A-Yokai-A-Day: Gotoku neko

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October is almost over, so don’t forget to take a look at all of the fantastic #ayokaiaday contributions across the various social media platforms! Even though it’s only the first year I’ve ever asked people to share their own #ayokaiaday posts, the response has been amazing! It’s fun to see so many people getting into the Halloween spirit with yokai-themed paintings, drawings, and sketches.

Now on to today’s yokai:

Gotoku neko

Gotoku neko
“trivet cat; five virtues cat”

In Japan, just like in the West, cats have a long and deep connection to superstition and the occult. For instance, you must not let a cat anywhere near a corpse. If a cat crosses a corpse, or jumps over one, or even sits on a coffin, the corpse will reanimate and begin to dance. It’s even been said that cats will suck the breath out of fresh corpses in order to gain power. Cats who are allowed to do this develop bizarre abilities, and begin acting more and more human-like. One major warning sign that a cat has turned into a yokai (a bake neko) is when it begins to stand up and dance on two legs. Many bake neko are depicted in paintings and prints standing on their hand legs with their arms outstretched as if dancing. When a bake neko becomes even more powerful, their tail splits in two, after which they are known as a neko mata.

Gotoku neko is a variant of the neko mata. It was invented by Toriyama Sekien and includes a couple of puns, which I will get to later.

Sekien is not explicit on what this yokai does beyond that of a normal neko mata. However as a neko mata it certainly has the ability to do all sorts of wicked deeds. Sekien’s depicts this cat as sitting around the irori (an in-floor hearth found in old Japanese country houses) and stoking the fire by blowing on it with a bamboo pipe.

The name gotoku neko comes from the gotoku, or trivet, that the cat wears on its head upside-down like a hat. A gotoku is an iron ring with three or four legs that is used in an irori or a hibachi to hold a tea kettle or pot and keep it out of the ashes. While it does make an awesome hat, it has its own occult connections: the ritual of the shrine visit at the hour of the ox requires that the participant wear a gotoku upside-down on his or her head, just like this cat is. So even though at first glance the gotoku neko appears to just be a cute cat warming itself by the fire, there’s something a little more sinister going on.

Another bit of wordplay in this yokai’s name is that gotoku also refers to the “five virtues” of Confucianism: benevolence, honesty, knowledge, integrity, and propriety. It’s a bit ironic for a yokai to be connected with the five virtues, but there’s a pun buried in there which Sekien references in his writing. He cites an old story about a nobleman named Shinano no Zenji Yukinaga. One day Yukinaga was set to perform the shichitoku no mai (dance of the seven virtues) before the court. However, he forgot two of the dances! As a result, he jokingly became known around the court for his dance of five virtues (gotoku). Since neko mata are also known for dancing around, the joke takes us back to yokai cats. It’s a bit vague, but that’s the silly and mysterious style of Sekien’s writing!

One last note is that folk belief also associates cats with house fires. There are many variations, but one example is that it was believed if you let a cat sleep near a fire, your house would burn down. The sparks from the fire would ignite the cat’s tail on fire, then the burning cat would run around in a panic, igniting everything it touched. And as you can see, there are flames on gotoku neko’s twin tails!

It is explicitly stated, but I think that the gotoku neko is far less virtuous than its name implies…


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!

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