I Am a Cat

by Kinnosuke Natsume

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What are the modern and traditional elements in I am a Cat?

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In I am a Cat, the modern and traditional elements are considered in a detached, ironic way through the book's comic tone. Author Natsume Soseki satirizes the follies and pretenses of Tokyo's new money and intelligentsia through the eyes and ears of a house cat who fancies himself superior to humans. It is set when Japan was emerging as a modern industrial and military power after centuries of isolation and stasis.

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I am a Cat was published at a time of rapid technological, economic, cultural, and social change in Japan and is full of examples reflecting the clash of modern and traditional manners and ideas. Some examples are embodied in the characters’ personalities and habits, and some are reflected in the formal and technical aspects of the book.

One modernist aspect is the book’s narrative point of view. This is an example of anthropomorphism, a literary practice that ascribes human qualities to non-human subjects, and it was a daring innovation for a novel in 1906 to use a cat narrator. The cat also speaks knowledgeably about concepts like human evolution and psychology of the self that reflect its modern consciousness and imply the type of fancy international education that author Natsume Soseki was satirizing among the new intellectual class. The narrator also claims to read human minds by means of a “beam of electricity,” revealing an imagination inspired by twentieth-century technology.

On the traditional side, we know that the Japanese spoken by the narrator in the original version was a formal, outdated style, suggesting an exaggerated respect for the past. We also know that the cat is a loyal patriot, willing to go fight the Russians without reservation. And, perhaps most significantly, we know that despite his worldly intellect he is a faithful Buddhist. This fact is first illustrated in the narrator’s approval of the female cat’s funeral rites and then emphasized in his calmly surrendering to his own death. This ending suggests the conclusion that while the exchange of ideas and culture has its merits, the traditional ways are what matter most.

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