Why Were Actors Painted As Cats By Ukiyo-e Artists In Japan?

Conny Waters - AncientPages.com - If you enjoy art, you may have stumbled upon older Japanese paintings portraying people as cats. It may look funny and cute, but it's not always a subject of pure humoristic entertainment but rather restrictions and censorship.

Why Were Actors Painted As Cats By Ukiyo-e Artists In Japan?

Painting from 1860 from The Story of Otomi and Yosaburo' by Utagawa Yoshiiku. Credit: Public Domain

If you go to Japan, you can find many places where images of cats suddenly appear. In modern Japan, cat cafes, cat shrines, cat temples, a cat train station master, and a cat island. Cat day is celebrated on February 22. Japan does cat worship better than any country on Earth.

Cats are said to have arrived in Japan about 1,000 years ago.  Cats traveling onboard ships carrying Buddhist scriptures from China to Japan entered not only the country but the heart of the Japanese people.

Cats were considered guardians of Buddhist scriptures, but they were also troublemakers, and their mischievous deeds like stealing food or destroying things have been a subject of many Japanese folktales. Cat's mysterious nature led to the creation of the Bakeneko, or "cat monster," which is a legendary yokai in Japanese mythology.

Stories of the supernatural legends of Bakeneko can be found in many Japanese folktales. The most famous account is the tale of the Nabeshima Bakeneko Disturbance in Saga Prefecture.

Many Japanese artists loved cats which is one of the reasons why cats can be found in paintings, prints, and sculptures.

Why Were Actors Painted As Cats By Ukiyo-e Artists In Japan?

Left: The Scene of Torture by Scolding from the play The Stinky Sleeve from the series Fashionable Cat Frolics. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. - Right: Cats Performing in the Michiyuki Scene in the play Neko yanagi sakari no tsukikage from the series Fashionable Cat Frolics. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Credit: Yatta-Tachi

The great Japanese ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) is famous for his love of cats, and these lovely felines kept him company in his studio.

Ukiyo-e (literally meaning "Pictures of the Floating World") is a Japanese art that emerged during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when Japan focused on culture instead of wars.

Ukiyo-e artists produced paintings and woodblock prints depicting the everyday life and interests of people. The word ukiyo refers to the world of ordinary people, and e means "picture."

Thanks to advances in woodblock printing techniques, Ukiyo-e art became an appreciated art form in Japan's popular culture. Many Ukiyo-e prints and paintings depicted Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and beautiful women, but scenes from history and folk tales, including travel scenes and landscapes, and erotica very also popular.

In the mid-19th century, the faces of Kabuki actors were suddenly replaced with cat faces. The government banned pictures of actors and courtesans, considering them detrimental to public morals.

Artists had to find a way to work around the limitations of censorship, and they successfully produced great paintings and prints giving the actors the look of cats, but enough of their features were left in place. It allowed Kabuki fans to recognize the actor even though he appeared like a cat.

Updated on July 10, 2022

Written by Conny Waters – AncientPages.com Staff Writer

Updated on October 10, 2021

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Expand for references

Harkins, William E. "Japanese Animal Prints" Impressions, no. 15 (1989). Accessed February 11, 2020.

Linda Lombardi - Cats In Japanese Art - Printed, Painted and Sculpted Felines

Cindy Caraturo - Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection