Japanese Bobtails are living works of art with their sculptured bodies, short pert tails, alert ears, and large window-on-the-soul eyes. The breed’s general balance is of utmost importance; neither too much nor too little consideration is given to any particular feature. Medium-sized with clean lines and bone structure, the Japanese Bobtail is well-muscled but straight and slender rather than massive in build. The body is long, lean, and elegant, and shows well-developed muscular strength without coarseness. It’s neither tubular like the Siamese nor cobby like the Persian. The legs are long and slender but not dainty or fragile in appearance, ending in oval paws. The hind legs are noticeably longer than the forelegs, but deeply angulated when the cat is standing relaxed so the torso remains nearly level. Adult males weigh 7 to 10 pounds; adult females weigh 5 to 7 pounds.
Although the head appears long and finely chiseled, it forms an almost perfect equilateral triangle with gentle curving lines, high cheekbones, and a noticeable whisker break. The muzzle is fairly broad and neither pointed nor blunt, and the chin is full. The nose is long and well-defined, with a gentle dip at or just below eye level. The ears are large, upright, expressive, and set wide apart but at right angles to the head, rather than flaring outward. In repose, they give the impression of being tilted forward. The eyes are large, oval, wide and alert, and set into the skull at a pronounced slant when viewed in profile. The eyeball has a shallow curve and doesn’t bulge beyond the cheekbone or the forehead.
The Japanese Bobtail’s tail is not the only characteristic feature of this breed, but it is the defining one. Like lotus blossoms, each tail is unique—the length, shape and flexibility vary greatly from cat to cat. Therefore, the standard is more of a guideline rather than a strict description of the tail, and the standard doesn’t promote one type of tail over another, since so many types exist. The extension of the tail bone should be no longer than three inches from the body. The tail is composed of one or more curves, angles, or kinks, or any combination of these. The tail may be flexible or rigid and the size and shape should harmonize with the cat’s appearance. The direction in which the tail is carried is not important. However, the tail must be clearly visible; the Japanese Bobtail is not a tailless cat.
While a short, curly tail can be considered a malformation, since it differs from the standard feline design, fanciers love the breed for just this trait, particularly because health is not affected. Because the tail length is governed by a recessive gene, a cat must inherit two copies of the gene—one from each parent—to have the characteristic tail. So when two Japanese Bobtails are bred together, all of the offspring have short tails because the dominant long-tail gene is absent. The Japanese Bobtail’s tail is always naturally short.
The Japanese Bobtail comes in both long and short hair lengths. The soft and silky fur of the longhair is medium-long to long with no noticeable undercoat. A ruff is desirable. Over the shoulders, the coat may be shorter and close-lying; the coat should lie in a way that accents the body’s lines. The fur becomes longer toward the rump and noticeably longer on the tail and britches. The tail is fluffy, and ear and toe tufts are desirable. The tail hair can puff out, making the tail look like a miniature pom-pom. The shorthair’s soft, silky fur is medium in length with no noticeable undercoat and no ruff.
In CFA, the Japanese Bobtail comes in any color, pattern, or combination, except those showing evidence of hybridization resulting in un-patterned agouti (Abyssinian or ticked tabby), or that color or pattern with white. In TICA, however, all colors and patterns are accepted. The mi-ke coat pattern is the most popular and numerous. Preference is given to bold, dramatic markings and rich, vivid colors. Nose leather, paw pads, and eye color should harmonize with the coat color. Blue eyes and odd eyes are allowed. No outcrosses are permitted.
The origin of the Japanese Bobtail has been lost in the passage of time; when and where the mutation responsible for the short tail first arose we will likely never know. However, it’s safe to say the Japanese Bobtail is one of the oldest existing cat breeds and has a history as rich with legends and folklore as the country for which the breed is named.
It’s thought that the ancestors of today’s Japanese Bobtail arrived in Japan from Korea or China at the beginning of the sixth century. Cats were kept aboard ships transporting grain, documents, silk and other valuable goods that could be easily damaged by rodents. Whether these seafaring cats had bobbed tails is anyone’s guess, since it was their skill as mousers, not their cute pom-poms, that was prized. Today, bobtailed cats can be found in most parts of East Asia, indicating the mutation occurred long ago.
