The Neko-Mata may look like an ordinary cat, but it’s not. It’s a powerful cat spirit able to shape-shift into human form. The Neko-Mata is a species of Bake-Neko or Obake-Neko, meaning “cat spirit.” (Other types of cat spirits, Japanese or otherwise, also exist who manifest and behave completely differently than the Neko-Mata.)

In its youth, the Neko-Mata may be indistinguishable from regular cats. When the Neko-Mata attains ten years, its tail begins to fork into two, and its full magical powers start to manifest. Neko-Mata literally means “forked cat.” Technically, it’s not a Neko-Mata until it’s reached full power and its tail develops the characteristic fork. Before that, it’s just a cat with potential. Its tail develops prehensile qualities serving as extra, magical hands. As the Neko-Mata ages and increases in power, even more tails may appear, as with the nine-tail fox. The nature of the Neko-Mata largely depends on the treatment it received before its powers manifested.

It is unclear if Neko-Matas are just innately grouchy as a species or whether many are so bad tempered because they are on missions of revenge.

Fox spirits (Kitsune) tend to manifest as beautiful women, as do Japanese snake spirits. There is, however, rarely anything kittenish about the Neko-Mata’s human form. The guise they usually assume is that of a grouchy, bad-mannered, unpleasant old lady. The Neko-Mata assumes the form of the granny from hell. Although the Neko-Mata appears human, she maintains feline characteristics although not necessarily the most attractive. The Neko-Mata behaves like an old, surly, grudge-keeping, short-tempered, smelly semi-feral cat.

Of course, plenty of humans are surly with bad hygiene, too. Personality isn’t the tip-off to the Neko-Mata’s true identity. The true clue is the one thing the Neko-Mata cannot do. The Neko-Mata can walk and talk like a human but despite that extra tail/hand, she is unable to eat like a person, only like a cat, actually putting her face into the bowl rather than using utensils or fingers. Aware of this weakness, the Neko-Mata usually insists on eating alone. Because she is unpleasant, uncouth, and unsightly, she rarely has to turn down many invitations but is left alone at mealtimes, preserving her secret.

The Neko-Mata was never an ordinary cat even when it resembled one. She’s not an ordinary old lady either, even if she resembles one. The Neko-Mata possesses incredible magical knowledge. She operates as a shaman and usually a necromancer. The Neko-Mata eats carrion, including human corpses and so she may be discovered in the cemetery, still in human form, ostensibly performing necromantic rituals but really snacking. Whether because of contact with corpses or because they are disease spirits, Neko-Matas eventually become the source of infectious illness.

In addition to causing illness, the Neko-Mata is blamed for starting mysterious fires. The Neko-Mata also sometimes takes involuntary possession of a person, although less frequently than fox spirits. An Inari shaman may be able to perform an exorcism.

The Neko-Mata has profound associations with death and has power over both dead and living humans. Via her shamanic knowledge, the Neko-Mata can raise and control the dead like a zombie master. Like a puppet master, the Neko-Mata forces the reanimated dead to dance like marionettes. A really vengeful Neko-Mata may seek out her victims’ dead relatives, controlling them in order to cause her target special pain.

The Neko-Mata is potentially a very dangerous spirit but, in general, she does not attack randomly. The Neko-Mata tends to have a reason for targeting someone. She is not a trickster out for fun but a grouchy spirit out for revenge—or justice. Like Djinn, Fairies, or bori spirits, the Neko-Mata punishes those perceived as causing it harm. However, unlike Djinn, Fairies or bori, the Neko-Mata does not engage in the sudden strike. She may hold a grudge for years, biding her time.

The most dangerous Neko-Matas are those that were abused or mistreated as kittens (when they were indistinguishable from other cats). The people they target may have treated them cruelly when they were young and helpless, but now the worm has turned. They pursue their foes relentlessly even though the targets may have no memory of their crime. A thoughtless act of cruelty to a cat may bring the revenge of the Neko-Mata many years later. (And the simplest method of never having problems with Neko-Matas is always to be kind to cats.)

The Neko-Mata may be appeased with sincere and abject apologies as well as generous, frequent, and consistent food offerings. She can theoretically become an ally and may share shamanic and magical skills and wisdom.








Neko-Matas can transform back and forth between cat and human form. In cat form, they are described as fierce, ragged, gray cats: gray like an old person’s hair.


Neko-Matas are fun to draw and so are a favourite subject of Japanese artists. In the nineteenth century, images of Neko-Mata were occasionally incorporated into Maneki Neko amulets. This type of Maneki Neko may have a tail, not the bob-tail sported by traditional Maneki Nekos, but that’s not the tip-off to their identity. You’ll recognize this kind of Maneki Neko by her vaguely malevolent aura and staring yellow eyes. Instead of beckoning prosperity, this Maneki Neko beckons revenge.



Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.