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Washington, United States
loves: you win if you guessed "pets" and "museums". Also books, art history, travel, British punk, Korean kimchi, bindis, martinis, and other things TBD. I will always make it very clear if a post is sponsored in any way. Drop me a line at thepetmuseum AT gmail.com !

Saturday, November 27, 2010

how a traveller to japan acquired a cat

In the nineteenth century a scholar named William Elliot Griffis went to live and work in the dynamic "New Japan" of the 1870s. In his cultural study of his host country, The Mikado's Empire (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876), he tells this story of needing a hungry, hunting cat . . . and the cat he got instead.
* * *
There was a goodly number of rats in the old mansion, though they rarely disturbed me in the day-time. Their favorite place of playing what seemed to be foot-ball, or Congress, was over the ceilings, running along the beams immediately above the rafters. The builder of the mansion had foreseen the future, and, with wise benevolence, had cut square holes through certain portions of the fine lattice-work that might be spoiled by irregular gnawing, and thus earned the gratitude of all rodent generations. I determined to be rid of these ancient pests, and went out in search of a cat. . .

I preferred a lean feline specimen that would seek the rats from motives of hunger, but I could get none. The people loved their pets too well. But one day, on passing a hemp shop, I saw a good-natured old lady sitting on her mats, with a fine tortoiseshell tabby, and instantly determined to get that cat. Accosting her with the usual bow, I said, in my best Japanese, "Good-morning, old lady. Will you sell me that cat? I should like to buy it." . . .The old lady was pleased. Concerning the sale of her cat, however, she demurred. Her niko was a polite, well-bred animal. I was a foreigner from some outlandish place beyond the sea. Could she trust Puss with me? With head inclining forty-five degrees over her left shoulder, she considered. Looking up, she said, " I will not sell you the cat; but if you love it, you can have it." Of course, I loved it on the spot. Taking the name of the street, and number of the house, I sent Sahei for it.

Installed in my dwelling, it proved to be handsome and lazy, disturbing but little the ancient population, which, however, never troubled me except by their frisky noise. My repeated invitations to a banquet of arsenic were as often declined, with thanks and squeals; but on wrapping up a piece of seasoned meat in a small box in a tight bundle of paper, they partook luxuriantly and subsided. The old lady came occasionally to see her former pet. . .

The most remarkable fact concerning the majority of cats in Japan is that they have no tails, or, at least, a mere stump or tuft, like a rabbit's. They resemble the Manx cat in this respect. Whether wholly natural, or the long result of art, I could never satisfactorily determine. It always struck me as a great feline affliction, since the chief plaything of a kitten is its tail. To run around after their caudal stumps was a sorry game in the Japanese cats, compared with the lively revolutions of those boasting twelve inches of tail. An American gentleman once took one of these bob-tailed cats to California. The creature had evidently never made the acquaintance of the long-tailed brethren of its species, and the unwonted sight of their terminal appendages seemed to incite the feline nature of Japan to the highest pitch of jealousy and rage. It was continually biting, scratching, howling, and spitting at other cats, invariably seizing their tails in its teeth when practicable.
* * *
(Pages 449 - 451.)
That is odd about the "jealous" cat. I mean, Elizabeth bites Bac's tail all the time (she does - she eyeballs it with her mouth half open, waiting to strike), and she's got a perfectly long gorgeous one herself.

3 comments:

Laura Brown said...

What a great story. Have you read Soseki Natsume's novel I Am a Cat? It's a hilarious satirical look at people and their cats in early 20th-century Japan.

Katnip Lounge said...

What a wonderful tail, erm, tale!

curator said...

I'm glad you both like it - and I HAVE had a bit of a look at "I am a Cat." Here's the post -
http://thepetmuseum.blogspot.com/2008/05/i-am-cat.html