The first time I came to Japan, not only did I leave my friends and family behind, I also left my three cats: Jakob, Saru, and Atticus. They were left in the capable hands of my brother-in-law and his family and there they remain (excepting Atticus, the orange tabby who decided that the neighbour’s dog was a better companion than his feline brothers). I truly missed my cats and because of this took up the rather old lady tendency of talking to strange cats at every given opportunity. Luckily for me, Japan is teeming with noraneko (stray cats) so not a day goes by without a quick chat with a cat (they are very patient with my broken Japanese). By now I have resigned myself to being a passing admirer of cats, occasionally (well, often) taking pictures of them to satisfy that longing to once again be a cat owner. This longing is tempered by the fact that Japanese strays are, for the most part, lacking something that I like in a cat: tails. Most of them have a stub-tail. It is classified as a bobtail but a bobtail is a neat business, round and short to the point of imperceptibility. Japanese stub-tailed cats usually have this crooked, lobbed-off looking appendage that can range from a finger’s length to a foot. It is awkward and moves in a twitchy and decidedly uncat-like way. I have asked people why the tail is so malformed and the answers were wide-ranging and vague. A lot of people thought it was because they got into fights or hit by cars and then passed that injury to their offspring. Others told me that Japanese people prefer a short tail because it is cute so they will cut or tie a kitten’s tail so that they can get that kawaii look. None of these answers were very satisfying so I decided to look it up myself.
I discovered two answers: one is scientific while the other is folkloric. They actually intertwine but I think the folkloric one influenced the scientific one so we’ll start with that one. Well, one of two.
The first explanation goes like this: once upon a time there was a cat with a nice long tail who was cold and decided to warm himself by the fire. Being so cold made the cat a little hasty and he got so close to the fire that he forgot to mind his lovely long tail. Once he realized that his tail was on fire, he panicked and raced away from the fire, running throughout the streets of town with his flaming tail. The town was set ablaze and the emperor declared that to avoid future catastrophes, all cats would lose their tails. Fires are, after all, a big problem in a country where neighbourhoods are dense with wooden buildings.
That is a nice, straightforward fable that Aesop would have appreciated. The tale I prefer though involves the bakeneko, literally the changeable cat. The bakeneko is a yokai that can shape-shift into human form, or close enough to human form to deceive true humans. The origin of this idea seems to come from the time period when Japanese people were strict vegetarians but used fish oil as a fuel for their lamps. Because cats need protein, they would stand upon their hind legs to lick the fish oil and thus cast a huge shadow of a bipedal cat upon the wall. There were plenty of shape shifters in Japan already, between the fox and the racoon dog and the forest goblin (among others), so the idea was not hard to accept. What was hard was the fact that they had already accepted these purring imported beasts into their homes and hearts. Unlike the other shape shifters who kept mostly to the forest, bakeneko were living within their walls, eating their leftover scraps and listening to their secrets. Not all cats were bakeneko, of course, but since it was hard to determine which was pet and which was foe, people became very suspicious of all cats (a suspicion that has lasted to the present).
Within the great lore of bakeneko, there is a story from the Edo Period that claims that cats were bewitching people with their long, snakelike tails. Rather than face the risk of being bewitched by a furry member of their household, people began severing the tails of their kittens.
This, of course, loops us back around to the scientific answer. Since people preferred stub-tailed cats, these cats were bred and well-cared for and thus flourished within the laws of natural selection. The recessive gene became widespread amongst the feline population to the point that it is estimated that about forty percent of noraneko in Japan are so-called bob-tailed cats. In my region the percentage is higher, around seventy percent. Therefore I have about a thirty percent chance of finding a kitten with a nice bewitching tail to call my own. With such odds, I suppose will have to be content being that crazy foreign lady, stopping to talk to the noraneko all over town and occasionally (or rather frequently) taking too many pictures of my stub-tailed friends.