NEKO, THE CAT IN JAPANESE ART at the Japan Museum SieboldHuis in Leiden

MUSEUM CLOSED UNTIL 31st MARCH. Then check for updates.

Learn your first Japanese word and a lot more about cats in the exhibition: Neko, the Cat in Japanese Art.

Usually, this is a quiet museum – but not now. Its exhibition on Japanese cats is not just attracting lovers of Japanese art, or lovers of cats – of all ages. While visiting, I overheard several other visitors state they did not fancy cats much, but … Meanwhile, kids were zooming around, busy finding a treasure and solving tasks.

Of course, nowadays, everybody is familiar with ‘Hello Kitty’, or watches ‘Maru the Cat’ on YouTube. So what a surprise to learn, that Japanese cats were exotic imports. Apparently, the first cats to appear in the country during the 7th century.

These cats were descendants of Asian breeds, which – one learns in this exhibition – differ from our ordinary European Felix. One explorer noted centuries ago, according to a quote on a wall that cats are loved as much in Japan as in his Western country, but Japanese cats are no great mice-catchers.

Regardless: it did not take long for the descendants of the exotic globe-trotters to capture the hearts of members of the upper-classes. The first prints show cats playing important roles in scenes from the Tale of Genji, or the Pillow Book. Anybody familiar with cats could have told the Lady from the Tale of Genji, it is not exactly wise to try keep a cat on a leash … Small wonder things did not end well.

But the exhibition is not just full of woodblock prints, scrolls, or drawings of playful or mischievous cats. There is also modern art on display, like a selection of photos from the NEKO Project. It ran around 2018 and invited Japanese artists to photograph cats. A jury selected the best, resulting in a book. This project was started by Sophie Cavaliero and dedicated to her cat-loving son who died in 2018.

And who would have known ‘Hello Kitty’ is well over 40 years old! Or what to think of the malevolent cats, sporting two tails? They seem to be like our werewolves, witches, and worse!

The story of the famous lucky cat is of course included too, with large and small examples on display. But I liked the amusing filmed experiment involving three cats and cucumbers at the end of this exhibition better!

“Neko, the Cat in Japanese Art” certainly lives up to the museum’s promise that its “… traditional and contemporary Japanese prints, rare drawings, artifacts, spectacular scrolls and modern-day photographs, … ” is an exhibition for all ages to enjoy.   Kate 4th March 2020


This exhibition continues at Leiden’s Japan Museum SieboldHuis until 5th July


Image: Japan Museum SieboldHuis – exhibition poster.