Once upon a time, an old woman and her husband lived in a little farm. They both worked hard in their fields and garden, planting millet and vegetables.
One morning, as the old couple was weeding a meadow, they heard a small cry in the long grass. They stopped, surprised. The cry went on again, more forcefully.
Carefully, the farmers approached the sound. From the tip of his sickle, the old man lifted the herbs. A kitten was nestled in the weeds, small and terrified.
– Oh poor tiny thing! You’ve not even opened your eyes yet.
The old woman look right and left but the mother cat was nowhere to be seen.
– Something must have happened to your mom… How you must hungry little one! Fear not, we’re gonna take you home and take good care of you.
The old couple brought the kitten to their farm and feeded him with warm gruel until he opened his eyes. Years passed, the cat grew lean and strong . The farmers loved him as he was their own child.
The cat had made a habit of patrolling around the farm, checking every corners from the attic to the basement. And one day, his ears caught an unusual squeak.
Tiptoeing on his soft paws, the cat came closer.
One of the basement walls had a small crack between its planks. And behind, mice were running.
The cat effortlessly slid behind grain sacks, whiskers quivering and ready to pounce.
Soon enough, a soft grey mouse reared its head. Swift on its feet, it came near a bag and started to gnawed on the fabric.
The cat sprang up and caught the unfortunate mouse. He hissed:
– You little thief! Those good people work hard to harvest all this! I won’t let you rob them!
The mouse was shaking between his sharp claws. With a shivering voice it cried:
– Please, please don’t eat me! My family too work hard, gathering riches. In fact, my mother was so industrious she has fallen ill.
The tiny animal was now earnestly crying:
– She needs good food to get better… Please, I beg you! Let me bring her a few grains. I swear I’ll come back to you and let you eat me!
The cat’s tail fluttered. Then, he drew his claws in and freed the mouse. In a nimble move, he tore the bag, spilling grains.
– Take some and go before I change my mind.
The mouse quickly picked some grains and disappeared back into its hole. The cat sighted. He jumped on a sack and lazily stretched out, waiting for the mouse’s return.
Moments later, it showed up again. Head down, the mouse whispered:
– My family thank you. With this good food, my mother will get better for sure. I… I am ready to fulfill my part of our contract. You can eat me now…
The mouse closed its eyes, tense and frightened. But no fatal blow came.
The cat was eyeing the trembling animal thoughtfully. In a deep, purring voice, he finally said:
– I have no taste for scrawny rodents.
He jumped down his perch gracefully. With a casual indifference, the feline added:
– Take all you need.
And in two leaps, he was gone. The mouse bowed and bowed:
– Thank you, oh thank you Mr Cat!
A few days later, as the old couple and the cat were getting ready for the night, a ringing sound came from the basement. Startled, they all rushed there only to stop at the door, all eyes wide and gaping mouths.
From the hole in the wall, a mice procession was dancing, cheerfully clinging silver nuggets. Soon, a hundred of mice filled the basement. A soft squeaking voice said:
– Thanks to you, my mother is not ill anymore and your food has given us strength! We’ve all been able to finish our work easily! See how this shines!
An older mouse came forward. It bowed to the cat and put its silver nugget at the old couple’s feet:
– I thank you.
And all the other mice followed this example.
After a while, a true fortune was lying on the ground. More than enough for two old people to live well for the rest of their days. Crying, the old man embraced his wife as the cat purred and purred and purred.
In Japan, contrary to their bad aura in Western countries, rats and mice are seen as auspicious, “good luck” animals. Best example of this, in the past, people considered them as companions of Daikoku, the cheery god of wealth who is also protector of farmers.
Industrious and benevolent, rats in Japanese stories often have huge treasures they happily offer to good souls. The association rat/wealth/fertility might come from the fact those animals were found in rich areas where harvests are abundant.
If some cats are seen as evil (like the monstrous bakeneko or nekomata), Japan has quite a fondness for this animal. In Heian period, nobles mimicked China and kept them as pets (having pets came later for commoners).
Japan has many shrines and temples dedicated to cats, as those animals were key workers protecting granaries but also silkworms farms from vermine. Their good luck aura can also be seen in the worldwide famous maneki-neko figure.
If Japan is often today associated with rice, it was not its only production. In fact, in the old days, many places could not grow rice because of their colder mountainous climates. Millet, one of the oldest plant cultivated in Japan (at least since Jômon period), was then especially spread.