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(Friday Night History) S2E1: The Cat Who Would Be God

A quick note at the top here. The topic of consideration here is a cat that was, sadly, killed-- but our story is about that cat's enshrinement, how the deified cat got the last laugh, and how this interfaces with folk beliefs about supernatural cats.  Please listen accordingly.

Once upon a time in Sendai, there lived at Oimawashi, in the Kawauchi district, a samurai named Kusakari Masanojō. Masanojō had a beloved cat named Seinyo, who like any cat, got up to her share of mischief. Next door to Masanojo's residence was the palatial estate of a senior Date vassal, who evidence suggests was none other than Katakura Kojūrō.

Katakura Kagetsuna, alias Katakura Kojūrō I, founder of the Katakura family of Sendai. (source)

This wasn't just a house, mind you.

Picture, if you will, a walled compound instead, on the land overlooking the Hirose River's west bank in the shadow of Mount Aoba. Within this compound, the Katakura retainers would've kept the necessities of running their master's househould, including chickens. And to a cat like Seinyo, this was a very convenient hunting ground.

Eventually, the Katakura housemen noticed that their chickens were going missing, and one of them must have caught Seinyo in the act, chasing her and striking her with wooden staves. They thought this would deter her, but it only delayed her return. When she hunted and killed yet another chicken, one of the Katakura men barged into the Kusakari house and shot Seinyo while she basked peacefully in the sun.

But deep breath, friends. The story doesn't end here, and I daresay, Seinyo has the last laugh.

Here's the problem, for someone in Masanojō's position. There was a huge gulf in status between the Kusakari and Katakura families in terms of standing in house Date of Sendai. Katakura was a family of means: it had income and status enough that it was indistinguishable from some small-time daimyo families. Kusakari, by contrast, was an umanori, entitled to a horse so certainly not a basic foot soldier, but not a daimyo-like senior vassal like Katakura. In other words, a vast difference in status, meaning that there wasn't anything Masanojō could do, in response to the Katakura housemen shooting Seinyo. Crushed by grief and unable to complain to anyone, Masanojō enshrined his cat in a Nekozuka, a Cat Mound. Today, that cat mound stands at Saishō-in Temple, in Sendai's Wakabayashi ward.

But wait. The story doesn't end here either, because cats aren't ordinary animals in Japanese folklore. And for his violent action against her, Katakura put himself at risk for divine retribution.

Before we talk about that, we have to back up for a second and talk about enshrinement. The enshrinement of a spirit, human or otherwise, is seen as helping to pacify that spirit, especially if it's restless and angry. A particularly A-list, famous case of this is the enshrinement of the court noble Sugawara no Michizane, who died in exile in Kyushu and whose angry spirit was believed to be causing natural disasters and the illness of high government officials in Kyoto. His spirit was pacified by enshrining him as a kami, and thus, he became the kami of literature, worshipped to the present as the deity Tenjin-sama.

With cats in Japanese folklore, you have the added layer of cats being animals that had a connection to the supernatural. Indeed, there is an entire category of beings called kaibyō, specifically supernatural cats of various kinds. The most famous kaibyō is the maneki-neko, the cat with the beckoning hand, but there are other kinds, too, like the shapeshifting two-tailed nekomata. By enshrining Seinyo, Masanojō ensured that his beloved cat's spirit would be appeased, and indeed, become a benevolent force. The monument, which still stands at Saishō-in, had a carved image of Seinyo, with eyes painted gold and a collar painted in red. In bold characters, it is inscribed with the phrase Nekozuka 猫塚։ Cat Mound. This isn't out of sorts at all in greater Sendai and the Tohoku region-- there are, in fact, many monuments to cats as supernatural guardians.

But the trouble was that Katakura remained unpunished.

In the early 1860s, a later visitor to the Cat Mound found that the monks of the temple were reticent to talk in detail about the incident. At least one version of the story has the name of the offending retainer-- i.e. Katakura-- crossed out. The idea was that by omitting mention of his name, they were preventing him from getting targeted by Seinyo's pacified but understandably still irritated spirit at having been harmed. Bear in mind the concept of kotodama, which I've mentioned on this podcast and during livestreams several times before, which argues that words have spirit and power, and to invoke the name of someone or something is to call the attention of the universe to them.

The Katakura family was still very much around and very much prominent in Date politics of the 1860s. This would've been during the headship of Katakura Kagenori, alias Katakura Kojūrō XII, who led the family's forces during the Boshin War. It was at this time that the Katakura castle, Shiroishi, became the headquarters of the Northern Alliance. The carved image of Seinyo had, by that time, lost most of its paint, but the stone stood unmoved. Inasmuch as the monks of Saishō-in were reticent to talk directly about the powerful family whose action was intimately tied to the history of that stone, they did offer some of the earliest confirmation of the story, and it's thanks to them that we have some of these things in writing at all.

Of course, with Sendai domain's defeat during the Boshin War, there wasn't just a dramatic political realignment, but also a realignment of neighborhoods and other urban spaces in Sendai itself. The domain, for the few years it continued to exist, had a significant portion of its territory confiscated by the new imperial government, and therefore, the incomes of all retainers were slashed. This is what led many former Date vassals to go north to take part in the colonization of Hokkaido, which was continuing apace at the time. The old estates that used to encircle the foot of Mount Aoba were either repurposed or demolished outright; some of them became part of the Second Infantry Division headquarters, others were appropriated by the new prefectural government, but many more were demolished, sooner or later.

One of them was, as it turns out, the Katakura estate.

I walked right through the footprint of Katakura's former estate, in 2005. It's now the site of the Sendai City Museum. Saishō-in Temple, though, still stands, as does the monument to one little cat who just wanted to sleep in the sun.

I think Seinyo got the last laugh.

 

Kawaraban (broadsheet) print of a kaibyo. (source)

Sources


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