「I Am a Cat」is My Favourite Work of Sōseki Natsume

For these past few weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of books by Sōseki Natsume (夏目 漱石 / Natsume Sōseki), who is often considered as the greatest writer in modern Japanese history.  I don’t know much about him besides the brief biographical notes included in his books, but it seems to me that his scholarly life and the period in which he lived, Meiji Period, greatly influenced his works.

My favourite work of his that I’ve read so far is I Am a Cat ( 吾輩は猫である / Wagahai wa Neko de Aru).  It’s translated in English by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson.

Rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 (4 out of 5 grins)

i am a cat by soseki natsume

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Blurb from Amazon:

Written over the course of 1904-1906, Soseki Natsume’s comic masterpiece, I Am a Cat, satirizes the foolishness of upper-middle-class Japanese society during the Meiji era. With acerbic wit and sardonic perspective, it follows the whimsical adventures of a world-weary stray kitten who comments on the follies and foibles of the people around him.

Why is this my favourite Sōseki Natsume work ?

The first book that I read by Natsume is Kokoro, which is very serious, even depressing.  The second one is Mon—so similar to Kokoro that I felt disappointed.  After reading these two books consecutively, I wondered if all of Natsume’s books will have the same feel.  That’s what I thought until I read I Am a Cat.  

. . .made me laugh like a lunatic. . .

I Am a Cat made me laugh like a lunatic within the first chapter.  It felt so refreshing after reading the overly serious and depressing Kokoro and Mon.  The tone of I Am a Cat differs greatly to these two works that I had to double-check whether all three were written by the same author.

It’s considerably longer compared to his other works because it was originally a serialized novel published in installments for a literary journal. The English-translated version compiles all of these into one book, that’s why we get a noticeably thicker book.

Reminded me of Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei

nozomu itoshiki hanging by the sakura tree - sayonara zetsubou sensei

Seriously.  If this book is an anime, it would be like SZS; perhaps because they are both satire.  What’s more uncanny is that there is a part in the book where a character attempts to explain the merits of death by hanging à la academic lecture.  It’s a darkly humourous chapter discussing the history and even debating the most effective methods to die by hanging.  Like the anime SZS, I Am a Cat makes you feel guilty of actually feeling entertained with their dark but oh-so-true reality of modern society.

Not-so-good Translation

I’m not very thrilled with the English translation by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson.  First of all, there are LOTS of typos in the book.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps the editor didn’t do his/her job or perhaps some mechanical failure happened during the printing.  I don’t know.  But seeing those typos in a masterpiece such as this is very, very, VERY disappointing.

Another complaint of mine is the vocabulary.  I understand that the cat narrator uses a super self-important, overly eloquent way of speaking in Japanese, but I don’t see that as a reason why the translators should use difficult, rarely-used English words when the setting of the story is that of middle-class Japan.  I get that they’re trying to match the original Japanese, but the resulting translation looks too contrived, in my opinion.  I’m not saying that I didn’t understand anything in the book because the words are too difficult—I’m an English major, just so you know.  My point is that by using difficult words, the translators severely limited the number of potential readers of this wonderful book.  I’m not a snob, but I know that not everyone has a wide English vocabulary.  Not to mention that using difficult, rarely-used words can sound pompous, even desperate to sound intelligent.

Despite the over-the-top intelligent-sounding words, I enjoyed the book, thank you very much.  This is not the biggest of my complaints, however.  My biggest complaint is the change in the names of the characters and places from the original Japanese into English equivalents.  Some are literal translations, some are not.  For example, the character Mizushima Kangetsu (水島寒月) is Avalon Coldmoon in English.  Close enough.  Another one is Kaneda Tomiko (金田富子) becomes Opula Goldfield.  Not bad, but I personally prefer that they keep the original Japanese names like so many other translated works to keep the authenticity and culture of the original work.  

Perhaps the translators did this to emphasize the satire of I Am a Cat.  Not everyone knows and understands the Japanese language, so maybe Ito and Wilson translated even the names of the characters and places to highlight the definitive quality of each characters.  Makes sense, but I’m not too pleased with the result.

