Saturday, March 29, 2008

Japanese Cat Names

It is generally believed that the domestic cat arrived in Japan around 600 A.D. Interestingly enough, this is the same period of time when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Like most ancient cultures, the Japanese valued cats primarily for their rodent catching abilities. In fact, it was customary that each Buddhist temple should care for no less than two cats in order to insure that sacrosanct documents would not be eaten by mice. It didn't take long for the cat to become a familiar and welcome creature in all aspects of Japanese society, from the royal court of the divine Emperor to the humblest of merchants. There's an interesting account of the Imperial cats, recorded by some unknown scribe who obviously saw a wonderfully important event in a rather commonplace occurrence: "On this date in the year 999, during the reign of our beloved Emperor Ichijo, five pure white kittens were born here in the Imperial Palace, much to the delight of his divine grace, the Emperor." With their sophisticated taste in simple artistic form, the Japanese saw the cat as a being of rare beauty, a creature to be honored and respected. However, not all Japanese respect the cat. In fact to some, cats were considered bad omens, untrustworthy and nefarious consorts to ghosts and demons. But for the most part, cats were loved and honored as positive entities. To this day cats are revered in Japan. Part of this has to do with the influence of Buddhism which respects all living things. In Tokyo there is a unique shrine dedicated to cats and cats alone. All over Japan there exist pet cemeteries where extravagant ceremonies are conducted for the soul of the cat. Cats are portrayed in art and poetry and even plays. Clearly the Japanese cherish their cats a great deal. In the list that follows, I've tried to select only the most pronounceable god names, most of which are from the original religion of Japan called "Shinto". This, as you will see, isn't exactly an easy thing to do. Still, I'm confident you might find an appropriate name, and as in all these pantheons, I'm sure you'll recognize traits that are shared by god and cat alike.
AMATERASU (ah-mah-tehr-AH-soo; Female): She's the big one; one of the most important deities in all Japanese/Shinto mythology. Amaterasu was the goddess of the rising sun. Her symbol can still be seen to this day on the Japanese flag. It was said that she decorated herself with the world's finest gems, which is fitting for a deity as important as a sun goddess. For a sunshine loving cat, this name fits perfectly. But the name would also suit any cat sporting a bejeweled collar.

AMA-TSU-KAMI (ah-mah-tsoo-KAH-mee; Male/Female): This is a classification of gods-the gods of heaven to be exact. The gods of earth were called Kuni-Tsu-Kami. At one time the gods of heaven and earth used to visit each other all the time since a bridge (named Ama-No-Hashidate), connected the two regions. The gods of heaven often employed the services of the earth gods to provide information concerning secular matters since the heavenly gods weren't all knowing like gods from other cultures. Unfortunately this bridge sank into the ocean long, long ago. Since then, it has been nearly impossible to communicate with the gods of heaven, and for that matter it has been very difficult for them to communicate with the gods and humans of earth. Now, the only way to get to heaven is by leaving the body and crossing the "River of Heaven", Ama-No-Gawa. This name isn't meant for any old cat, but if you suspect the incarnation of a heavenly divinity inside your cat, think about choosing this beautifully strange and unique name.

BENZAITEN (behn-ZYE-tehn; Female): The goddess of love and happiness. She was originally a Hindu goddess of good luck and wealth, as well as the source of inspiration making her especially important to artists, writers, and other creative people. Since Japan, like California, is well known as a hotbed of seismic activity, Benzaiten also protects her devotees from the dangers of earthquakes. There are several reasons why you might want to name your cat after this goddess; perhaps she's a very loving cat, maybe her presence has changed your luck, if you're an artist you might notice a flood of ideas has come to you since she arrived. On the other hand, I'd forget about expecting her to be of any great help during an earthquake. Here in Los Angeles on that January morning of 1994, all my cat did was pee on the couch and then hide under what was left of the bathroom sink.

BISHAMON (BISH-ah-mahn; Male): Some people consider this god something of a paradox since he's both the god of war and of happiness. But when you think about it, war sometimes brings riches and prosperity (to the winner of course), thus happiness. He also fights the demons and forces of darkness that produce illness in humankind. If your cat is a fighter that never fails to enjoy the spoils of his defeated opponent, maybe Bishamon is the right name for him.

