Kaibyo is the general term for supernatural cat yokai. The first character is the kai from yokai, which means strange, or scary, the second character, byo is just another pronunciation for the character of neko, or cat.
So Kaibyo translates to strange cats. Although to be honest, I feel like this just describes most cats!
If you prefer watching videos to reading, you can check out my YouTube video instead — It also has bonus footage of the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo, which is full of cat statues!
Cats in Japan were associated with the supernatural because of their ability to appear and disappear silently like shadows, their nocturnal nature, their strange ability to be both affectionate and yet wild, and for the fact that lamp oil would disappear whenever they were around. Household cats were probably actually eating the lamp oil, since it was made of fish oils… and as we all know, cats are great at stealing food they’re not supposed to eat.
1. Bakeneko: The Shapeshifting Cat Yokai
Bakeneko start off as normal cats, but later develop supernatural abilities. They can gain these abilities as a result of age, after living for around 12 or 13 years, from being unusually large, from eating too much lamp oil, or by having too long a tail. For this reason in ancient japan, cats’ tails were usually cut short, and it is theorized, that a preference for short-tailed cats led to an unintentional breeding, which resulted in many of japan’s cats now having naturally short tails. Once they have gained their supernatural powers, the bakenko grow in size, up to the size of a human adult, they begin to walk on their hind legs, they may learn human language, and they can summon fireballs. Fire also appears on the tips of their tails, which, as you can imagine, leads to them unintentionally lighting houses on fire.
Bakeneko are cat yokai known for their shape changing abilities, being able to take the appearance of ordinary cats, and also humans. This makes sense because the term bake-neko actually means changed cat, with the character of bake from obake, meaning those yokai which can shapeshift or transform.
There are many stories of bakeneko which like to transform into humans, wear towels on their heads and dance the night away. These bakeneko sound more mischievous than wicked. But there are definitely also more morbid tales. Some bakeneko are dangerous, once they gain their powers, they kill and eat their masters, they then take on their masters appearance, replacing their master entirely. Bakeneko also have the ability to create reanimated zombie puppets… yikes!
2. Neko-Musume: The Cat-Girl
Bakeneko also have three sub-types. When a bakeneko transforms into a woman, she is called a neko-musume, or daughter of a cat. This transformed cat basically the precursor to the popular catgirl trope from anime today.
3. Kasha: The Corpse-Eating Cats
The most gruesome type of bakeneko is the kasha. Wreathed in fire, these cats steal sinner’s corpses from graveyards and brings them to hell. Although sometimes they just keep the bodies to eat themselves, or to reanmate as corpse puppets. The name kasha means burning chariot, because in original buddhist texts it was a flaming chariot that would ferry sinners bodies to hell. At some point though, this legend got mixed up with that of the bakeneko, perhaps because some cats, espescially wild ones, tend to scavenge and eat corpses. So now, instead of a cart, we have a corpse stealing cat.
4. The Maneki-neko: The Lucky Cat Yokai
Not all bakeneko are either cruel or indifferent towards humans though. This leads us to our third bakeneko subtype, the maneki-neko. The maneki-neko is so supernaturally lucky that even statues its likeness bring good fortune and financial prosperity (supposedly). You can see maneki neko statues at the entrance of many businesses around tokyo. And in Gotokuji people buy these lucky cat figurines, make a wish or prayer on them, then leave them at the temple, which creates the immense cat statue collection you see today.
The Story of Gotokuji’s Maneki-neko
In the early 1600’s the Kotokuin temple was rundown and running out of money. One day the samurai lord li Naotaka was passing by after a day spent hunting with his falcons. He saw the abbot’s pet cat, Tama beckoning to him from inside the temple gates. So, he decided to follow it inside to take a rest.
He was relaxing indoors, sharing some tea with the abbot, when rain began to pour. Lightning struck a little ways down the road, right where Li Naotaka would have been if he had not decided to stop. Lord Li Naotaka was so pleased the cat had saved him, that he donated a large amount of money to the temple, saving it from ruin.
After the original cat’s passing, out of gratitude, the temple decided to build a large beckoning cat statue. They also renamed the temple from Kotokuin to Gotokuji after Li Naotaka’s posthumous buddhist name.
The Story of Usugumo’s Cat
Another origin story for the maneki-neko statues, and my personal favorite, is the story of the courtesan Usugumo. Usugumo loved cats, especially her tortoiseshell pet cat that she brought with her wherever she went.
However, one fateful day, as Usugumo tried to visit the bathroom, her cat kept twining around her legs. It tripped her up, and clawed at her dress, all while mewling loudly. The owner of Usugumo’s house thought the cat was attacking her. He drew his sword and slashed it, beheading the poor cat. But even in death, Usugumo’s cat was loyal to her. Its head rolled into the bathroom and bit down on the venomous snake that was lurking inside — the snake it had been trying to warn her about.
Usugumo was distraught at her loss, so the owner of the house commissioned a statue of her cat. He ordered it to be carved with the best craftsmanship and made of the finest wood. The statue became so popular that soon everyone wanted one, and hence the maneki-neko statue was born. This is possibly also why most maneki-neko statues have toirtoushell coloring, in honor of Usugumo’s brave pet cat.
There is a cute japanese snack shop you can visit near Gotokuji, where you can get maneki-neko themed sweets. It’s a bit hard to find, so here’s the link to their address!
5. Nekomata: The Twin-Tailed Cat Yokai
On to our final and least friendly yokai kitty: the nekomata
Nekomata means forked cat. They are often confused with bakeneko, but can be distinguished by their double tails. They are born from ordinary, long tailed cats, or long-lived cats (just like the bakeneko). However, while not all bakeneko are malicious towards humans, all Nekomata are.
As they gain their supernatural powers, Nekomata start to grow in size. They walk on their hind legs and use human language. Here is an image of two transformed nekomata. The older, experienced one, is teaching the younger to walk on its hind legs.
Once they gain their powers, some Nekomata run away from their towns to hide deep in the mountains. They become large, human eating monsters (although the origins of these particular legends may actually be animals infected with rabies). There are also tales of these two tailed creatures learning necromancy. They then haunt their once owners with visitations from dead relatives. They can summon fireballs, just like the bakeneko. However, unlike the bakeneko, the nekomata use this ability to intentionally start large fires, killing many people.
But why are they so vicious towards humans?
Perhaps it is out of revenge. One theory says there is a correlation between the power of a Nekomata and the amount of abuse it has suffered. The ukiyo-e below shows a nekomata playing the shamisen (the shamisen is an instrument traditionally made of the skin of cats). The cat is also singing a sad song about the plight of her species. So take this as a warning to treat your pet cats with all the kindness and love they deserve
Cat Yokai Classification
Since all these subsets of supernatural cats can be confusing, here is a flow chart. A lot of the distinctions between all these types of cats can be hazy, as with all folklore. First, we have the term kaibyo, all cat yokai. Then, there are bakeneko and nekomata, not to be confused with one another. As for types of bakeneko, we have neko-musume, kasha and maneki-neko! And that should be all of them. If I missed anything, let me know.
A big thank you this week to Zack Davisson who was willing to answer my questions on cat yokai. He literally wrote the book on Kaibyo, so if you enjoyed this video, be sure to go buy his book for even more supernatural cat stories!
The maneki-neko is one lucky yokai you can keep around to protect yourself from the pandemic, but there are lots of other ones, including the now-famous amabie. If you want to learn more, go check out my article on lucky yokai here!
Zack Davisson’s Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Kaibyo-Supernatural-Japan-Zack-Davisson/dp/1634059166
The Maneki-neko snack shop Tohiken: