the online database of Japanese folklore

Okesa neko


Translation: Okesa the cat

Appearance: Okesa neko, or just Okesa, is a famous bakeneko (yōkai cat) from Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture. She transformed herself into a human girl and sold herself off as a geisha in order to repay the kindness her former owner showed her.

Origin: Okesa gave her name to a genre of Japanese folk music popular among the sailors and villagers of Sado Island: okesa bushi. According to folklore, this style of music was unheard of in Edo until Okesa began to perform it. It became so popular that the style was named after her.

Legends: Long ago, there was an old woman who lived alone by the shore on Sado Island. She loved cats, and since she was young she had always kept a dozen or so cats. As she grew older, her savings grew smaller and smaller, until there came a day when she struggled to even buy food. As a result, her cats one by one left the house. Eventually all that remained was an old, beloved calico cat.

The old woman loved this cat so much that even when she could not find enough food to feed herself, she made sure the cat never went hungry. However, eventually a day came where she could no longer feed either herself or the cat. She said to the cat, “Look how poor I’ve become. I can’t even feed you anymore. Even so, please don’t leave me. You’re the dearest thing to me in the whole world.”

But the next day, the cat was gone.

The old woman despaired. Every human had abandoned her to her poverty, and now even her last cat had left her. The old woman cried alone in her empty house.

All of a sudden, the door opened and a beautiful girl entered. She introduced herself to the old woman: “I am the calico cat whom you cared for and loved for so many years. Please let me repay your kindness.” The girl looked entirely human, with no trace of cat about her. The old woman could hardly believe her eyes.

“What do you plan on doing looking like that?” the old woman asked. “And besides, you don’t owe me anything.”

“You gave up everything for me. I cannot let you suffer like this. I heard that a man from Edo is in town scouting for girls to become geisha. Please introduce me to him.” The girl displayed such earnestness that the old woman could not refuse. She arranged a meeting with the man from Edo.

When the man from Edo came to the house, he was enchanted. “Such a beautiful girl could surely become a leading geisha in Edo!” he proclaimed. He offered the old woman a large sum of money—enough to live comfortable for the rest of her life—and he took the girl with him back to Edo.

Several months later, a bewitching new geisha debuted Fukagawa. She took the name Okesa, and rumors spread across Edo of her charm and beauty. She was said to be like a painting of a famous artist come to life. She sang songs that nobody had ever heard before. People flocked from all around to see and hear this mysterious geisha. Her restaurant was packed every night with customers there to see the legendary Okesa with their own eyes.

One night, a sea captain and his crew visited the restaurant and asked for Okesa to perform for them. They were willing to pay any amount, and so they threw a wild, lavish party. Okesa sang, and danced, and played the shamisen for the sailors, who sang and danced along. They ate and drank all afternoon and evening. The party did not end until every last one of them was splayed out across the floor, dead drunk. Only the captain managed to crawl into the bedroom before passing out.

The captain woke up in the middle of the night. There was a strange crunching noise coming from the next room. He opened the sliding doors  a crack and peered inside. A gigantic cat was chewing on the heads of the fish left over from the party. The cat was dressed as geisha, and its kimono was the same as Okesa’s.

The cat glared at the captain and said, “Tell nobody what you have seen. If you do, I will get you for it!” Terrified, the captain nodded his head, closed the door, and hid under his covers.

The next morning, the sailors left the restaurant and returned to their boat. It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear and the water smooth—perfect weather for sailing. As they headed out to sea, the sailors reminisced about the incredible party they had the previous night. They all agreed that they had never seen such a beauty as Okesa, or heard such unusual songs as the ones she sang.

Then the captain, still shaken from what he saw, spoke up. “That geisha… None of you saw her true form…”

“What do you mean?” asked the crew.

“Her true form. That geisha was a bakeneko!” And the captain revealed to his crew the terrible fright he had the previous night.

The sailors burst out in laughter. But suddenly, the clear sky grew dark and storm clouds quickly rolled in, and the sailors stopped laughing. “Storm! Storm!” they cried, and ran to their posts. A black cloud rolled over the boat, and a gigantic cat appeared in the cloud. The cat grabbed the captain and pulled him, screaming, up into the sky.

The boat shook and tossed about in the rough seas like a leaf on the wind. The crew held on for dear life and screamed, “Please spare us! We swear to never tell anyone what we just saw!”

And then just as quickly as it arrived, the storm cleared. The seas were peaceful once again. The crew was saved. The captain, however, was never seen again.

Alphabetical list of yōkai