CHIMATA-NO-KAMI (chee-MAH-TAH-noh-KAHMEE; Male): There are cults in Japan that celebrate holidays honoring, of all things, the phallus. This is where Chimata-No-Kami comes in. He is a phallic god who is also the protector of roads and trails, but his main concern were crossroads. His followers would erect (no pun intended) phallic monuments at crossroads in homage to his positive, life affirming responsibilities. I think we all can guess what kind of cat deserves this name.

HAYA-JI (hah-YAH-jee; Male): If your cat behaves in a manner best described as a "whirlwind", then you'll find no better name than Haya-Ji. Haya-Ji was the god of wind and whirlwinds in particular. He's often pictured with a large bag on his shoulders in which he keeps the winds. When he wants to stir things up a bit he simply opens his bag and...well, you get the idea.

HIRUKO (here-ROO-koh; Male): the morning sun and grandson to Amaterasu, the earth. Hiruko was the god of the morning sun and grandson to e was also the brother of Ninigi, ruler of the earth. Along with his many celestial duties, Hiruko also bore the responsibility of protecting the health of children. Although there aren't many male cats that show any particular concern for the welfare of kittens (in some cases the male will even eat the babies!) some males are in fact very affectionate toward their offspring. Male Siamese cats are especially known for providing their kittens with plenty of care and loving attention. Should you happen to know such a good father cat, he may well be worthy of the name, Hiruko.

HISA-ME (hih-SAH-mee; Female): Not all cats are happy-go-lucky sports, frisky and merry like they've just leaped out of a cat food commercial. Some cats are extremely irritable and annoying. These cats have the lousy attitude of a penniless gambler. Still, there must be something lovable about them or else we wouldn't take the time to try and brighten their outlook on life. To these cats the name Hisa-me (meaning "the frowning women") seems like only a natural choice. The Hisa-me were a group of female demons said to inhabit the world of the deceased. A nasty sort of name for a thoroughly unpleasant cat.

HO-MASUBI (hoh-MAH-soo-bee; Male): I don't know about your cat, but there are plenty who cannot resist using their claws on any kind of paper that so happens to be lying around. Those acquainted with such cats are no doubt familiar with the experience of returning home from some daily excursion, only to be greeted by a floor covered in the confetti of what was once the newspaper, TV guide, a treasured book, or even a roll of toilet paper. Such a cat would not have been too welcome in feudal Japan since many homes were actually made of paper. If your cat fits into this classification, you may consider the name Ho-Masubi. Ho-Masubi was the god of fire, and naturally his appeasement was of top priority in a place full of paper houses. In this regard, Ho-Masubi the fire god was also the unofficial god in charge of protecting these paper houses from harm. His story is rather short and dark considering his mother, the great goddess Izanami, was burned to death upon giving birth to the infant fire god. This so upset his father, Izanagi, that he killed the baby Ho-Masubi by chopping him up into eight pieces. From these pieces, eight mountain gods came forth. You would think that being dismembered into eight portions would just about spell the end for god or human alike, but Ho-Masubi didn't let it get him down. He simply took his dismembered self up to the distant mountain of Atago, making the peak his home. Incidentally this association of mountains and fire is quite common throughout the cross-cultural realm of world mythologies. Just thought you might be interested...

INARI (ihn-AHR-ee; Male or Female): Here's another one of those deities that often changes sex depending upon the needs of the story being told. During this god's male incarnation he is portrayed as a little old man, complete with long white beard, perched upon an overflowing sack of rice, swigging happily from a jug of rice wine. This is appropriate since Inari is the god (or goddess) of rice. That may sound like no big deal to you, but when you consider that rice was (and still is) one of the primary foods in the Japanese diet, Inari takes on a far more important role as god of prosperity, bestowing success in all business ventures. He is said to be attended upon by foxes, an animal sacred to him which was worshipped as his representative. In female form, Inari actually becomes a fox-tailed woman with the ability to transform her appearance into, you guessed it, the form of a fox. By the way, Inari was also the god/goddess of swords and other such blade-like implements. This may be the best reason to call your cat Inari since most cats have razor sharp claws while very few will have anything at all to do with rice.

