Japanese Bobtail Cats

by Michael

Japanese Bobtail cat

Photo by elisson1

The conventional view states that Japanese Bobtail cats have a very long history. Perhaps a thousand year history. And by that I mean this type of cat has been a domestic cat in Japan for a thousand years. But is it true? Well there are two pieces of evidence that says that is might not be.

A Picture

There is a fairly well known painting  (shown below) by a Japanese artist from the Northern Sung Dynasty: Yi Yuanji’s (ca. 1000 – ca. 1064) – his  painting is “Monkey and cats” (猴猫图).

japanese bobtail cat in old painting

Japanese bobtail cat from 1000 years ago

The painting is about 1000 years old. It is very finely painted. The artists of the Northern Sung (960-1126) sought naturalism and realism so we can take it that these kittens looked like this. The monkey on the right has caught a kitten (perhaps a sibling of the one on the left who looks apprehensive and aggressive). The monkey is chained up. Perhaps this was a courtyard scene and the semi-feral kittens walked past the monkey and he caught one.

For me this painting is interesting because of the appearance of the kittens. They appear to be grey tabby and white. The tail is short but not a pom pom tail that is the hallmark of Japanese Bobtail cats. Also, what appears to be missing is the bicolor or tricolor (calico) markings. But the potential for the classic markings and bobtail are there.  Also the compact and spare body of Japanese Bobtail cats also seems to be in evidence. But the bottom line assessment is that this cat is not a Japanese Bobtail cat by today’s standards.


The Science

There is some very interesting science about the genetics of modern purebred cats and their relationship to their geographic origins in this report: The Ascent of Cat Breeds: Genetic Evaluations of Breeds and Worldwide Random Bred Populations.

It is quite a heavy document to read so I’ll just focus on the Japanese Bobtail cats bit.  The relevant conclusions are as follows:

  • there is genetic clustering in the Mediterranean basin (the likely place where the wild cat was domesticated), Europe/America, Asia and Africa (four areas).
  • the Asian cats separated  and developed in relative isolation
  • most breeds were found to have originated from the regions were they are meant to have come from except the Persian and, yes, Japanese Bobtail cats.
  • the Japanese Bobtail was more in line with the genetic cluster of Europe/America.
  • this cat breed has a good level of genetic diversity approaching the Siberian, which has a genetic diversity similar to the Moggie (mixed breed cat).

Does this mean that the Japanese Bobtail is not Japanese at all? Or does it mean that this breed has been developed so conclusively in America and Europe over ….years that the original genetic make up of the cat has been obliterated?

Maybe I have missed something but it seems that the Japanese Bobtail is no longer or was never a Japanese cat. Explain that one. Of course this supports the painting above.

It would have been nice but fanciful to have seen the artist Yi Yuanji paint a cat similar to the modern Jap. Bob. and to have read that modern Japanese Bobtail cats have a genetic make up (genotype) that is directly related to the Asian cluster. But no. It is much muddier than that. The only clear domestic cat breed history is that of the created breeds, the hybrids.

Current Japanese Stray Cats (2009)

Incidentally, if you wander around Japan today you will see your typical feral/stray cat that has absolutely no resemblance to the famous Jap. Bob. Please see some fine stray cat pictures by MAR taken in Japan. However, the heading photo was taken in Japan and the looks like a non-refined (perhaps non-purebred)but highly genuine Japanese Bobtail.

Some History – conventional view

People have speculated that the domestic cat came to Japan around AD 540. Imaizumi Tadaaki, writing for web-japan.org, says that the domestic cat was introduced into Japan from China at the same time as Buddhism. Cats were imported to protect the Buddhists’ texts from mice and rodents.

The first written evidence of the presence of the Japanese domestic cat in Japan is in the diary of Emperor Uda (867-931). Further written evidence of the presence of the Japanese domestic cat can be found in ancient records concerning Emperor Ichijo (980-1011). The name of the cat in these records was Myobu no Otodo (Chief Lady-in-Waiting of the Inner Palace”)

Further evidence is in a drawing of a cat by Toba no Sojo (1053-1140).  The drawing is of three cats with normal length tails. In the 18th century due to a genetic mutation, cats with short tails become more common. It seems that the short tailed cat became synonymous with Japan over the intervening 200 years. An area, in Japan, where they seem to have been more common was Naniwa (Osaka).

Imaizumi Tadaaki calls the Japanese Bobtail “genetically inferior”. It depends on the criteria. On the basis of the research paper above this is incorrect if health is the prime concern.

From Japanese Bobtail Cats to Japanese Bobtail

The painting illustrated is in the public domain due to lapse of time and is a Wikimedia Commons file uploaded by Vmenkov.

Heading Photo by elisson1

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