Bobtailed cats can be found in many Japanese woodcut prints and silkscreen paintings from early in the Edo period (1603–1867), although they graced their native land long before that. These cats were prized for their cleanliness, grace, and beauty. The Japanese considered them to be spiritual creatures capable of bestowing good luck. Bobtailed cats born with a particular pattern of red, black, and white markings were called “mi-ke” (pronounced mee-kay, meaning "three fur" in Japanese), and were considered particularly lucky. Such cats were treasured and, according to stories, often lived in Buddhist temples and in the imperial palace.
The most famous story about the mi-ke is the legend of Maneki Neko, which means "beckoning cat" in Japanese. As the tale goes, a tricolored Japanese Bobtail named Tama lived at the poor Kotoku temple in Setagaya, Tokyo. The monk often shared his meager food with his beloved cat to make sure she got enough to eat. One day, Lord Ii Natotaka was caught in a rain storm near the temple. While he sought shelter under a nearby tree, he noticed Tama beckoning to him from the temple gate. A moment after he left the tree in response to the cat’s welcoming gesture, the tree was struck by lightning. Since Tama had saved his life, Lord Ii Natotaka took the temple as his family’s own, bringing it great prosperity. The lord renamed the temple Gotokuji and built a large new temple building. Tama, revered for bringing such good fortune, lived out her life in comfort and was buried with honors in the temple cemetery.
Other legends about Maneki Neko abound, but all associate the cat with good luck and prosperity. In Japan today, figurines of Maneki Neko can be found in many shops and restaurants as charms to bring luck, prosperity, and happiness. These small statues clearly show the tricolored pattern, the bobbed tail, and the raised, beckoning paw. Many of these statuettes can be found in the hall of the deity of mercy at Gotokuji Temple. (To Americans and some Europeans, it appears Maneki Neko is waving rather than beckoning. Japanese people beckon by holding up the hand, palm out, and folding the fingers up and down.)
Japanese Bobtails might have been treasured pets and temple cats forever if not for the Japanese silk industry. Some four centuries ago, Japanese authorities ordered all cats set free to protect silkworms and their cocoons from growing rodent populations. For a time, owning, buying, or selling cats was illegal. Afterward, the Japanese Bobtail became a street and farm cat instead of a pampered temple and house cat. Years of natural selection and survival on the streets and farms of Japan turned the Japanese Bobtail into a strong, intelligent, adaptable cat. Until recently in Japan, the Japanese Bobtail was considered a common working cat.
The Japanese Bobtail came to North America in 1967, when Elizabeth Freret saw a Japanese Bobtail at a Maryland pet show. Entranced by the cat’s beauty and personality, she started the year-long process of importing Japanese Bobtails into the United States so she could begin a breeding program. A year later, three Japanese Bobtails arrived courtesy of Judy Crawford, an American living in Japan at the time. When Crawford returned home, she brought more Japanese Bobtails with her, and she and Freret teamed up to breed and promote the JBT.
Around the same time, CFA judge Lynn Beck imported eight Japanese Bobtails through a connection in Tokyo. Freret and Beck wrote the first American breed standard and worked to get the breed recognized by CFA. Other fanciers joined the cause, and in 1969 CFA accepted Japanese Bobtails for registration and in 1976 granted the breed championship status. ACFA and TICA granted championship in 1979. More cats were imported to widen the gene pool and keep the breed healthy, and more breeders signed on to advance the breed. Today all associations accept the breed.
Although the longhaired Japanese Bobtail wasn’t officially accepted for championship by any North American cat association until 1991, longhaired Japanese Bobtails have been around for centuries. Two longhaired Bobtails with feathery pom-pom tails appear in a fifteenth century painting, currently housed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Longhaired mi-ke Bobtails appear in seventeenth-century Japanese artwork alongside depictions of their shorthaired relatives. Although they were not as common as their shorthaired countrymates, longhaired cats have been seen in Japan’s street cat populations for many centuries, particularly in Japan’s northern islands where a long coat is valuable protection against the colder weather.
Until the late 1980s, North American Japanese Bobtail breeders sold as pets the longhaired kittens that occasionally occurred in their shorthaired litters, and made no effort to promote them. In 1988, however, breeder Gena Garton started the Japanese Bobtail Longhair on the road to acceptance by exhibiting a longhair kitten born in one of her otherwise shorthair litters. Other breeders soon followed and together they began seeking recognition for the Japanese Bobtail Longhair. In 1991 TICA recognized the longhair for championship. CFA followed two years later. Today, all the North American cat associations recognize the Japanese Bobtail Longhair except CFF.