IZANAGI (ih-zahn-AHG-ee; Male) IZANAMI (ih-zahn-AHM-ee; Female): These two primal deities were the fruition of a most complex series of events that brought about the origins of the universe and all things therein. As with all creation myths, this one begins with a void. From this void the earth emerges in a very pliable state described in the Kojiki (the main source of all Japanese mythology, first put into written form in 712 AD) as " oil upon the waters, floating about as a jellyfish with the tide." From here the first three gods (yet another triad) brought themselves into existence. These three gods brought forth what were known as "the five ancient deities of heaven." Those five in turn created seven more gods and goddesses. The final result was the god Izanagi and his sister, Izanami, the first true couple. Together they exercised the sacred rituals of sexual union from which all things were created including the islands of Japan as well as several gods related to all manner of phenomena like Mountains, Flowers, Rain, just to name a few. Unfortunately Izanami died while giving birth to Ho-Masubi, the god of fire. If you happen to have two cats, male and female of course, who together are responsible for more than their fair share of offspring, here's a unique set of names that you might want to keep in mind.

KAMI (KAH-mee; Male or Female): You may have noticed that many Japanese gods have hyphenated names containing the word Kami. Kami isn't an individual but a concept. The word denotes a specific manifestation of divinity as related to things and phenomena in the natural world such as Grass and Trees, Fire and Wind, Rivers, Clouds and so on. Bear in mind that Kami describes the principle of divinity inherent in all things. This divine principle reveals its transcendent nature through various symbolic personifications. Though this idea is most often thought of as a generalized name for the gods, Kami is not a verbatim translation of the word "God". Short but musical (as well as easy to remember), Kami makes a fine cat name for male or female alike.

KAWA-NO-KAMI (KAH-wah-noh-KAH-mee; Male): The deity in charge of creeks, streams, and rivers. He was rather on the dark side since he often demanded human sacrifices in order to stop rivers from flooding. Not the most benevolent of names for your cat, but one with a nice ring to it at least.

NINIGI (nee-NEE-gee; Male): Ninigi was the grandson of the great sun goddess Amaterasu who sent him to earth that he might rule as emperor. To this end she supplied him with the magic sword "Kusanagi" discovered by her brother, Susano; the Divine Mirror used to coax her from the cave in which she (and therefore the sun itself) hid in fright; and the precious jewels of "Magatama" which possessed the power of generating various divine offspring. This myth still plays an important part in Japanese culture. At the coronation of each new Japanese emperor (thought to be a divinity related directly to these primordial gods), likenesses of these three items are presented in commemoration of his ancient predecessor, Ninigi. It wasn't until 1945, as part of Japan's unconditional surrender ending World War Two, that Emperor Hirohito renounced his literal divinity. Nevertheless, the symbolic and ritualistic role of Divine Emperor remains intact to this day. Ninigi then is a name suitable for any regal cat that exudes an air of divinity. Since most cats tend to display these august qualities, one could actually name any cat Ninigi without it proving inappropriate.

O-WATA-TSUMI (oh-wah-taht-SOO-mee; Male): You and your seafood-loving cat will appreciate this one. O-Wata-Tsumi was the god of the seas, sailors, and oceans, ruler of all fish and monsters of the deep. Japanese sailors often adopted cats that they might take them along to travel the seas with both themselves and the superstitious crew. It was not unusual to see such seafaring cats aboard Japanese ships of combat since they were believed to be harbingers of peace, even though they too were associated with darker aspects of life and death, wielding no-nonsense power over the dead and evil ghosts that haunted the waters. And good old O-Wata-Tsumi was the strange god that ruled over these various nautical operations. His nickname was "old man of the tides", and he often appeared in the form of a mighty dragon. An excellent name for a seaside feline prone to stalking the docks and piers in search of live bait, fermented chum, and female cats.

