Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, a nameless, stray tomcat of obscure origin that has been adopted by the Kushami family of Tokyo. Plain and nondescript in appearance, it is somewhat Persian in type and light grayish yellow in coloring. A creature of feeling and of a sensitive nature, it is highly intelligent, able to read and write the Japanese language. It is curious in its exploration of the world and an acute observer of the lives of human beings, in relation to whom, however, it feels definitely superior. Its principal deficiency is that it is cowardly and unable to catch rats.

Sensei Kushami

Sensei Kushami, the tomcat’s owner and a teacher in Tokyo. In his mid-thirties, he is of average build, has a pockmarked face, wears gold-rimmed glasses, sports a handlebar mustache, and suffers from dyspepsia. He wears the Japanese dress of the Meiji period: bowler hat and an haori jacket over a kimono. He has a wife, whom he often verbally abuses, and three small daughters, the youngest a baby. A reclusive person, he shuts himself in his study on returning home from school, and he tries to read, invariably falling asleep. He indulges in a variety of cultural enthusiasms: writing haiku and modern poems, painting watercolors, sketching, and playing the violin. He never rises to competence in any of these activities. He also keeps a diary, which is often read by his cat. Kushami is self-centered, self-indulgent, insensitive to the feelings of others, stubborn in his opinions, and contemptuous of businesspeople. His full name in Japanese means “lazy teacher.”

Meitei

Meitei, a friend of Kushami, an aesthetician who is of independent means. He is imaginative, a consummate liar, and a practical joker who consistently takes advantage of Kushami’s naïveté. His name in Japanese literally means “puzzling tower.”

Kangetsu Mizushima

Kangetsu Mizushima, a former pupil of Kushami who is a doctoral candidate in physics at the Imperial University of Tokyo. His favorite topic of conversation is women, and he likes to insinuate that he has had “adventures” with them. He is missing a front tooth and wears a black cotton haori jacket that is too small for him. His personal name, Kangetsu, means “wintry moon.”

Mr. Kaneda

Mr. Kaneda, a prosperous businessman who lives in expensive housing not far from Kushami’s modest dwelling. His name in Japanese means “prosperous rice field.”

Hanako Kaneda

Hanako Kaneda, his wife. Her personal name, Hanako, means “nose.” Because she has a big nose, Kushami and his friends refer to her as Mrs. Nose.

Tomiko Kaneda

Tomiko Kaneda, the Kanedas’ marriageable daughter. Rich and pretty, she is also snobbish, demanding, arrogant, and ill-mannered. Her personal name, Tomiko, means “rich.”

Tofu Ochi

Tofu Ochi, a poet. He is a friend of Mizushima, who introduced him to Kushami. He wears an haori jacket and a hakama divided skirt. His personal name, Tofu, means “east wind.”

Tojuro Suzuki

Tojuro Suzuki, a businessman who is employed by Mr. Kaneda and is an old friend of Kushami. His Western-style suit of English tweed signifies his Western orientation.

The Uncle from Shizuoka

The Uncle from Shizuoka, Meitei’s elderly uncle, an old-fashioned gentleman who wears the topknot chommage hairstyle once worn by gentlemen when they carried two swords. An admirer of the old samurai training and a proponent of Confucian and Zen Buddhist tenets, he carries with him an “iron fan,” which is actually a fourteenth-century “helmet splitter.”

Yagi Dokusen

Yagi Dokusen, a long-faced, bearded friend of Meitei of about forty. He is a poet and a scholar of Zen Buddhist philosophy who tends to monopolize any conversation. His personal name, Yagi, means “billy goat,” and his surname, Dokusen, signifies “lonely hermit.”

The Characters

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The title of the novel in Japanese, Wagahai wa Neko de aru, uses the formal first person pronoun to refer to a cat, bestowing on the animal narrator an ironically elevated status. Sseki is evidently poking fun at himself and human beings in general on several levels, through the dual perspective of a cat who lives in the home of an English teacher.

First, the cat behaves and thinks like a cat. Some hilarious passages arise from the clash between the worlds of cats and humans, as when the narrator decides to try some leftover rice cakes and gets completely entangled in the sticky mess, or when he remarks on the superiority of cats who wear no clothes and yet are never naked.

Second, the cat has the characteristics not only of a human but also of a widely read, literate, and perceptive one, much like the author, who is able to read diaries and refer breezily to great historical figures in both Western and Eastern civilization. At the same time, the cat’s master is an English teacher, as Sseki himself was; the cat mercilessly mocks the habits of his master, who locks himself in his study after coming home from school, ostensibly to read and study, but who more often than not falls asleep over his book. The cat perceives his master as an ineffectual, introverted man who tries in vain to improve himself, trying the art of writing poetry or painting watercolors, but constantly subject to his physical ailments.

Third, the cat, a homeless orphan who must attach himself to a household, shares a similarity of background with the author, who himself had an unstable childhood. Sseki was the youngest in a family of eight children; he was actually brought up by foster parents until he was nine, when he was returned to his parents. Other experiences influenced his independent outlook. After studying and teaching for several years, Sseki went to England for two years to study English literature; though he studied hard, he made no friends and left England with a distinctly soured attitude toward the English. Even this miserable experience had a positive effect on his writing, an effect manifested in his choice of a cat, one of the more independent household pets, as a narrator. Unlike many of his Japanese contemporaries, Sseki dared to form his own opinions of English literature and to view the influence of Western civilization in Japan with foreboding, a characteristic evident in the detached, mocking tone he gives to his cat narrator.

The other male characters in the novel serve primarily as mouthpieces for different points of view in the many conversations which are the main delight of the book. Women are minor characters, their function subservient to the comforts of the men. When they appear for any length of time, they are the objects of derision, from the point of view of both the cat and the male characters.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68

Doi, Takeo. The Psychological World of Natsume Sseki, 1976.

Kato, Shuichi. “The Age of Meiji,” in The History of Japanese Literature. Vol. 3, The Modern Years, 1983.

Keene, Donald. “Natsume Sseki,” in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, 1984.

McClellan, Edwin. Two Japanese Novelists: Sseki and Toson, 1969.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “The Agonies of Individualism: Natsume Sseki,” in The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, 1978.

Yu, Beongcheon. Natsume Sseki, 1969.

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