1905 | Tokyo

A Rebel Cat

Natsume Sōseki looks at the world from a feline perspective.

I am a cat. As yet I have no name. I’ve no idea where I was born. All I remember is that I was meowing in a dampish dark place when, for the first time, I saw a human being.

This human being, I heard afterward, was a member of the most ferocious human species; a shosei, one of those students who, in return for board and lodging, perform small chores about the house. I hear that, on occasion, this species catches, boils, and eats us. However, as at that time I lacked all knowledge of such creatures, I did not feel particularly frightened. I simply felt myself floating in the air as I was lifted up lightly on his palm. When I accustomed myself to that position, I looked at his face. This must have been the very first time that ever I set eyes on a human being. The impression of oddity, which I then received, still remains today. First of all, the face that should be decorated with hair is as bald as a kettle. Since that day I have met many a cat but never have I come across such deformity. The center of the face protrudes excessively, and sometimes from the holes in that protuberance smoke comes out in little puffs. I was originally somewhat troubled by such exhalations for they made me choke, but I learned only recently that it was the smoke of burnt tobacco, which humans like to breathe.

For a little while I sat comfortably in that creature’s palm, but things soon developed at a tremendous speed. I could not tell whether the shosei was in movement or whether it was only I that moved, but anyway I began to grow quite giddy, to feel sick. And just as I was thinking that the giddiness would kill me, I heard a thud and saw a million stars. Thus far I can remember, but however hard I try, I cannot recollect anything thereafter.

When I came to myself, the creature had gone. I had at one time had a basketful of brothers, but now not one could be seen. Even my precious mother had disappeared. Moreover I now found myself in a painfully bright place most unlike that nook where once I’d sheltered. It was in fact so bright that I could hardly keep my eyes open. Sure that there was something wrong, I began to crawl about. Which proved painful. I had been snatched away from softest straw only to be pitched with violence into a prickly clump of bamboo grass.

“Luna & Luna no. 2,” from Lepidoptera Portraits, 2007.

“Luna & Luna no. 2,” from Lepidoptera Portraits, 2007. Photograph by Harri Kallio. © Harri Kallio, courtesy of the artist.

After a struggle, I managed to scramble clear of the clump and emerged to find a wide pond stretching beyond it. I sat at the edge of the pond and wondered what to do. No helpful thought occurred. After a while it struck me that, if I cried, perhaps the shosei might come back to fetch me. I tried some feeble mewing, but no one came. Soon a light wind blew across the pond and it began to grow dark. I felt extremely hungry. I wanted to cry, but I was too weak to do so. There was nothing to be done. However, having decided that I simply must find food, I turned, very, very slowly, left around the pond. It was extremely painful going. Nevertheless, I persevered and crawled on somehow until at long last I reached a place where my nose picked up some trace of human presence. I slipped into a property through a gap in a broken bamboo fence, thinking that something might turn up once I got inside. It was sheer chance; if the bamboo fence had not been broken just at that point, I might have starved to death at the roadside. I realize now how true the adage is that what is to be, will be. To this very day that gap has served as my shortcut to the neighbor’s tortoiseshell cat.

Well, though I had managed to creep into the property, I had no idea what to do next. Soon it got really dark. I was hungry; it was cold, and rain began to fall. I could not afford to lose any more time. I had no choice but to struggle toward a place that seemed, since brighter, warmer. I did not know it then, but I was in fact already inside the house, where I now had a chance to observe further specimens of humankind. The first one that I met was O-san, the servant woman, one of a species yet more savage than the shosei. No sooner had she seen me than she grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and flung me out of the house. Accepting that I had no hope, I lay stone still, my eyes shut tight and trusting to providence. But the hunger and the cold were more than I could bear. Seizing a moment when O-san had relaxed her watch, I crawled up once again to flop into the kitchen. I was soon flung out again. I crawled up yet again, only to be flung out yet again. I remember that the process was several times repeated. Ever since that time, I have been utterly disgusted with this O-san person. The other day I managed at long last to rid myself of my sense of grievance, for I squared accounts by stealing her dinner of mackerel and pike. As I was about to be flung out for the last time, the master of the house appeared, complaining of the noise and demanding an explanation. The servant lifted me up, turned my face to the master and said, “This little stray kitten is being a nuisance. I keep putting it out and it keeps crawling back into the kitchen.” The master briefly studied my face, twisting the black hairs under his nostrils. Then, “In that case, let it stay,” he said, and turned and went inside. The master seemed to be a person of few words. The servant resentfully threw me down in the kitchen. And it was thus that I came to make this house my dwelling.

Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals—except the weasel.

—The Simpsons, 1993

During my early days in the house, I was terribly unpopular with everyone except the master. Everywhere I was unwelcome, and no one would have anything to do with me. The fact that nobody, even to this day, has given me a name indicates quite clearly how very little they have thought about me. Resigned, I try to spend as much of my time as possible with the master, the man who had taken me in. In the morning, while he reads the newspaper, I jump to curl up on his knees. Throughout his afternoon siesta, I sit upon his back. This is not because I have any particular fondness for the master, but because I have no other choice, no one else to turn to. Additionally, and in the light of other experiments, I have decided to sleep on the boiled-rice container, which stays warm through the morning, on the quilted foot-warmer during the evening, and out on the veranda when it is fine. But what I find especially agreeable is to creep into the children’s bed and snuggle down between them. There are two children, one of five and one of three: they sleep in their own room, sharing a bed. I can always find a space between their bodies, and I manage somehow to squeeze myself quietly in. But if, by great ill luck, one of the children wakes, then I am in trouble. For the children have nasty natures, especially the younger one. They start to cry out noisily, regardless of the time, even in the middle of the night, shouting, “Here’s the cat!” Then invariably the neurotic dyspeptic in the next room wakes and comes rushing in. Why, only the other day, my master beat my backside black and blue with a wooden ruler.

Living as I do with human beings, the more that I observe them, the more I am forced to conclude that they are selfish. Especially those children. I find my bedmates utterly unspeakable. When the fancy takes them, they hang me upside down, they stuff my face into a paper bag, they fling me about, they ram me into the kitchen range. Furthermore, if I do commit so much as the smallest mischief, the entire household unites to chase me around and persecute me. The other day when I happened to be sharpening my claws on some straw floor matting, the mistress of the house became so unreasonably incensed that now it is only with the greatest reluctance that she’ll even let me enter a matted room. Though I’m shivering on the wooden floor in the kitchen, heartlessly she remains indifferent. Miss Blanche, the white cat who lives opposite and whom I much admire, tells me whenever I see her that there is no living creature quite so heartless as a human. The other day, she gave birth to four beautiful kittens. But three days later, the shosei of her house removed all four and tossed them away into the backyard pond. Miss Blanche, having given through her tears a complete account of this event, assured me that, to maintain our own parental love and to enjoy our beautiful family life, we, the cat race, must engage in total war upon all humans. We have no choice but to exterminate them. I think it is a very reasonable proposition. And the three-colored tomcat living next door is especially indignant that human beings do not understand the nature of proprietary rights. Among our kind it is taken for granted that he who first finds something, be it the head of a dried sardine or a gray mullet’s navel, acquires thereby the right to eat it. And if this rule be flouted, one may well resort to violence. But human beings do not seem to understand the rights of property. Every time we come on something good to eat, invariably they descend and take it from us. Relying on their naked strength, they coolly rob us of things which are rightly ours to eat. Miss Blanche lives in the house of a military man, and the tomcat’s master is a lawyer. But since I live in a teacher’s house, I take matters of this sort rather more lightly than they. I feel that life is not unreasonable so long as one can scrape along from day to day. For surely even human beings will not flourish forever. I think it best to wait in patience for the Day of the Cats.


Natsume Sōseki

From I Am a Cat. Born in 1867, the youngest of eight children, Natsume Kinnosuke first used his pen name, Sōseki—deriving from a Chinese idiom that denotes unwillingness to admit defeat—in 1889, and he graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1893. Credited with introducing the modern realistic novel to Japan, he published his last book, Grass on the Wayside, in 1915. In 1984 Natsume became the first novelist whose likeness appeared on Japanese currency, on the one-thousand-yen note.