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‘Nemuri-Neko’: is the Sleeping Cat asleep, or just pretending?

3 min read

We are in Japan.
As we already know, Tōshōgu Shrine, the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, is the most popular tourist attraction in Nikkō.
Of course, It’s popular for its elaborate architecture, but also for its carved details, including the three wise monkeys and others.

One of the most notable carvings is the Nemuri-neko, or the Sleeping Cat, at the entrance to the okumiya (rear shrine) where Tokugawa Ieyasu’s remains are housed.
The carving is attributed to Hidari Jingorō, a legendary 17th-century artist who may or may not have been a real person.
According to the writing of Zempei Matsumura “Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shrine and Jingorō Hidari” published by Nohi Publishing Company in 1975:
“Hidari Jingorō loved cats and was fascinated by cats. Jingorō spent eight months in seclusion to refine his knowledge and technique in wood sculpturing. He spent the majority of his time studying, sculpturing, and carving wooden cats that appeared lifelike in various shapes.”
According to the author, it was Jingorō’s goal to carve and sculpture lifelike cats by making “utmost efforts in the future to create a new style in the field of sculpturing”.
Matsumura also states, Nemuri Neko “Sleeping Cat symbolizes Nikkō or the Spirit of Ieyasu, who was thought to be the manifestation of Yakushi Nyorai”, the Buddha of Healing, who offers medicinal remedies, gives nourishment to the mind, body, and spirit, and comforts the sick and cures illnesses.

In fact, Although it is less than 20 centimetre in size, the Nemuri-neko has a few notable features.
First, cats are rarely depicted in reliefs in shrines and temples, while sacred animals such as the crane, turtle, tiger, dragon and phoenix are commonly found. This is one of the few cases in which a cat is depicted in early Edo-period religious sculpture.
Moreover, on the other side of the Sleeping Cat is a carving pair of sparrows, despite cats are normally supposed to prey on them. This depiction is believed to symbolize peace, as sparrows can live freely when cats are asleep. If the cat sleep without staying alert, means also that its environment is safe and peaceful.

Some, however, believe that it’s not fully asleep. According to popular belief, the cat’s eyes are only half-closed and Its pose does suggest that it may be actually staying alert, so that unclean creatures such as rats cannot enter the sacred place.
Either way, in June 2016, the Nemuri-neko was temporarily removed from the shrine to undergo restoration work. It returned to its original place five months later, and to the visitors’ surprise, its eyes were visibly half-closed, almost confirming the legend.
As it later turned out, it was because of accidental mispainting during its restoration and, immediately after the story of its half-open eyes became public, the Sleeping Cat was repainted so that its eyes are shut once more.
The Nemuri Neko is a National Treasure in Japan, and has been of inspiration to Japanese artists and artists around the world for centuries.

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