the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: monster cat, ghost cat
Habitat: towns and cities
Diet: carnivorous; fish, birds, small animals, and occasionally humans

Appearance: Cats, feral and domestic, are all over Japan. They are in houses as pets, on farms as exterminators, or in cities and towns as strays. Like many of Japan’s animals, when cats live to an old age they develop supernatural powers and transform into yōkai. Bakeneko begin their supernatural life looking almost identical to an ordinary housecat. Soon they begin to walk about at on their hind legs. As they age and their powers increase, they can grow large indeed—up to the size of a full-grown human.

Behavior: Bakeneko possess great shape-shifting abilities and disguise themselves as smaller cats or humans—sometimes even taking the shape of their own masters. Many learn to speak human languages. While in disguise, they are known to dress up as humans with towels wrapped around their heads. In this form bakeneko dance around merrily. While this sounds frivolous and even cute, bakeneko are a menace to any house they live in or near. They can eat things that are much bigger than they are, and can even consume poisonous things without difficulty. It is possible for a bakeneko to eat its own master and then assume his form, living in his place. If they do not directly kill their owners, they can bring down great curses and misfortune. They can summon ghostly fireballs and are known to accidentally start house fires, their tails acting like torches igniting any flammable materials in the house. Bakeneko also have the disturbing ability to reanimate fresh corpses and use them like puppets for their own nefarious purposes.

Origin: Bakeneko can come into being as a result of a number of things, but the most common reasons are by being long-lived (over 13 years old), growing to a certain size (over 3.75 kilograms), or by licking up large quantities of lamp oil. A telltale sign that a cat may be close to becoming a bakeneko is believed to be an exceptionally long tail. The older and wiser a cat gets, the longer its tail becomes. This superstition led to the custom of bobbing cats’ tails at an early age to prevent them from transforming into yōkai.

Alphabetical list of yōkai