What is it with the Japanese and cats?

I am a big fan of Japanese literature. Last year, among Japanese authors I enjoyed reading included Natsuko Imamura, Meiko Kawakami, Natsu Miyashita, Durian Sukigawa, Emi Yagi, Seishi Yokomizo and Banana Yoshimoto.

And then, of course, there is one of my favourite authors and probably Japan’s biggest literary export Haruki Murakami. I have at least a dozen of his books.

If you start looking at Japanese literature it does not take long to realise it has a whole genre of books that other countries of the world does not seem to have.

Books about cats.

I’m not talking children’s picture books here or even non-fiction. There appears to be an entire genre of adult fiction where a cat is either the protagonist or a main character.

And I have also discovered that I like them. I like them very much indeed.

For me it started with Murakami’s novels. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle begins with the protagonist’s cat going missing and Kafka on the Shore has a whole cat-themed second narrative with the older man whose job it is to search out and reclaim lost cats. Kafka on the Shore is pretty surreal. If you like your fiction a little more grounded, this probably isn’t for you.

After I had read several Murakami novels and discovered Banana Yoshimoto, I began seeking out Japanese authors when I went to the bookshop and it didn’t take me that long to discover the cat theme. I honestly didn’t hunt down cat books, they just sort of popped out at me every so often.

I think The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide was the next feline book I read. This is a gentle and subtle story about a childless couple in their thirties who rent a small house in the corner of the garden of a larger property and are adopted by a cat who lives elsewhere but who comes to them to play, to sleep and to get extra food. It’s lovely.

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuki Natsukawa is more fairytale-esque. It’s the story of a young man who inherits his grandfather’s second hand book shop but as he is still a student decided to close up and sell it. Until a talking cat called Tiger shows up and asks for his help to save books that have been ‘trapped’ and are unable to be read.

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura. Now this is a book about what is or isn’t important in life. Our narrator is given a very short time to live (he’s only a young man) and before he can draw up a bucket list, the devil appears and says he will give him one extra day of life for each thing he nominates to disappear from the world. Each chapter deals with the item he has chosen for that day and what effect its sudden disappearance had, if any, on the world. This is a great book.

But I think my favourite Japanese cat book to date is The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa. This book is quirky and just beautiful. It’s narrated by the very sarcastic Nana the rescued street cat who is having a lovely time sitting in the front seat of a silver van as its owner Satoru drives around Japan catching up with some old friends. I’m not telling you anything else, you’ll have to read it yourself. Buy tissues.

Cats are believed to have been imported into Japan from China in the 6th century by Buddhist monks who used them to protect their sacred scrolls from vermin. They feature in Japanese art and legend and are generally looked on as tokens of good luck and good fortune.

What is believed to have been the original cat novel, I Am A Cat, was written around one century ago by Japanese national treasure Soseki Natsume.

I haven’t read it… but I think I probably ought to.

2 responses to “What is it with the Japanese and cats?”

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