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Hello Kitty’s Ancestors? The Zany Cats Of Japan’s Edo Period

Cats wear kimonos, jump rope, battle dragons, and walk on leashes in 19th-century Japanese artworks.

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The world was obsessed with pictures of kitties long before LOLCats took over the Internet. That human-feline love transcends time and culture is clear in an upcoming exhibit at the Japan Society, Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-E Collection, which showcases the glorious cat-themed art of Japan’s Edo period (1615 to 1867).

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Cats first arrived in Japan aboard ships transporting sacred Buddhist scriptures from China in the mid-sixth century–they were brought along to protect the scriptures from mice–and the country’s artists have paid homage to them ever since.

Utagawa Kunisada II (1823–1880), Kashiwagi from the series The False Murasaki’s Rustic Genji, 1848–54.
Color woodblock print; 22 3/8 x 36 7/8 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.

In these woodblock prints, paintings, and sculptures, cats stroll around on leashes with fancy ladies in palaces, or pretend to be people themselves, dressing up in kimonos, jumping rope, and playing with hula hoops. Some scenes seem to predict Japan’s modern tradition of monster-animal movies (Mothra, Godzilla): giant evil cats snarl at tiny humans or fight dragons. (Weirder things happened in Edo Period art–see the He-Gassen scroll, which translates to “Fart Battle.”) The feline utopias depicted here set the stage for Hello Kitty’s arrival in Japan a few centuries later.

Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-E Collection is on view at the Japan Society from March 13 to June 7, 2015.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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