fact: Hello Kitty full name is Kitty White (Kitī Howaito) in Japanese but she is almost always called Kitty-chan. -Chan can be added to the name of babies, children, animals and other cute or childlike things. It can`t be used with people you don‘t know well.