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Meet the Cats of Japanese Literature

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Cats and Japan seem as tangled up in each other as a kitten with a yarn ball. From the iconic maneki neko, the lucky cat with its raised and beckoning paw, through to Hello Kitty, felines are inescapable in Nippon. You’ll find them curled up in cat shrines, cat trains, and cat cafés; there are even islands full of cats. Whether it’s because cats are considered kawaii (cute) or a lucky charm, they have meowed and purred their way into the heart of Japanese culture.

Popular culture has more than its fill of saucer-eyed cats. They appear in fur suits as backing dancers for Japanese pop stars, melt the hearts of grumpy-faced samurais in TV and film, and get anthropomorphised with speaking roles in Anime and Manga.

Before wide-eyed Luna from Sailor Moon, cats often “modeled” for Ukiyo-e art. Mass produced by woodblock prints, this art form became popular in the Edo period, spanning 17th to 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e prints cover a range of subjects, including cats in all positions: lone cats, cats with people, people as cats, and even cats as monsters.

There are supernatural creatures, like the bakeneko—the changed cat who stands on its hind legs and slowly acquires human traits—and its more nefarious cousin the nekomata, who one-ups the bakeneko by speaking, and incites chaos.

Then you have the maneki neko, the lucky cat who symbolises good fortune and has her own share of folk tales, whether it’s bringing prosperity to starving shop owners or warning someone of a lightning strike by simply raising her paw.

Ever-iconic in Japanese art, this love of cats translates onto the pages of Japanese literature. Immortalised from the most famous Heian novel of the 11th century to the present day, cats have made scratch marks in Japanese prose and poetry.

So slink off to a quiet corner, ideally with your cat if you have one, and immerse yourself in one of these Japanese classics.  

The Tale Of Genji

A canon in Japanese literature, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji or Genji Monogatari is, at over 1,000 years old, said to be the world’s first modern novel. While this classic work written by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting in the Heian court focuses on the “shining” Prince Genji and his romantic interludes and intrigues, a furry figure makes a dramatic entrance in the second part of the book. Creating a chaos that would make the nekomata proud, Princess Nyosan’s* cat knocks a screen over allowing Genji’s nephew, Kashiwagi, to glimpse his uncle’s young wife. As Kashiwagi’s obsession for Nyosan ignites, he requests to borrow her cat, wanting to feel close to her vicariously through it. The cat seduces him with feline affection and Kashiwagi refuses to return the cat. While the cat is but a faint mew in a large tome, it’s the striking match for a tragedy that affects Genji, Kashiwagi and Nyosan, as well Kaoru, the pair’s illegitimate son, who becomes the main character in the third part of the book.

*Or the Third Princess, depending on which translation you read. 

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I am a Cat

Soseki’s satire on Japanese society at the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) offers clever social commentary from the point of view of a nameless cat. As society shifts in a flux caught between Western culture and Japanese tradition, a cat adopted by a teacher, dubbed Mr. Sneaze, sits back and observes human nature and eavesdrops on the conversations going on around him. The humble housecat offers us an insight into the triviality of human nature at an interesting time in Japanese history. The cat spends a lot of time listening to the discussions of Mr. Sneaze and his friends discussing art, history, and philosophy, nodding along silently, occasionally meowing in agreement in an attempt to partake in the discussion. Soseki began I Am a Cat as a short story, that soon expanded into series, evolving from the struggles of being a cat in a middle class home to being a bystander in its humans’ lives. It reads more like a collection of vignettes than a concrete novel, but each story interlinks flawlessly with the one before. 

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A Cat, a Man, and Two Women

Written in the 1930s by Nobel Prize-shortlisted writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, this novella revolves around Shozo, his ex-wife, his current wife, and his cat, Lily. The plot: Who gets the cat after the divorce? While most divorces get messy over children, alimony, and who gets the house, in Tanizaki’s novella it’s the furry member of the family who is at the tension’s core. On the surface it seems like the two women, the young Fukuko and her predecessor Shinako, rival each other for Shozo’s affection. It seems, however, that Shozo has only one true love in his life: Lily, an aging tortoiseshell cat. Shinako uses the cat as a ruse to lure her ex-husband back to her. After igniting Fukuko’s jealousy for the creature, when she realises how much Shozo loves the animal, the reluctant cat finds herself in the clutches of her former mistress. The story unwinds to reveal some home truths about the main characters through Lily and her feline charms. 

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Cat Town

Cat Town collects Sakutaro Hagiwara’s poetry collections Blue Cat and Howling at the Moon, along with his prose-poem novella Cat Town, first published in 1935. Cat Town’s narrator is disoriented, questioning his reality as he wanders the countryside only to stumble into a town populated solely by cats. While the story conjures up images of viral images of Japan’s famous cat islands, it’s rather a tale of frayed nerves and the illusory nature of reality as it examines disorientation, madness, and a rejection of naturalism. Cats in his collection pepper the text, but their meaning is never truly clear. Perhaps the cat can be thought of as a symbol Hagiwara used to convey an estrangement from the living. 

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Kafka On The Shore

Cats recur throughout Haruki Murakami’s books, and Kafka on the Shore comes with its own cast of felines. The book is split into two parts, where the odd-numbered chapters tell 15-year-old Kafka’s story, a boy who runs away from his father’s house to find his mother and sister; and the even-numbered ones focus on Nakata, a man who lost many of his mental prowess after a mysterious childhood accident during World War II. While Nakata lost his memory, ability to read, and his higher intellectual function, he finds he’s gifted with the ability to talk to cats. His unorthodox talent leads him to work as a finder of lost cats in his old age, which spirits him away on his first adventure away from home. While Kafka and Nakata never meet in the book, their separate lives thread into one story, bringing the reader into the surreal and wonderful world of Murakami’s prose.  

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The day Toru Okada’s cat disappears, things start to go wrong. His wife, Kumiko, grows more distant every day, and his search for his cat leads him to the alley behind their house. After hanging out for a while, he meets May Kasahara who has watched Toru, and directs him towards an abandoned house that’s popular with stray cats. The house, however, is strange and has brought bad luck to all its prior tenants. After Toru fails to find their cat Noboru Wataya—named after Kumiko’s brother—Kumiko asks her brother to help find his namesake. In searching for the cat, Toru and Kumiko drift further apart and events grow stranger as the pair embark on a bizarre journey that turns their lives inside out. 

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The Guest Cat

When Chibi, the neighbor’s cat, walks into the kitchen of a literary couple in their 30s, their lives change. She saunters into their home as a free creature, coming and going at her will; she’s a guest, not a pet. The pure white cat with mottled with patches of light brown adopts the couple, bringing small joys with each visit. At the start of the book, the couple no longer have much to say to one another, but Chibi helps them find light and color in their life once more. Contrasting with Soseki’s unnamed narrator, Chibi is the only character named in The Guest Cat. The book’s humans remain anonymous, but it seems as if its narrator, also poet and a writer, draws from Takashi Hiraide’s own memories. The story flows like a stream; it’s delicate and homes in on the details with elegant, simple prose that nods to Hiraide’s craft as a poet. It’s a story of love, loss, and learning to live again.  

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Jennifer Walker is an Anglo-Hungarian writer Budapest, Hungary. After a sordid past involving a career in Nuclear Physics, and after completing her PhD, Jennifer threw caution - and physics - to ... Show More

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