Welcome to the Japanese Literature Read-along discussion of Volume One of I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.
A little background:
Natsume Sōseki is the pen name of Natsume Kinnosuke. He was born in 1867, and is often regarded as one of the best Japanese writers of the Meiji era.
I Am a Cat was originally published as a short story (what is now chapter one), but because of its success, he was encouraged to develop the story further. I Am a Cat was published in ten installments, in the literary journal Hototogisu, between 1905 and 1906.
From the back cover:The original Japanese title of I Am a Cat, Wagahai wa neko de aru, has a much deeper meaning than the simple English translation. The language used is very formal, and highly inappropriate for an unnamed stray cat turned house cat. So the satire begins from the very title itself.
I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature - from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates. From his unique perspective, author Sōseki Natsume offers a biting commentary - shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy - on the social upheaval of the Meiji era.
A bit of trivia:
Sōseki Natsume used to feature on the 1000 yen bill. This series was retired in 2004.
Vocabulary and Cultural Context
There are plenty of references, many of which I probably didn't catch myself, but these are some of the ones that I thought might enhance your understanding.
(Click on the links for more information. Page numbers refer to the Tuttle Publishing, Three Volumes in One Edition, ISBN: 080483265X)
He has a weak stomach and his skin is of a pale yellowish color, inelastic and lacking in vitality. Nevertheless he is an enormous gormandiser. After eating a great deal, he takes some taka-diastase for his stomach and, after that, he opens a book. (p. 6)
Taka-diastase is a digestive enzyme discovered by Dr. Jokichi Takamine in 1894.
Photo © Mitsui & Co., Ltd.
The next day, when, as always, I was having a pleasant nap on the veranda, the master emerged from his study (an act unusual in itself) and began behind my back to busy himself with something. At this point I happened to wake up and wondering what he was up to, opened my eyes just one slit the tenth of an inch. And there he was, fairly killing himself at being Andrea del Sarto. I could not help but laugh. (p. 10)
After the two men left, I took the liberty of eating such of the boiled fishpaste as Coldmoon had not already devoured. (p. 29)
Boiled fish paste, or kamaboko.
Image © www.kamaboko.com
From my same old place I watched his morose consumption of a typical New Year's breakfast of rice-cakes boiled with vegetables, all served up in soup. (p.30)
Rice cakes, or mochi, is made by pounding cooked rice until it is a sticky mass. The soup is called o-zoni, and the soup stock and types of vegetables included varies widely in the different regions of Japan, but it always includes mochi. The later incident of the cat dancing around the kitchen with mochi stuck in his teeth was very funny. Mochi is indeed very sticky, and even more so once the hot soup softens it up.
"My wife had earlier asked me, as a year's-end present to herself, to take her to hear Settsu Daijo. I'd replied that I wouldn't say no, and asked her the nature of the program for that day. She consulted the newspapers and answered that it was one of Chikamatsu's suicide dramas..." (p. 81)
"... They said that as they had used the very best quality, it would last longer than most memorial tablets. They also said that the character for 'honor' in Tortoiseshell's posthumous name would look better if written in the cursive style, so they had added the appropriate strokes."
"Is that so? Well, let's put Myoyoshinnyo's tablet in the family shrine and offer incense sticks." (p. 89)
A Buddhist family shrine, or butsudan, is still a common sight in many Japanese homes but seems to be less common with young Japanese.
Then, simultaneously erecting every single one of my eighty-eight thousand, eight hundred, eighty hairs, I shook my whole body. (p. 91)
The number 8 is considered a lucky number in Japan. It also has many occurrences in Buddhism and as such is considered an auspicious number for Buddhists.
But when, one of these days, some master sculptor, some regular Hidari Jingorō, comes and carves my image on a temple gate... (p. 92)
There is apparently some doubt as to whether Hidari Jingorō was a real person, but he is said to have carved the nemuri neko (sleeping cat) on one of the gates at Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a famous Shinto shrine in Nikko, to the north of Tokyo.
The proof that he has not attained enlightenment is that, although he has my portrait under his nose, he shows no sign of comprehension but coolly offers such crazy comment as, "perhaps, this being the second year of the war against the Russians, it is a painting of a bear." (p. 24)
He spoke excitedly, in a tone of voice appropriate to an announcement of the fall of Port Arthur. (p. 113)
"...But it's positively shameful that a citizen of Tokyo should never have visited the Sengaku-ji Temple." (p. 114)
We visited Sengaku-ji in March 2006.
A few guidelines for the discussion:
Feel free to discuss anything that happens in Volume One. That said, please beware that if you haven't yet finished reading Volume One, the COMMENTS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. Please read at your own risk.
And speaking of warnings, DON'T READ THE INTRODUCTION, to the Tuttle edition at least. I should have known better but I read it and it spoiled the ending!
Also, if you have gone on to read further in the book, please wait to discuss specifics of Volume Two until next month. However, if you'd like to bring up a general question, please do so and that way I'll keep an eye out for it in my own reading.
You are welcome to post your thoughts or questions any time. Even if you haven't had a chance to start reading yet, please feel free to join in later. For those participating in the discussion, I would suggest checking the box to subscribe to follow-up comments so that you will be notified when new comments have been left on this discussion post.
If you have posted about Volume One on your own blog, please leave a link in the comments and I'll update this post with your links so that we can all visit.
I think it goes without saying, but please be respectful of other people's opinions. It's our different perspectives or insights that will make the discussion more interesting. And there are NO stupid questions! If there is something in the text that you wondered about, don't hesitate to ask about it. We may not know the answer but we can try to figure it out together.
OK, with that out of the way, here are a just few simple questions to get the discussion ball rolling, but please do feel free to comment on any aspect of the story.
What do you think of the story so far? The schoolteacher? The cat? The schoolteacher's 'friends' who are always telling tall tales?
Have you had any difficulties reading the first volume? Any burning questions?
What impression do you have of Japan from this portrayal?
As it's a satire, what do you think the author is saying about Japan, and this class of people?
What name would you give the cat, if you could? Or do you like the fact that he remains nameless?
(Your question here... )
The following participants have shared their thoughts on Volume One:
Gnoegnoe at Graasland
Terri B. at Tip of the Iceberg
Claire at Paperback Reader
Mee at Books of Mee
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