Saying all of these, however, please don’t misunderstand and think that I’m saying the translators, Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson, did a crappy job of translating I Am a Cat.  Their translation is not perfect, but what translation is, right?  I’m not 100% pleased, but I enjoyed the book very much, so who am I to complain like a know-it-all when these two obviously worked hard in translating a long work like this so that non-Japanese readers will have the chance to enjoy this Japanese masterpiece?

Read it!!!

If you’re interested in reading translated books by Japanese writers, I recommend I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.  It’s very entertaining. Not only does it give you a glimpse of Japanese middle-class society in the Meiji Period, but it also gives a timeless but biting commentary about the clash of tradition and modernity.

There is no doubt that this is now one of my favourite Japanese works.  However, if you’re planning to read this, I recommend that you be comfortable with academic-style reading because this would be a hard book to understand if you don’t have a wide English vocabulary.  Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable book to read.

If you’re proficient in Nihongo, you can read 吾輩は猫である / Wagahai wa Neko de Aru  in original Japanese at natsumesoseki.com.  Enjoy!

If you’ve already read the book and are interested in other media adaptions, you can watch the first film and the anime adaptations of 吾輩は猫である / Wagahai wa Neko de Aru below.

1936 Film

Uploaded by:  日本映画 by taizan

1982 Anime

Uploaded by:  aoao3999 さんのチャンネル

Have you read I Am a Cat yet?  If yes, what did you think about it?  If not, are you interested in reading it?

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Published by Arria Cross

Blogger at fujinsei.com since 2014. Currently a webnovelist. Check out my work "His Genius is a Superstar".

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  1. I had the opposite experience to you. I love his more serious books, Mon in particular. I’ve read Botchan as well, which is a really funny book, so I was really interested to read I Am A Cat to find out what his other comic writing was like. I read the same translation, and hadn’t considered that the translation might be the problem, but I was really disappointed by the book. I might look for a different translation.

    Give Botchan a go. It’s about a school teacher from Tokyo who thinks he’s amazing. He ends up teaching in a small town school and is ribbed mercilessly by his pupils and fellow teachers. I recommend J Cohn’s translation. The free version on Project Gutenberg isn’t a good translation – similar old fashioned writing to I Am A Cat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see. As for me, I like “Kokoro” more than “Mon”. It felt more mysterious for me. I’m currently reading “Sore Kara” which is also one of Natsume’s serious works, but it’s a little bit more toned down compared to “Kokoro” and “Mon”.

      Yes, I read “Botchan” as well since it’s one of his more popular works with film adaptation. To be honest, I like “I Am a Cat” more than “Botchan”. But it’s not that I “dislike” it, I just think “I Am a Cat” is more meaningful for me. It contains way more satirical materials and it entertained me more. I’m not aware of other translations besides this, but I think that this translation is too over-the-top and may deter potential readers.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your opinion. Keep on reading. Cheers!


    1. It is indeed soooo weird. Very entertaining, though. Ahaha. It’s up to you. If you get the all volumes in one, it can be a pretty long book to read, so I won’t recommend it if you only have a short time to spare. But I highly recommend that you read it if you want to read something intelligent but hilarious. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aaaaw. Oh well. It’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a satirical series, so it takes serious subjects such as suicide, pedophilia, etc. and makes fun of it. If you look past that and analyze it on a deeper level, it can be an entertaining show to watch. But of course, it’s also a matter of personal preference, so I can’t guaranteed that you’ll like it as much as I did. Doesn’t hurt to try, though. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am going to start learning japnese, i think it a good book to start, thanks for info. Anyway i want to ask your opinion on my latest post about Is art subjective or objective. plz tell me if it has a good writing or not.In sometime in my life i want to write a book. love you Arria.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmmm. I don’t recommend this book if you want to learn Japanese. This is a very high-level one if you read it in Japanese. Even the English translation is quite difficult to read if you don’t have a wide enough English vocabulary. But it’s extremely entertaining and I highly recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

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