Our love of cat memes can't be blamed solely on YouTube and Facebook. Long before America's Funniest Home videos had us laughing at cat hi-jinks, Japan was already sharing their zany antics. Japanese traders, bringing Buddhist scriptures from China in the mid-sixth century, brought these fascinating animals back with them to Japan. They caught the Japanese heart and imagination, and it's reflected in their art. 

Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection illustrates the depth of this affection by mining the wealth of bravura depictions of cats to be found in ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1615-1867).

Here are woodblock prints from the collection.The collection is split into 5 sections, and here are some examples of each.There is also a video of one of the pictures with some added layering and animation at the end. 

1. This is from the Cats Transformed section. I love how the cat is displayed as if he's really a dragon in disguise.

Yoshimura Kōkei (1770–1836), Dragon and Tiger, 1895. Hanging scroll, ink, color, and gold on silk; 90 x 43 1/2 inches. Courtesy Joan B. Mirviss, Ltd., New York.


2. The next two images are from the Cats as People section. I've seen this print since I was a little girl. It's one of my favorites. Always makes me laugh. I wonder what they are gossiping about? 

Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833–1904), The Story of Otomi and Yosaburō, 1860. Color woodblock print; 22 ½ x 16 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


3. Whatever this cat is hungry for must be really good. 

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Cat Crossing to Eat, 1830–44. Color woodblock print; 36 7/8 x 22 3/8 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


4. From the Cats versus People section. Oh, there are days...  

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), From the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Scene at Okazaki: Onoe Kikugoro III as the Neko-ishi no Kai, the Spirit of the Cat Stone, Mimasu Gennosuke I as Shirasuga Juemon, and Ichimura Uzaemon XII as Inabanosuke, 1835. color woodblock print, 22 ⅜ x 36 ⅞ inches. courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


5. The next few images are from the Cats and People section.  All I can say is that's one interesting mirror. 

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), Wanting to Tweeze the Nape of the Neck / Air Bladders of Fish from the Sunomata RIver in Tōtōmi Province from the series Auspicious Desires on Land and Sea, 1852. Color woodblock print; 22 ½ x 16 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


6.  My first thought was that she is holding a very interesting carrying case for the cat, but maybe not. 

Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Bun'ya no Yasuhide from the series Parodies of the Six Poetic Immortals, 1848–54. Color woodblock print; 22 ½ x 16 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


7. Cat leash!  When you need to pass a secret note on to that special suitor.  Shhhhhh, don't tell the parents. 

Utagawa Kunisada II (1823–1880), No. 36, Kashiwagi from the series Lady Murasaki's Genji Cards, 1857. Color woodblock print; 22 ½ x 16 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


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8. There is such a sense of serenity in this picture for me. 

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Color woodblock print; 22 ½ x 16 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


9.The next 2 pictures are from the Cats at Play section. Can't you imagine this as a cool wall screen?

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Cats Suggested by the Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido, 1847. Color woodblock print: each sheet 14 ⅝ x 10 inches. Courtesy private collection, New York.


10. I think my favorite is the cat on the stilts. So cute. Which cat activity do you like? 

Utagawa Kunitoshi (1847–1899), Newly Published Cat’s Games, 1884. Color woodblock print; 13 ½ x 9 inches. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.


11.   Here's a fun video of one of the print images with a little animation.  Cats at the spa.

Doesn't that look fun? I want to go. 

The Japan Society is putting on this exhibit from March 13 through June, so if you are in New York, go check it out. There you will see over 100 exhibits of the amusing ways cats were depicted in Japanese art. There are more pictures if you click on the exhibit link.