Sunday, November 15, 2009

'I Am a Cat' Volume One (JLit Read-along)


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:
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.
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.

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 ©

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

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. I don't have time for discussion or answering your questions right now, but I wanted to say that like you, tanabata, I regret having read the introduction first! :( Like I mentioned in my post about part 1 of I Am a Cat. So I am not going to read the author's notes of The Old Capital until I have finished the book.

    I will get back to the discussion thread another day!

  2. Great information tanabata. Thank you. I'm a bit late. I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive. But I'm sure I can catch up before next month milestone :)

  3. Thank you so much for all this information, I just finished reading the first part, often I've had a very good laugh, some parts are really funny. But as I don't know much about Japan in that period, especially domestic life, it's sometimes difficult to fully appreciate if the text is satirical or not. I wonder about man/woman relations in that period, I think at the wife of the teacher laughing in an other room and complaining about her husband to his friends. It seems odd, but what do you think ?

  4. I'm a little frustrated that I haven't begun the book. My reading has dropped way considerably and I'm so behind my planned reading schedule that I'm not even sure I'll be able to read this now in time. The books that I was supposed to have finished by the end of October are still sitting on my TBR! And towards the holidays, it's getting even busier around here. But anyway, I will be following everyone's progress still. And hopefully next year be able to pick it up (maybe). Thanks for the tip about the introduction. Will definitely keep that in mind!

  5. I just posted my answers to your questions. What a delightful book! I appreciate the background information and links you've provided and can't wait to have a few minutes to go dig into those.

  6. Hi Nat, here's my post on the first part:

    Like others I am finding it difficult to discern what is being satirised as yet but I am enjoying the witty and scathing observations, especially regarding Madam Conk. I think it is very readable and I like the anecdotal tall tales and proverbs, even if their messages are somewhat lost on me.

    The taka-diastase amused me as I instantly saw "distaste".

    I luckily didn't read the Introduction; I never do until after I read a book as I have been caught out in the past.

    In my head (as mentioned in my post), I am calling the cat, Neko.

    I am enjoying this and look forward to the following volumes.

    Thank you so much for the historical and cultural details - they really help!

  7. Gnoe - I know! As soon as I read that sentence in the introduction about the ending, I so wished I could go back in time or erase that information from my head. Sigh.
    Thanks for posting about volume one on your blog. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as we go along.

    mee - Sounds good. I hope your copy arrives soon. And feel free to come back to this post once you've read volume one if you'd like to compare thoughts.

    Diana - You're welcome, I'm glad you found the info useful. I chuckled quite a bit in reading this first part too.

    As for the relationship of the schoolteacher and his wife, I actually thought it sounded pretty 'normal', for Japan anyway. At that time, at the beginning of the 1900s, men and women's roles would have been quite divided. Still are, in some ways. The man was the Master of the house and not expected to do anything in it, whereas the woman's duty was to take care of the running of the house and everyone in it. The wife's "place" was to be nearby to anticipate the needs of the guests, but they all probably would've thought it strange if she'd stayed in the room to converse with them. It's rather a gross generalization but I think that women were rather seen than heard, and not expected to have their own opinions.

    However, since traditional Japanese houses were made of wood, with sliding paper doors, it would be pretty easy to hear what was going on in the next room.
    Maybe her laughing at their topics, and them, is meant to be the reader's viewpoint as well. We're not supposed to take them seriously?

    As for her complaining about him to his friends, I took that as her just letting off a bit of her frustration? He is a pretty quirky character, after all.
    Plus, arranged marriages would still have been the norm. So who knows how much she had, or hadn't, grown to love him. ;)

  8. claire - My reading has slowed down quite a bit the last couple of months too so I understand. If you do get a chance to read it though, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Our schedule is vol. 2 next month and vol. 3 in January but you can join in anytime after that as well.
    And yes, do avoid the introduction until after you've read the book.

    Terri - Thanks for joining in and answering some of the questions on your blog. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book so far.

    Claire (Paperback Reader) - Thanks for the link to your post.
    They really are quite heartless in describing Mrs Conk! I agree that it's very readable, more so than I thought it would be actually.

    I usually don't read introductions beforehand either, but it seemed so short, I don't know why I thought it would be ok and started there. Oh well. I will definitely be more careful next time.

    I'm glad you find the cultural information useful. I wasn't sure as it was making the post rather long, but thought others might get something out of the things I looked up for myself, and those things that I know about from living here. It certainly made me read the text more closely, which is a good thing.

  9. I'm late, but here's my post for the first volume :)

  10. Mee - No worries. I'm glad you're reading along. Thanks for the link to your post, I've added it above.

  11. I've only just finished the first volume, so I'm slightly late into the read-along.

    It's interesting to note how this edition of I Am A Cat has translated most of the names of the characters and food items from the original Japanese into English, as is noted on Mee's blog post. The edition I'm reading is an earlier translation, and not only are the names kept in the original Japanese, they come with footnotes to explain, for example, what mochi and zoni are.

    As for how the story is going, I'm still rather unsure of where the general direction is. It feels like it's gliding and flowing smoothly, just following whatever current is prevalent. It does feel very much like the old time Japanese dramas or movies that I watched when I was little, where every character seems to be content with just sitting around and chatting.

    I'm looking forward to reading the second volume soon. =)

  12. Michelle - I got behind in my own reading of volume 2 so no worries about being a bit late. You can join in any time.

    I like the sound of your edition much better. I really do find the 'English' names annoying in this one. I can't seem to find any older versions readily available though, which is too bad, so I'll have to make due.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of it!


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