Samurai Cats of the Shimadzu Clan
The fascinating history of felines and the Shimadzu clan
Sengan-en is home to perhaps the only cat shrine in Japan. Cat lovers from all over the country and abroad gather here to pray for the health and longevity of their four-legged friends.
Each year on the 22nd of February a special Shinto ceremony is held to honour the enshrined cats and pray for their protection. This date was chosen as 2/22 can also be read “nyan nyan-nyan” – meow in Japanese.
Let’s delve into the history books a little and find out exactly why this unusual shrine exists at Sengan-en, what our feline friends have in common with an ancient samurai clan, and some of the unusual roles they played.
Samurai Warrior Cats
The Shimadzu clan are well known for being one of Japan’s most ferocious warrior clans. Rather surprisingly they were also cat lovers and even went into battle in the company of their feline friends. The warriors of the Shimadzu clan believed that by looking into the cat’s eyes they could tell the time of day from how diluted the pupils were. When the 17th head of the Shimadzu clan, Yoshihiro was ordered by regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi to send an expeditionary army to Korea he took seven cats along to tell the time. Most of the cats didn’t survive, but two made it back to Kagoshima and were eventually enshrined on the grounds of the Nanrin-ji temple in Kagoshima City. The shrine was later moved to the northern side of Kagoshima Castle, and then later to Sengan-en.
While in Korea, Yoshihiro’s son Hisayasu had a brown and white cat that he loved so much he named it “Yasu”, using a kanji character from his own name. Hisayasu unfortunately died during the Korean campaign, but his cat made it back to Kagoshima. The cats who went to Korea with the Shimadzu clan are also enshrined in Inari Shrine in Kirishima, along with the warriors they supported.
The Shimadzu clan were deeply involved in foreign trade and as a result cats from overseas also made their way to Kagoshima. These cats were then given as gifts to dignitaries and powerful lords from other domains.
One particularly powerful recipient of a rare breed of cat from the Shimadzu family was Konoe Sakihisa, a court noble and chief advisor to the Emperor. Sakihisa came to be on good terms with the Shimadzu clan after visiting Kagoshima and following the Battle of Sekigahara requested cats to be sent to his residence in Kyoto. Shimadzu Yoshihisa sent six cats to Sakihisa, but it seems that this wasn’t enough. In a letter to Yoshihisa’s younger brother Yoshihiro, Sakihisa complains that his cats were taken by his wife and daughters, and he wanted more cats to take care of on his own.
Snake Hunting Island Cats
Cats weren’t of course only enjoyed by the lords of the Shimadzu clan. The island of Amami Oshima lies far south of the Kagoshima mainland, bordering on Okinawa. Local records by the islanders show how cats were cared for on the island. Called “maya” in local dialect, the records show that tabby and grey cats were common but other varieties didn’t live on the islands.
The island cats were treasured pets, cared for very well by the local people. One major reason for this was the presence of highly venomous snakes called “habu” that inhabit the island. Habu are known to slither into houses in search of mice and their bites can be fatal to humans. Houses with a cat had fewer mice and were therefore protected from the poisonous snakes.
The record also notes that dogs were kept outside and not fed, while cats were looked after indoors, showing the massive difference in status between the two!
Cats of Leisure
Atsuhime was a princess of the Shimadzu clan who married the Tokugawa Shogun in the late 19th century. Apparently, she secretly kept cats as pets out of the view of her husband and Shogun, Tokugawa Iesada. Her first cat was called Princess Michi, and she later also had one named Princess Sato.
The cats ate with Atsuhime with their food served on decorated trays in Seto ware bowls. They slept either with the princess on her futon, or on a specially prepared cushion made for the cats. Three servants were employed full time to take care of the cats, and each had a collar made of red silk with a bell attached which were replaced every month.
If the cats had kittens they would be handed out as gifts to the Shogun’s concubines. Being a cat in the Shogun’s household must have been a pretty comfortable life, and Princess Sato seems to have lived in the lap of luxury until the ripe old age of 16.
From timepieces for samurai warriors to diplomatic aides, protectors of island folk, and elite members of the Shogun’s household, cats have long held a place in the hearts of the warriors and nobility of Japan.
Next time you make a trip to Japan, make sure to stop by Kagoshima and Sengan-en to pray at the Cat Shrine and imbue a little of the samurai spirit in your own faithful moggy waiting patiently at home.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.