True to its name, the Japanese Bobtail cat is said to hail from the Land of the Rising Sun (although its genetics tell a different story). According to legend, the distinctive, short-tailed felines were once owned by Buddhist monks. Today, they’re a popular good luck symbol, and are frequently the subject of ceramic ornaments and other trinkets. Here are seven facts about the unusual—and utterly loveable—kitty.
1. THE JAPANESE BOBTAIL HAS A COLORFUL ORIGIN STORY.
Cat fanciers believe that the Japanese Bobtail is an ancient breed. According to popular belief, Buddhist monks originally owned the kitties. In the 1600s, rodents infested silkworm barns and threatened the country’s lucrative silk trade. Authorities ordered people to set their cats loose on the streets to take out the vermin. Over time, the Japanese Bobtail became the country’s de facto street cat.
However, the cat's true origins still remain a mystery, as scientists recently revealed that the Japanese bobtail isn’t genetically similar to cats from Japan. Leslie Lyons, a scientist who studies cat genetics at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis, teamed up with her colleagues to collect DNA samples from 22 cat breeds across the world. Lyons told The Washington Post that the Bobtail either “didn’t originate in Japan or there’s been so much Western influence that they have lost their initial genetic signal.”
Some people believe that the cats may have first developed in other Asian countries like China or Korea. Long ago, when Buddhist monks first arrived in Japan, they brought the handy mousers with them to keep rats out of rice paper scrolls in the temples.
No matter which story is correct, we still know that the Japanese Bobtail has existed in Japan for at least several centuries. One early mention of the Japanese Bobtail occurs in Kaempfer’s Japan, a book written by a German doctor named Engelbert Kaempfer and published in London in 1701 or 1702. The work describes Japan’s animals, plants, and landscapes, and is the first of its kind written by a Western author. In it, Kaempfer writes, “There is only one breed of cat that is kept. It has large patches of yellow, black and white fur its short tail looks like it has been bent and broken.” Additionally, many artworks created over the centuries—including a 15th-century painting that's now in the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—depict short-tailed Japanese Bobtail cats.
Japanese Bobtails didn't arrive in America until 1968, when a cat breeder named Elizabeth Freret imported three Japanese Bobtail kittens after she saw a cat that a military service family had brought back from Japan. Around the same time, another breeder named Lynn Beck, who frequently visited Japan, began importing the Bobtail as well. Beck ended up founding the first cat club dedicated to the Japanese Bobtail, and she and Freret joined forces and wrote the first breed standard for the cat.
In 1976, the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA)—the world's largest registry of pedigreed cats—accepted the breed for championship status. Later, in 1993, the organization recognized a longhair version of the Japanese Bobtail.
2. THE JAPANESE BOBTAIL CAT’S SHORT TAIL STEMS FROM A GENETIC MUTATION.
You won’t find many other cats that look like the Japanese Bobtail. The kitty has long hind legs, a slender body, oval eyes, large, wide-set ears, and a broad, triangle-shaped head. The cat’s distinguishing feature is its “bobbed” tail, which is short and furry and looks like a pom pom, thanks to its many curves, twists, and kinks. No two Japanese Bobtails’ tails are exactly alike.
According to one legend, the Japanese Bobtail is missing most of its tail because long ago, a sleeping cat’s tail caught fire. The frightened feline reacted by running, and it accidentally set the entire town on fire. The angry Emperor passed a decree that all cats should have their tails chopped off to prevent similar disasters.
In reality, the cat’s short tail stems from a natural genetic mutation. The trait is recessive; if two cats with short tails mate, their kittens will have them as well.
3. JAPANESE BOBTAILS AREN'T ALWAYS CALICO (AND THEIR EYES DON'T ALWAYS MATCH).
Japanese Bobtails are often depicted as having the mi-ke (Japanese for “three-fur,” or calico) pattern. However, the cats can come in a variety of solid colors, like red, black, white, and blue, and in patterns including tabby, bicolor, or van (i.e. when color is restricted to the head and the tail, but the rest of the cat’s body is white) [PDF]. There are also longhaired and short-haired Japanese Bobtails. Both cats have very little undercoat, so their fur is silky and tangle-free.
Japanese Bobtails tend to have blue or gold eyes, although any shade is accepted by cat registries. Sometimes, a cat will be born with one blue, and one gold eye. This odd trait is called heterochromia.
4. JAPANESE BOBTAILS ARE CONSIDERED TO BE GOOD LUCK.
If the Japanese Bobtail looks familiar, it’s likely because you recognize it from statues of the maneki-neko, or the beckoning cat. The figurines are often displayed in Asian stores and restaurants, and they depict a short-tailed cat seated with one paw raised. They’re believed to bring good luck to the establishment’s owner.
5. THE JAPANESE BOBTAIL IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SHORT-TAILED CATS.
You might be wondering how the Japanese Bobtail is different from other short or no-tailed breeds, like the Manx or the American Bobtail. While both cat breeds arose from a spontaneous genetic mutation, they’re not that much alike.
The Manx gene is an incomplete dominant gene, so kittens that inherit it can be born with full-length tails, stubby tails, or no tails at all. In comparison, the Japanese Bobtail gene is recessive, and the cats’ tails are typically about 3 inches in length. Additionally, Manx cats often suffer from health problems like spinal bifida, and hip, pelvic, and anal abnormalities. The Japanese Bobtail isn’t believed to have any genetic health issues.
Cat fanciers believe that the American Bobtail—a pretty new breed—stems from a variant of the Manx gene. Their own tail lengths are about half the length of a normal tail—much longer than the Japanese Bobtail’s trademark pouf.
6. JAPANESE BOBTAILS "SING."
Japanese Bobtails are described as “singing cats” because they communicate using a variety of melodic chirps and meows.
7. JAPANESE BOBTAILS ARE GREAT JUMPERS.
Japanese Bobtails’ hind legs are noticeably longer than their forelegs. Thanks to this feature, they’re great jumpers, and excel in feline agility contests (yup, those exist).