Nyan is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound that a cat makes. As a result, Nyan Nyan Ji can be translated to mean something along the lines of Meow Meow Shrine, which is a very appropriate choice of name for the institution. In short, Kyoto is one of the cultural capitals of Japan. This is unsurprising because the city served as the home of the Japanese imperial court from 794 to 1869, which had a huge impact on its development. Nowadays, Kyoto boasts numerous temples, shrines, and other sites of cultural interest, thus making one of the most popular Japanese cities for both Japanese and non-Japanese tourists. Nyan Nyan Ji isn’t one of the sites that can boast of centuries and centuries of existence, but for cat lovers, it possesses a special appeal that makes it more than capable of matching them.
This is because Nyan Nyan Ji is a fully-functional Japanese shrine staffed by a cat priest named Koyuki as well as several other cats who serve as her assistants. Interested individuals have the chance to pray at Nyan Nyan Ji. After which, they can spend some time playing with Koyuki and the rest of the shrine’s staff members. The whole thing started up because of a Japanese artist named Toru Kaya, who is famous for painting shrines and temples. As such, it was perhaps natural that he would combine his interests by building a shrine in honor of his favorite cat, thus resulting in the cat-themed institution that exists in the present time.
What Is the Japanese Attitude Towards Cats Anyways?
Given the existence of Nyan Nyan Ji, some people might be curious about the Japanese attitude towards cats as well as other pet animals. Unfortunately, there is no simple and straightforward answer for this particular question because it is such a broad topic. For starters, the pre-modern Japanese were similar to a lot of pre-modern peoples in that they treated what we would consider to be pet animals in a much more utilitarian light. Essentially, the primary purpose of cats and dogs wasn’t companionship but rather the labor and other forms of utility that they could provide. For instance, cats are very good at catching rodents and other small pests, thus making them an excellent protector of our stored food, which is speculated to have been the cause of their domestication in the first place.
Regardless, there were some cases of pre-modern Japanese people treating their cats and dogs in a manner more similar to that of modern pet owners, as shown by how they went through the extra effort of memorializing their beloved companions. However, these people were very much the exception rather than the rule, particularly since they seem to have been limited to the elite classes that presumably had the means to keep cats and dogs for companionship rather than more utilitarian purposes. In contrast, most cats and dogs were apparently owned on a communal basis by commoner communities rather than commoner families. Due to this, when cats and dogs passed away, entire communities were responsible for the rituals needed to placate their spirits, thus securing their protection while preventing their wrath.
Such rituals were necessary because of the belief that cats and dogs possessed the supernatural power to either help or hinder humans under certain circumstances. For instance, chances are good that interested individuals have seen the famous beckoning cat, which tends to be a statue of a calico Japanese Bobtail with an uprised paw situated either in the entrance or somewhere close to the entrance of Japanese as well as other East Asian shops, restaurants, and other businesses. The beckoning cat is a reference to Japanese stories about poor individuals who are rewarded for their kindness to a starving cat. Sometimes, the cat beckons either them or someone important over, thus preventing them from being struck by lightning. Other times, the cat repays their kindness by sitting in front of their business for the purpose of beckoning visitors. Whatever the case, the beckoning cat is an excellent example of the belief in a cat’s supernatural capabilities.
As for the reverse, it is worth noting that the pre-modern Japanese believed in more than one kind of cat youkai, meaning cats that have somehow managed to transform into supernatural monsters. In some stories, it was said that cats would become cat youkai by living long enough. However, there are also other stories in which cats turned into cat youkai because of mistreatment by humans. The older the cat and the worse the mistreatment, the more powerful the resulting cat youkai.
Having said that, Japan is like a lot of other developed countries in that there has been a huge change in how people see cats and dogs in relatively recent times. Currently, there are millions and millions of cats and dogs in Japan, with cats beating out dogs at around 9.6 million cats to 8.9 million dogs in 2018. Furthermore, it is important to note that these tend to be pet animals rather than animals kept for more utilitarian purposes, which is a huge change in the relationship between Japanese pets and Japanese pet owners. Something that was repeated and continues to be repeated throughout the developed world in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In particular, there are now more Japanese people who see pet animals as full-fledged members of the family than ever before, which in turn, has raised a wide range of interesting pet-related questions. For example, there are now Japanese pet owners who wonder whether their pets can reincarnate as humans or not, which is important because that means that their pets have the potential to be liberated from the cycle of samsara. Something that is very much an echo of western pet owners wondering whether their pets can make it into Heaven or not. On the whole, Japanese pets still occupy a somewhat liminal status for a lot of Japanese people but the treatment that some Japanese pets receive makes it clear that some Japanese pet owners already consider them to be as important as humans, which is very similar to how pets are perceived in other developed countries.