Once upon a time, a Japanese lord sought shelter from a heavy downpour in Japan. He sat under a tree and thought to himself, “Oh thank god. I can lay low under the tree until the rain stops”. But mere minutes later, he saw a cat waving its paw at him in the distance. Intrigued by what the cat was trying to tell him, he approached it. And to his shock, and everyone else’s to this day, lightning hit the exact spot where the lord had been sitting previously. And so, following this Japanese folklore, Japan came to believe that cats were a symbol of good luck are meant to be cherished . As a matter of fact, there are only a few countries over the world that cherish cats as much as the Japanese do. Modern-day Japanese culture has cat cafes, cat shrines, and cat tourism anywhere and everywhere you look! 
Before cats became the stars of Japanese woodblock art, there had to be cats in Japan in the first place. But where did they come from in the first place, when they weren’t exactly natives of Japan?
Well, we have China to thank for that. Over 1000 years ago, cats came to Japan via ships that came for trade. And quite soon after, they became farm animals that would catch mice and kill rodents to keep the crops safe. And it wasn’t long before they became a part of Japanese literature and people began keeping and breeding them as both pets and show animals . And then came the Edo period, when Japan shut itself from the rest of the world, and with no war, people had more time to spare for leisure activities and pleasure business . And since there was no internet back then, woodblock art and theater were the two key players when it came to leisure and hobbies. And so, ukiyo-e was born. And Japanese woodblock artists used every tool in the box to appeal to their Japanese audience at the time . And this included a plethora of cat prints that made their way to the market.
Cats were first featured plain and simple in Japanese woodblock prints, but over time, artists took the creative leap and began drawing cats irrespective of time, place, and location. There were cats with people, cats as people or kabuki actors, cats in a religious context, and even cats as a representation of cities .
And there is one particular artist, who did outshine everyone else when it came to how much he loved cats and featured them in different forms in his prints: Utagawa Kuniyoshi. His prints were as full of cats as his studio! 
“His fondness for felines crept into his work, and they appear in many of his finest prints. Sometimes they crop up as characters from well-known stories; other times, they are beautifully expressive studies.” 
Back in the 1840s, when Japanese woodblock art was facing sanctions, particularly those of war and kabuki actors, Kuniyoshi shifted his stance and began depicting serious themes of Japan via cats. So he found a way where the leadership couldn’t possibly sanction the form of art. As a matter of fact, he drew entire prints where kabuki actors were the cats or warriors, and leadership was all owned by cats .
Two of his series particularly stand out: Neko no ateji, or “cat homophones,” where he arranged the names of cats as fish, and Cats Suggested As The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a cat version of Utagawa Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō .
In Cats Suggested As The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, fifty-five cats appear in the form of a triptych, each of them doing something different. You see some of them crawling out of a basket, others just sleeping with no care in the world. Pretty kawaii, right? But little do most people know, that each of these cats has a hidden meaning behind them. For example, the forty-first station of the Tōkaidō is Miya . This sounds like the Japanese word oya if you say it fast enough – the word for a parent. So because of that, you see 2 kittens snuggling up with their mother as a representation of Miya in the below-left corner. Another one is Ishibe, the fifty-fifth station. This sounds similar to miji-me – meaning ‘miserable’ in Japanese. So you see that cat as a frail one, almost like it’s done with life . So Utagawa Kuniyoshi made a pun out of every single of these stations, in a way that would not just be comical but would also appease cat lovers in Japan, even today.
And of course, there is Neko no ateji too, a true depiction that Kuniyoshi wasn’t just a great artist but a true cat lover and observer. In these prints, the cats form shapes to spell out the names of several fish in kana i.e. units of Japanese phonetics.
His cat love was so remarkable that a book was also published on Cats in Ukiyo-e featuring his works by Nobuhisa Kaneko .
Thus, the next time you are on the lookout for Japanese woodblock prints, know that there are prints out there for you if you’re an avid cat lover!
 “Cats in Japanese Woodblock Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Animals Came to Star in Its Popular Art.” Open Culture, https://www.openculture.com/2022/11/cats-in-japanese-woodblock-prints-how-japans-favorite-animals-came-to-star-in-its-popular-art.html.
 Kennedy, Philip. “Obsessed with Cats: The Ukiyo-e Prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi.” Illustration Chronicles, 1 Sept. 2021, https://illustrationchronicles.com/obsessed-with-cats-the-ukiyo-e-prints-of-utagawa-kuniyoshi.
 Lombardi, Linda. “Cats in Japanese Art – Printed, Painted, and Sculpted Felines.” Tofugu, Tofugu, 27 May 2015, https://www.tofugu.com/japan/ukiyo-e-cats-in-japanese-art/.
 Yasuka. “Cats in Japanese Culture and History.” KCP International, 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.kcpinternational.com/2014/02/cats-in-japanese-culture-and-history/#:~:text=In%20Japan%2C%20cats%20are%20revered,upright%20position%20as%20if%20beckoning.