Zack Davisson is the author of Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan. His other books include Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Weird Tales Magazine and Japanzine, and he also works as a translator. He lives in Seattle.
Q: What role have cats played through Japanese history, and what accounts for the focus on supernatural cats?
A: Cats have risen and fallen in their status through all Japanese history. They arrived in Japan during the Heian period as living treasures, precious palace pets that were traded between emperors to curry favors. Cats were given court rank and servants catered to their feline whims. One emperor famously even had the court tailor sew costumes for all his previous kitties.
But then as centuries passed they spread across the island until they were no longer rare. They became common mousers, protecting households and silkworm crops. In 1602 an edict from the government evicted all cats, forcing them outside in an attempt to control a rat infestation across the nation. In modern Japan they are somewhere in between—mostly strays, but still beloved.
As for the supernatural, well … that is just me! I like the weird and wonderful. I am far more interested in magic cats instead of regular cats, although in their own ways all cats are magical.
Q: You note that cats in folklore have been seen as shape-shifters. Why is that, and which stories do you find especially intriguing?
A: Henge—transformed animals—are a common part of Japanese folklore. According to Japanese myth, almost all animals can transform once they live sufficiently long. Japanese stories are full of transformed foxes, tanukis, snakes, and pretty much anything else. Cats, already having an air of mystery about them, easily fall into this bestiary of magical creatures.
There are sooo many stories of magic cats. I tend to the like the odd ones the best, the ones that don’t make sense, like the Gotoku Neko that blows up cooling fires at night to stay warm. And wears a trivet on its head, for whatever reason.
Q: The book includes some incredible artwork involving legendary supernatural cats. How were the images chosen?
A: My book designer Carla Girard chose most of the images. She did an amazing job finding sources for so many cool cat pics, many of which I have never seen before. They are beautiful. Although the images I am most happy with are the included pictures from artistic genius Shigeru Mizuki. Mizuki’s family gave us special permission to include them, and they are appearing in an English language book for the first time.
Q: One cat you look at is the Maneki Neko, which is popular all over the world. How did this cat become so well-known?
A: I would guess the proliferation of Asian restaurants in the West. Maneki Neko are often used at business as a good luck charm to “invite” customers in. As hundreds of thousands of Asian restaurants spread across the world, they brought the Maneki Neko with them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on the next book on Japanese magical creatures, on a dog-like animal called a tanuki. They are also a shapeshifter, with magical powers similar to cats, but with some highly unique … peculiarities. It should be fun!!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My previous book was on Japanese ghosts, so if you like spooky Japan you should check that one out as well! I hope to keep going until I have covered as many monsters as I can!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb