The History of Neko

Think of this lovely photo as the cover to your History lesson today… designed to reflect the artistic style of Japanese manga covers (for a very specific reason, as you’ll come to see). Open it up and turn to the chapter titled “History of Neko 101.” Are you wearing your perquisite Japanese schoolgirl uniform? Excellent. Let us explore the history and evolution of Neko, shall we?

The History of Neko
Lesson #1: Neko means “cat” in Japanese. And that’s where this story begins.

Gegege no Kitaro Neko Musume

Back in the 1950s, Japanese manga (comic books) began depicting catgirls – typically called Nekomusume or Nekomimi. No one knows for sure why manga authors were inspired to create these cat-human hybrids, though it may have something to do with ancient Japanese folklore describing magical cat spirits called Bakeneko (sometimes known as NekoMata).

One of the first to feature a Neko was the manga series Hakaba Kitarō (墓場鬼太郎), written by Shigeru Mizuki almost fifty years ago.

In this manga, Mizuki introduced a full list of yokai (spirit-monster) characters, including the lovely Neko Musume, a soft-spoken girl who transformed into a human-cat “monster” when hungry or upset (just look at the teeth on that little girl in the red dress…).

Yet Japan was not the only country with a strange cat-girl fascination. Right around the same time period, American girls were being exposed to catgirls too, including Catwoman (one of the villains in the Batman comics of the 1940s), Josie and the Pussycats cartoons in the 1970s, and the 1980s musical, Cats.

Although American catgirls were depicted as humans wearing a costume, versus the Japanese manga/anime catgirls who were technically a hybrid (half human, half cat), clearly some sort of catgirl phenomenon was silently brewing all around the world. All it needed was a spark…

Enter the dawn of Japanese cosplay (dressing up in costume to depict a favorite manga or anime character) during the mid to late 1990s.

Cosplay was, quite simply, the moment the Neko spark turned to flame. After witnessing countless adorable Nekomimi in Japanese manga and anime over the years, it was only natural that Japanese girls would choose Neko as one of their most beloved early cosplay characters.


And that, my dear cats and kittens, is when the first Neko began appearing in costume on the streets of Harajuku, Yoyogi, and Akihabara in Japan.

American girls, already familiar with cat costumes ala Catwoman and the Josie crew, quickly followed suit (pun intended). Catgirl forums sprang up, Neko cosplayers began to meet at conventions around the world, and a veritable community of ear-and-tail-wearing human-cat hybrids slowly coalesced.

Yet somewhere, somehow, in the midst of wearing all those furreh bits and seemingly innocent costumes, something strange started to happen. Something no one ever expected. Call it an awakening, call it a transformation… I’ll let this anime continue our story:

Neko no Ongaeshi / The Cat Returns

In 1989, a Japanese girl named Aoi Hiiragi wrote a manga series called “Whisper of the Heart” (Mimi o Sumaseba 耳をすませば). In them, she introduced a mysterious but elegantly dressed silver cat named The Baron. Her mangas inspired an anime movie in 1995, and a sequel in 2002 called “The Cat Returns” (Neko no Ongaeshi 猫の恩返し).

Although both animes featured The Baron, it was the storyline of the second anime that best makes my point. The story goes like this:

A young schoolgirl was captured and taken to the Cat Realm, where she was expected to marry the Prince of the Cat Kingdom against her will. During a pre-nuptual feast, she began magically transforming into a Neko (complete with paws, ears, whiskers, and a cute little Neko nose). Before the transformation was complete however, The Baron and other cats helped her escape… all in all, a fairly typical story up to that point.

Yet once she had arrived safely back home, a strange thing happened: the tail and ears gradually began to “feel right” as she discovered her true self. Which is, by no small coincidence, the very same story I’ve heard countless times from Neko in Second Life.

Which brings us to the final chapter of our Neko history: what do you get when you combine all of these catgirl influences, and mix gently in a virtual world? The birth of Neko in Second Life…

The Early Days of Neko in SL

Once again, the luck of my nine Neko lives was with me when I met Fa Nyak — one of SL’s early Nekos (and designer / owner of the store: >(O.o)< on Mew Island). (Note: to read about SL’s very first Neko, click here.)

“I remember when I first started selling kitty animation overrides, Neko didn’t even exist as a search term,” recalled Fa, pictured at right. “That picked up a year or so later. But there were only like two other stores with anything… basically a bell collar or something like that.”

So if “Neko” wasn’t a common term, what did they call themselves? “We called it catgirl,” Fa shrugged. “In fact I was really wierded out when everyone started calling it by the Japanese word Neko… I had always just said catgirl!”

(It’s true… outside of Japan and Second Life, the common term is catgirl / catboy. To this day none of us are quite sure how “neko” became the standard for catgirls and catboys in Second Life, however I suspect it had something to do with more and more Japanese joining Second Life, and their word for catgirls, “Nekomimi,” simply got shortened to “Neko.”)

During SL’s second year, Fa said with a smile and a headshake, the “Neko thing really took off, and now I don’t think I even show up in the search for Neko anymore, I’m so buried under all the Neko malls and shops.” (readers take note… she’s got excellent ears and tails…)

So there you have it. Born of ancient Japanese folklore, rooted in Japanese manga and American comics, inspired by anime, sparked by cosplay, and now living and evolving in the virtual world of Second Life (and other virtual worlds) where we can share our mutual affinity for all things feline no matter where we’re from… it seems we Neko have a pretty fascinating history. (Don’t worry, there will be no test; the Baron already gave me an A+.) ^_^

So You Wanna Be A Neko Too?

No problem! This blog’s got all your answers. We’ve got a whole page that explains exactly How to Be A Neko, along with links to all sorts of handy “how to” guides and resource pages (upper right column of this blog) to help you find your very own Neko Ears and Tails, Neko Skins, Neko AO and Animations, Whiskers, Paw Boots, and more. We’re just waiting to welcome you…

© Stacia Villota / Virtual Neko in Second Life – 2009


~ by Stacia Villota / Virtual Neko on September 14, 2008.

23 Responses to “The History of Neko”

  1. […] More than just your ticket to a cool Neko schoolgirl outfit, this manga-inspired photo is your doorway to a fascinating history of how Nekos came to be.  You know you’re curious, kitty.  Come get all the details on my Virtual Neko blog… […]

  2. The Cat Returns was possibly one of my favorite anime movies. This is a wonderful post in general, love it! *Shopping time..*

  3. I have to agree. I prefer Catgirl over Neko, Neko seemed to come later. Also there needs to be a shout out to Anisa Naumova (and SL’s first quality set of animated catbits)! And a shout for Artemis Fate (for… I dunno, Nexus City, at least, and for being probably the first catgirl I ever saw :3 )

  4. There was another Japanese anime featuring a Neko boy – “Loveless” In this series the Neko features are a sign of innocence and are lost upon losing virginity. Not that myself or any of the other Neko boys I’ve met in SL could ever be mistaken for virgins… there is a tendency towards a young-ish appearance though, often.

  5. Thanks for the history lesson *purrs and nuzzles your shoulder* and the great store leads! I just found out Katt Krap, one of my favorite stores has moved without giving any notice!

  6. Nice post. I love CatNip! One of my favorite things is the Mt. Dew IV. I requested a diet version, but Akasha never responded. Maybe she’d do it for you? 🙂 (Miss you on Plurk, BTW)

  7. Stacia — thanks for sharing how you see the story. Catgirls and catboys/neko have become such a popular Second Life subculture. I’ve also liked seeing doggirls on the rise, which seems to be more unique to SL.

    Those accessories are schweet, thx for providing SLURLs! I ❤ the NES controller. (Hey, I grew up jamming on one like mad.)

  8. Haha- I remember I had the *hardest* time trying to get a set of neko ears in SL when I first joined. I already knew neko since I’m an anime fan and have drawn Ellie (also a comic book character in my stories) as one since I was 13. So naturally I had to obtain some hybrid attire and I remember how challenging it was just to get an LM for a place. I couldn’t believe how much neko shops picked up since then (me being one of them) but it’s become a whole new lifestyle on SL and I’m glad it’s been so successful.