O-YAMA-TSU-MI (oh-yah-maht-SOO-mee; Male): Ever notice how some cats just love climbing to heights above their human companions, only to peer down at people with smug satisfaction? All right then. Remember Ho-Masubi, the infant fire god that was cut up into eight pieces by his father, Izanagi? These eight pieces transformed into eight mountain gods with O-Yama-Tsu-Mi acting as chief of them all. He was considered the god of all mountains, peaks, and volcanoes. The other seven were assigned mastery over mountainous elements like the slopes, the foothills, et cetera. Since O-Yama-Tsu-Mi is the chief god of mountains and peaks, it seems only natural to name a height loving cat after this ruler of the lofty abodes.

SENGEN-SAMA (sehn-gehn-SAH-mah; Female): Whereas O-Yama-Tsu-Mi was the god of all mountains, Sengen-Sama was the goddess of one particular mountain: Mount Fujiyama. Atop this famous mountain one can still find a shrine erected in her honor. From here, intrepid pilgrims observe their devotions to the rising sun. Obviously Sengen-Sama is another well suited name for a cat, female in this case, which loves to relax high upon bookshelves, cupboards, and of course refrigerators.

SUSANO (suh-SAH-noh; Male): Susano was the Japanese version of the prankster god. Most cultures have a god like this (Loki of the Nordic deities, Anansi of the African gods, to name but two) and Susano could cause havoc and mischief with the best of them, often going way overboard with his unusually dark and morbid sense of humor. In addition to this, he was also the god of earthquakes, thunder, and storms, as well as of snakes. He was one of the sons of Izanagi and Izanami, and brother to the great sun goddess Amaterasu. One of the more famous stories concerning Susano and his family tells of Amaterasu and her lady attendants who were responsible for sewing the holy garments used by the priestesses of the sun cult. Always competing with his sister, Susano decided he would get back at her for defeating him in their latest contest. For some reason he thought it would be funny to skin a horse, only to toss the bloody carcass into the sacred weaving hall. So disturbed was Amaterasu by this horrible sight that she fled in terror, eventually hiding herself in the recesses of a deep and dark cave. This too is a common motif in word mythology, reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian story of Set and even the Greek tale of Persephone. The result of Amaterasu's terrified exile was a period in which the world endured complete darkness. The rest of the gods failed to see where this series of events was supposed to produce humor. Even Susano began to worry since his prank fell short of generating the big laughs for which he had hoped. Eventually the "multitude of 800 gods" forced Susano to come up with a plan to bring back the sun goddess, A.S.A.P.! This Susano accomplished by coaxing his sister from the cave with a mirror that hypnotized her by the brilliancy of her own radiant image. Once the sun goddess was restored to her rightful position in the heavens, the other 800 gods decided that Susano would have to pay for his careless actions. As punishment, his beard was shaved and his finger nails and toe nails were pulled out. You're probably way ahead of me on this one, but why not use this name for a declawed cat? If you've had to resort to this rather extreme method of curbing the destructive antics of your cat, remember the story of Susano.

TSUKI-YOMI(t'soo-kee-YOH-mee; Male): Another one of Izanagi and Izanami's sons, Tsuki-Yomi was the god of the moon. He is unusual in world mythology as most moon deities are depicted as female. Being the moon god meant that Tsuki-Yomi was also responsible for measuring time which was accomplished by, what else? A lunar calendar. His main temples were equipped with magic mirrors which enabled his faithful to practice a method of oracular consultation. It was not uncommon for worshipers to claim they had actually seen the god within the mysterious mirrors, describing his appearance as that of a giant hare. This must have some connection to the Chinese tradition of depicting the image of a rabbit hidden within the patchy markings of the moon's surface. I swear I once knew a woman who insisted that her cat was half rabbit! It was a funny looking thing, and it DID hop sort of when moving about, but I don't know about it being half rabbit. I mean, c'mon! Half rabbit and half cat? Still, she insisted, and no one really cared enough to argue with her about her "Cabbit". If you know of such an oddity then here is the ultimate name. The rest of us will just have to be satisfied with giving this name to a plain old kitty-cat with nocturnal habits.

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