Feline Fancy - Cats in Japanese Literature
By Michelle Hui
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Cats Suggested as The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, 1850. Woodblock print, 37.4 x 77.8 cm. Photograph taken from https://www.wikiart.org/en/utagawa-kuniyoshi/cats-suggested-as-the-fifty-three-stations-of-the-tokaido.
My first foray into the niche of feline-centric Japanese literature began on a fairly innocuous day. Set out on my usual excursion to the local bookstore, I was thrown by the sudden realisation of the covers laid out and about, several of them all adorned with cat illustrations amongst the Japanese titles. Naturally, this prompted my inevitable question to my cat-and-book lover friend - what’s with all the cats in Japanese literature? Her nonchalant response of “Why not?” exuded a sincere simplicity and acceptance of the fact, which only intensified my own curiosity about the ubiquitous presence of cats in Japanese literature, and when I really looked into it, their immense popularity in Japanese society itself, making cameos and central figures in the arts, religion, and pop culture.
In a romance that dates back centuries, the veneration of cats in Japanese literature goes as far back to the eleventh century, where the first literary sighting of our feline friends made an appearance in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Their enduring presence and impact on Japanese fiction only continues to the present, inspiring several books that explore and feature their enigmatic presence. What, then, are the qualities of cats that make them so endearing in Japanese fiction?
It would be remiss not to acknowledge the seminal work that sparked this article in the first place, with it being an essential part of the feline-centric canon - Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat. Told through the sarcastic musings of its central protagonist, a cynical housecat is thrust into the societal machinations of the upper-middle class in Meiji era Japan. Delivered with acerbic commentary, the feline observer is a thoroughly unamused and unwilling witness to the human follies and foolishness that transpires in the novel. A notable event follows the cat’s derisive observation of its master’s ambitious posturing of an artist in his pursuit of garnering social currency and respect. His lofty ambitions nevertheless fall short, particularly when the master quotes a made-up artist in the name of inspiration, leading to mockery from both his peer and his cat. Through the peculiar narrative of a cat, Sōseki offers a unique lens to explore the social pretensions of the upper-middle class, satirising behaviour that forces a due reflection on societal posturing during the period. Originally conceived as a single short story, the book’s later expansion into a serialised format demonstrates the talking housecat’s immense popularity with the Japanese public, a testament to its endearing impact despite its humbling effect on the very subject it critiques.
Within the same genre of talking felines, Sōsuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books is a newer novel that follows the adventures of its lonely and grieving protagonist, Rintaro Natsuki. Following his grandfather’s death and the looming future of closing his grandfather’s beloved second-hand bookshop, Rintaro is accosted by the arrival of yet another sarcastic talking tabby cat, Tiger, who comes with the unusual request of saving books from their future demise. In the fantastical and heart-warming expeditions of Tiger and Rintaro, Natsukawa weaves in moral lessons that celebrates and appreciates the cultural and emotive value of books, eventually guiding Rintaro out of a labyrinth of grief and insularity. Tiger, in this case, acts as the wise-cracking guide and no-nonsense teacher for Rintaro, much like Sōseki’s cat, both cats assume a guiding role to humans that encourages self-improvement and self-introspection.
Beyond their role as moralistic guides, the enigma of cats is well-capitalised in Japan’s arguably most popular author, Haruki Murakami’s works, taking on recurring roles as mysterious characters that appear throughout his novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and A Wild Sheep Chase. In Murakami’s literary universe, the motif of cats is much less of human companions, acting as stimulants that propel his characters into the vast, often indecipherable magical adventures that define Murakami’s storytelling.
So, what then are the charming qualities that have led to the persistent presence of cats in Japanese literature from the eleventh century to the present? Their eccentric and enigmatic nature provides a compelling case, alongside their nationwide adoration makes them both captivating characters and excellent human companions and wise guides for our life-long adventures.