Cat Witches of Japan

In Japanese folklore there are many tales about cat witches that are connected to yokai known as kaibyo, or supernatural cats. These are not witches in the western sense of the term, but rather evil supernatural spirits that take the form of a cat. They may have been linked to the yokai known as yama uba, or mountain witch, and are also often referred to as tales of the cat stone.

'The Cat Witch of Okabe, with actors' - Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1850.

The Cat Witch of Okabe

One famous tale is known as the Cat Witch of Okabe. It was said that an evil bakeneko haunted the temple grounds in the town of Okabe. She disguised herself as a kind old woman with the aim of luring young girls to her lair to kill and eat them. Because she was so terribly evil, her corpse turned into stone when she died. This tale was likely inspired by a stone in the shape of a cat, however as the location of this story is lost, so too is the stone.

'Okabe: The Story of the Cat Stone' from the Tokaido Road series' - Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1846.

The Cat Witch of Okazaki

In the tale of The Cat Witch of Okazaki, three travellers stopped at a temple on their way home from a pilgrimage. They found a kind old lady called Osan living there who invited them to spend the night. While there, they witnessed something very strange, as two cats began dancing around on their hind legs. Osan saw their surprise, but quickly assured them it was a normal occurrence. Later that night one of the travellers was alone with the old lady and noticed that her shadow on the far wall was actually in the shape of a cat. Too late she realised that Osan was actually an evil bakeneko. A second traveller also died from wounds inflicted by a giant cat. The last man alive finally understood what was happening and fortunately was able to overpower the evil cat spirit and kill her with his sword. 

'Scene from The Okazaki Cat Demon' - Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1847.
 
There were many plays featuring cat witches, or evil bakenekos. Often these were spirits who returned and took the form of a cat in order to avenge their enemies. Much of the ukiyo-e artwork depicting this type of yokai actually show actors in scenes from plays.
 
'Cat Witch of Okazaki' - Utagawa Kunisada, ca. 1825. 

Mizuki Shigeru
 
'Actor as Cat Spirit of the Old Temple' from the Tokaido Series - Kagematsu, 1841.
 
The Cat Witch Ama Myochin - Utagawa Kunisada, 1852.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (detail)

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