Choosing a Japanese Bobtail

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As simple and elegant as a Haiku, Japanese bobtails are living works of art with their sculptured bodies, pert bobbed tails, alert ears, and large expressive eyes. But don’t expect them to sit around being admired, say fanciers; their active antics will keep you laughing. Affectionately known as JBTs or simply “bobs,” Japanese bobtails are also loving companions. Fearless and fierce as samurai warriors when hunting a trespassing rodent, Japanese bobtails become instant purr machines when caressed by human hands.

History and Origin of Japanese Bobtail Cats

Although the JBT has been in North America for only three decades or so, it is one of the oldest cat breeds with a history as rich with legends and folklore as its mother country. Bobtailed, tricolored cats can be found in Japanese woodcuttings and silkscreen paintings dating from the 1600s. These tricolored cats are called “mi-ke” (mee-kay), meaning “three fur” in Japanese. The Japanese people considered these cats sacred and capable of bestowing good fortune, and in earlier times were kept in Buddhist temples and the homes of the Imperial Japanese families.

Early Japanese folklore also contains numerous references to short-tailed cats, the most famous being the story of Maneki Neko, which means “beckoning cat.” As the story goes, in the 1600s a tricolor bobtailed cat named Tama lived at a poor temple in Setagaya. One day, Lord Naotaka Ii from the Hikone district was caught in a sudden rain storm near the temple. While he sought shelter under a nearby tree, he noticed Tama beckoning to him from the temple gate. Intrigued, he walked away toward the cat. The tree was struck by lightning a moment later.

Since Tama had saved his life, Lord Naotaka took the temple as his family’s own, which brought the temple prosperity. A representation of Maneki Neko, one paw raised, appears on the facade of the Gotokuji Temple near Tokyo, which was built in 1697. Today, figurines of Maneki-Neko can be purchased in Japanese stores and many businesses display them to insure success. These small statues clearly show the tricolored pattern and the bobbed tail of the JBT.

In 1908 the first documented Japanese bobtails were imported into the United States, but it wasn’t until 1968 when breeder Elizabeth Freret imported three Japanese bobtails that an American breeding and exhibiting program began. Around the same time, Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) judge Lynn Beck imported eight additional bobtails, and these eleven cats became the foundation of the breed in America today.

In 1969, the CFA accepted JBTs for registration and in 1976 granted championship status. Today, most North American associations accept the breed.

Longhaired bobtails were also depicted in seventeenth century Japanese artwork, and for many years have appeared in otherwise shorthaired litters. However, the JBT longhair wasn’t officially accepted until 1991. Today most cat associations recognize the bobtail longhair as a breed in its own right, and CFA accepts it as a division of the JBT breed. Numbers of both are still quite small; in 2000, 231 shorthairs and 76 longhairs were registered with the CFA, making the breed 23rd out of the 40 breeds CFA recognizes.

Appearance of Japanese Bobtails

The Japanese bobtail is a long, lean, elegant cat with clean lines and bone structure. The legs are long and slender, with the hind legs noticeably longer than the front. The head forms an equilateral triangle with gentle curving lines, a broad, rounded muzzle, and large, expressive, upright ears. The large, oval, slanted eyes, along with high cheek bones and long nose, give the face a distinctive Japanese cast very different from other oriental breeds.

Of course, the tail is the defining characteristic. The tail is composed of one or more curves, angles, corkscrews, or kinks. Like snowflakes, each tail is unique — the length, shape, and flexibility can vary greatly from cat to cat. Ideally, the tail extends two or three inches from the base of the spine, but the shape sometimes makes it appear shorter. Ideally, the tail hair fans out, giving the impression of a pom-pom. Unlike the Manx, the bobtail is never tailless.

Shorthaired JBTs have medium length, soft, silky fur with no undercoat. Longhaired JBTs have medium-long soft, silky fur with no noticeable undercoat. The longhair’s coat is shorter and lies close to the body, gradually lengthening toward the rump, with longer fur on the tail, britches, and neck. Ear and toe tufts are desirable.

By far, the most popular color/pattern combination is the mi-ke. These cats are largely white with smaller patches of black and orange on the head, tail and body. Technically calicos, mi-ke bobtails are almost always female. The male mi-ke equivalent is white and black or white and red. Although mi-ke JBTs are prized, many other colors and patterns are accepted, including solids, tabbies, tortoiseshells, and patched tabbies. In some associations, all colors and patterns are allowed. Preference is given to bold, dramatic markings and vividly contrasting colors.

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