Of late I’ve found myself writing a lot about yokai, or Japanese spirits. I have always had an interest in them, and read books pertaining to all types of ghosts and supernatural phenomena.
Years ago when the last local Borders Bookstore went out of business, I stocked up on a hodgepodge of encyclopedia on mythical creatures and universal folklores. Since I spoke of strange things so often, a friend in high school gifted me a book on youkai one year. I tried channeling this passion into the now-defunct YouTube channel I often reference in older posts. It was not doing well, and since I loved the channel so much I didn’t want to also see a series I put my heart into go down.
So it’s been here, in my head and heart for about five years. More ideas are stored here as well, ideas I would like to share on this blog. Eventually, I’d like this WordPress to be more than a blog, more than a website, more than a well-known name. I want it to be a community, a tangible place where people can feel safe. A place where people can discover that there is more substance in anime then they previously believed. People, especially Westerners, have this cognitive tendency to associate animation with childhood. They truly don’t believe animation is just another medium to explore stories, themes, and cultural consensus. In film school, I tried my best to cover animated films or shovel in a bit of discourse on why they matter. It was appreciated, which is one positive thing I can say about my ‘liberal’ compadres and professors.
This series will explore yokai, their history, and prevalence in a series. Japan is a land where spirituality is prized over religion, and Shintoism is viewed more as tradition than a bind. The tradition of visiting temples on the New Year, adding yuzu fruit to baths during the Winter Solstice, Jizo statues and local shrines so old that no one remembers its origin story.
These beliefs are shown in anime, either in the literal sense or the symbolic metaphysical. I am not Japanese, nor will I ever be. I do not attempt to be Japanese, I merely love the richness of the culture and accept the good and the bad. I try to be objective in my writing, and I will try to do so as this series goes on. I am an American at heart and although there will be some things I will never understand, that does not mean that we cannot try – together.
So I bring to you all, a new series to the blog that is near and dear to my heart: The Youkai of Anime series.
This time, we will take a look at Nyanko-sensei from the anime Natsume Yuujinchou, or Natsume’s Book of Friends. I will be rewatching all six seasons of the series and writing about the various yokai (and yurei) in each episode. Naturally, this will take a while. I don’t want to spam any one subject on In Asian Spaces, so it will be updated most likely each Sunday. I will also cover other shows, mixing them in so that one show or one subject is not the central focus.
Think of this as a yokai catalog, detailing folklore spirits in Japanese anime.
Series Name: Natsume Yuujincho [夏目友人帳]
Number of Seasons: Six
Season 1 Original Air Date: July 8th – September 30th 2008
Manga: Yes (ongoing)
Related Media: Hotarubi no Mori E [蛍火の杜へ] or Into the Forest of Fireflies Light
Character Name: Nyanko-sensei
Yokai Name: Maneki-Neko [招き猫]
Association: “The Lucky Cat” “The Beckoning Cat” “The Waving Cat”
Episode of Appearance: Episode 1, Natsume Yuujinchou (S1)
Description: A plump, reservedly “ugly” calico cat with stumpy legs and beady eyes. Red markings on his cheeks that hint at his true ‘majestic’ form.
In episode one of the series, Natsume is being chased by a spirit. He runs into a shrine and passes onto purified sacred grounds. Accidentally knocking over a lucky cat statue, he releases Madara from his long imprisonment. As of season six of the anime, we have yet to find out who sealed Nyanko sensei.
Are you all familiar with the tales of the maneki-neko?
A maneki neko, is usually a calico cat figure holding a koban in one paw with the other outstretched. A koban was a form of Japanese currency in the Edo, or Tokugawa Period (1603-1868). Edo was the former name of what we know today as Tokyo.
There is a lot of debate on whether the mankei neko is Chinese or Japanese in origin, which I cannot fully say. I came across a few articles that speculated the relationship of the figures to sex work and hinted at a changed or hidden meaning. Then again, theories exist on whether or not Spirited Away is about the sex industry, so anything could be interpreted as such. Meaning this is not to deny that it may have existed, this post simply won’t discuss that possibility any further.
During the Edo period, a lord of a surrounding district took shelter under a tree. A cat from afar beckoned him into a nearby temple. Upon leaving, the tree was struck by lightning. Thinking it was a divine act, the lord decided to patron the temple in gratitude.
It is a good time to note that riches historically were tied to how much rice one had. I remember a favorite Japanese teacher explaining a great way to remember the word for rich person. お金持ち（おかねもち）takes the words 金（かね）(o)kane, which is gold and 餠（もち）mochi, for sticky rice. The “o” is used to denote honor or show respect, making it sound less harsh.
Therefore, a person who has a lot of rice becomes a wealthy person in Japanese society. One koku of rice was thought to be the amount needed to feed one person for a year in this society. One koku in terms of currency was thought to hold equivalency to one ryô and in turn, one koban.
Another legend states that a feline beckoned wandering samurai into an adjacent temple. The group dwelled in the haven until the end of a storm. Long after, one samurai continued to frequent the temple and offered patronage. He revealed himself to be feudal lord Naotaka Li, the temple in question Gotokuji in Tokyo, Japan. Li donated crops and rice fields to the struggling monk who dwelled there.
This temple’s lucky cats differ in appearance than the rest in that they have a bib-like collar and bell in place of koban. The site reportedly has a high count of deceased neko buried on the premises.
I have read further legends that combine these two stories to some degree. One even suggests the cat was a Japanese deity in disguise – Bodhisattva Kannon, a goddess of mercy. The common factor seems to be a temple near ruin that is saved by a chance encounter with a wealthy benefactor.
Aside from this information, there doesn’t seem to be much else on the English speaking side of the web. The same archaic books, ukiyo-e, and sculptures are referenced and offered up as evidence but never a true…definitive answer as to how this begun.
When I do travel to Japan next spring, I will be sure to visit the Gotokuji shrine. It seems like a good place to buy maneki neko in Tokyo, given the legends surrounding it. I’ll even write on an Ema board, or wish board to pray to the benevolent spirits.
Despite his initial shady nature, I’d like to think Madara is Natsume’s lucky cat. Throughout the series, he serves as a protector and ‘teacher’ or sensei.
“The association between karma and merit is highly significant for my discussion of the Japanese notion of luck. During my fieldwork I was frequently told that misfortune could be averted by taking appropriate spiritual precautions. One way in which this can be achieved is through establishing a relationship with certain deities.” – Inge Maria Daniels, Anthropologist.
Note: Anthropology has a problematic historic association with eugenics. However, I found this textual quote of interest pertaining to this discussion.
Given the tone of the series, (in my own interpretation) Natsume Takashi is slowly paid back good karma in the form of friendships and as an orphan, his family’s history. Instead of running from or fighting spirits he encounters, Natsume would rather try and speak to them first. With Nyanko-sensei’s instruction, he learns to protect himself and engages youkai only when necessary. Sensei could be interpreted as his special protection deity, particularly considering Madara’s true yokai identity.
Next week we will discuss Madara/Nyanko sensei and his true form.
(It is really majestic!)
If you enjoyed this post, why not check out another ongoing series, such as NEET in Anime. I have a few more shows in mind to draw from, but tell me about any series I should definitely cover! At me on Twitter and use the hashtag #YokaiSpiritSunday!
If this post got you interested in the series, feel free to check out Natsume’s Book of Friends, Vol. 1 and Natsume’s Book of Friends Seasons 1 & 2 Standard Edition by using these links. It supports the series and also helps out the site at no additional cost to yourself!
Are you a fan of Natsume Yuujinchou? Which anime series will you watch during the fall season? Do you think sensei is めっちゃかわいい?