    Thanks for the awesome history and yah, Catwoman was my idle. LOL.

  9. Torley, I’m so honored to see that you stopped by my blog, thank you! If you’ve got additional / alternate perspectives to share on the Neko (hi)story, please do! ^_^

  10. […] The inspiration for today’s story and photo comes from the anime movie “Princess Mononoke,” produced by Studio Ghibli (the same group who produced the anime about a little girl who transformed into a Neko in “The Cat Returns“). […]

  11. […] of your kind to observe the behavior.  Visit a Neko club.  Join a Neko group.  Brush up on your Neko history.  Type “Neko” into the “Events” tab of your Second Life search […]

  12. OMG, I love the Nintendo remote in the title picture. Is that available anywhere? The image looks like it -could- be an SL screenshot, or some other 3D art.

    Ps: Alt.cyberpunk.chatsubo (or something like that) had a neko/erotica serial-story up around 89 or 90 / 91 or so. One of the ‘Chromebooks’ to the Cyberpunk RPG that came out in the late 80s also had a cyber-neko altered body kit. Both of these concepts where themselves inspired by earlier works in the Cyberpunk genre, and in anime. And of course, we can trace some inspiration for a lot of this to Catwoman and Tigra of DC and Marvel comics. 🙂

    • Hi Arcady! If you mean the item on my right thigh, yup, that’s available in-world… see the links under the “Appropriate Attire” section above… it’s CatniP’s “Ridin Nerdy” thigh strap.

      Fascinating bit about the serial story…! So it seems the further we explore, the deeper our little Neko roots go, eh? Thanks so much for sharing that!!!

      Yup, Catwoman is mentioned above… those were the only old Batman episodes I ever wanted to watch… heh.

  13. hehe… yeah, I thought about taking this back to Bastet… there certainly are cat goddesses and tribal lore in just about every culture… but didn’t wanna be accused of taking any and all possible cat associations and claiming them as our own! 😛

  14. […] In the early 1990s, all sorts of manga (comic books) and anime (animated movies) began featuring little girls sprouting ears and a tail, inspiring cosplayers all across Japan (and eventually the rest of the world) to begin […]

  15. […] legion of fans. If this is all very weird and mysterious to you, then go to her wonderful page on The History of Neko. (Of course, for the point-counterpoint view, you need go no further than Shauna’s Pet Peeve […]

  16. so sad. Is the | Outfit | SG / Sweetest Goodbye: School Girl outfit in indigo + red no longer available??? Or did it just move???

  17. No sadness allowed… I’ve updated the slurl for SG / Sweetest Goodbye to its new location. SL stores move ALL the time… and most forget to tell me, so I appreciate you letting me know! ^_^

  18. The catgirl meme certainly hails back to Japanese animation, and catpeople in Japanese art generally. As an example, the original Dominion: Tank Police had the characters Anipuma and Unipuma, around the mid-Eighties. Which is about the same time as the Cats musical appeared. Affordable domestic video recorders may be significant too.

    My guess is that SL enabled quite a few things to come together, which had been down in the background noise of the Internet. You can do some of the same stuff in text-only environments, but SL allows user creativity in pictures as well as words.

    • Oh most definitely Dave… so far, as best my readers can tell, it looks like the earliest anime depicting the “transformation of human into cat” (though it was a complete transformation, versus the more recent depiction of Neko as human + cat) was in the late 1950s.
      I would love it if we could track down more references (and maybe even some youtubes) of those first catgirl animes… that could make for an entire blog story in and of itself!
      Thanks so much for stopping by, hope we’ll see more of you!

  19. I stumbled across this page after being forwarded a link to the site by a contact. It makes fascinating reading, and it’s nice to learn some of the history behind neko in Second Life. Incidentally, my origin is similar to the one you mentioned above — gained the parts, inner felinity emerged, and now I’d feel lost if I ever had to revert, so that’s another one you can add to the multitude of similar stories. =^..^<

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