Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

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Though I Am a Cat was one of Sseki’s first publications, it is considered by some to be his masterpiece. The unusual point of view gives it a unique status not only in Japanese but also in world literature. The startling novelty of the narrative voice made the first chapter and its author an immediate success. Some critics find, however, that the looseness of the structure, inevitable given Sseki’s original intention of writing only one chapter but continuing to eleven because of popular demand, detracts from its appeal as a serious work.

Born a year before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Sseki grew up and wrote at a time when Japanese literature started flourishing again after a sterile period. The emperor Meiji’s avowed intention was to open Japan to the knowledge of the rest of the world for the good of the nation. Japanese translations of works from all over the world were bountiful, giving the Japanese easy access to Western literature. Trained as a scholar in both the classical Chinese literature, which had dominated in Japan, and English literature, especially of the eighteenth century, Sseki was also rare among Japanese scholars of his day in forming his own theories of literature in his classroom. Two of his lectures, Bungakuron (1907; a study of literature) and Bungaku Hyoron (1909; literary criticism), were published. As is apparent in the final chapter of I Am a Cat, Sseki felt the tension between the traditional Japanese loyalty to the family, to the nation, to the larger group outside the self and the new sense of individualism. As is apparent from the title and the exploration of his personal opinions in the novel, he believed to some extent in the importance of the individual.

As he was finishing I Am a Cat, Sseki was also writing what proved to be his most popular work, Botchan (1906; English translation, 1918). Sseki’s later and much more serious novels develop themes introduced in these two early works. His style varies considerably from book to book, making it impossible to classify his work as a whole; Sseki himself did not belong to the schools of Romanticism or naturalism which dominated the literary scene. Yet the comic tone of his early work, especially I Am a Cat, his colloquial style, and his amusing philosophical discussions continue to attract a wide readership in Japan. Sseki remains one of the most admired and influential writers in Japan.