Even after receiving the Naoki Award for his work titled ‘Hokanaranuhito,’ Shiraishi has continued to published many well-received novels, including ‘Tsubasa,’ ‘Kako no Futari,’ ‘Kaikyo’ and his latest full-length novel, ‘Karega Toru Fushigina Kosu wo Watashimo” – which is the story of a teacher who educates kids with learning disabilities. First taking in a cat during his thirties, Shiraishi is now the owner of four unique felines. Shiraishi proclaims, “House cats are the ideal form of life!” We interviewed him about the relationship between cats and humans.
Suddenly, there were cats
– How did you come to live with cats?
“My mother didn’t like animals, so I never had a chance to come in contact with dogs and cats. After I turned thirty, I encountered cats for the first time. Back then, I was working for a publisher, and I found an abandoned kitten near the company building. Though I’d never touched a cat before, I knew that little thing was going to die if I just left it there. I rationalized that if it’s going to die anyway, I might as well let it die in my house. So I took him in. But so much for my pathetic sentiments, the kitten recovered very quickly and became our first house cat. We named him Chibi, and he was a very smart guy.”
– Was it much trouble to suddenly have a cat at home?
“No, it was the greatest thing that ever happened. No matter how late I would come home, Chibi would come to the door to welcome me. I was crazy about him. Then after a while, I found a black cat on my way to work. We named him Kuro and took him into the house. He would take walks outside the house often, and one morning he was killed by a taxi right in front of our house. I had never cried so much in my life. I felt so sorry that I couldn’t save Kuro, I thought I’d go crazy out of guilt. After a while, I moved out and left Chibi with my family. He lived up until he was fifteen years old. He just died recently, or so I heard from my son’s letter.”
“My current wife is not so interested in animals. Moreover, I moved around a lot after I quit my day job, so I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to have a cat again. And that’s when I met Kuu-chan. There is a huge park near the apartment complex where we used to live in Hakata, and I used to take walks there. The place was kind of futuristic with concrete surroundings, and I had never seen a stray cat there. But there he was one day standing in the shade all by himself. I had no idea how he came to be there, but the sight was rather strange – almost divine in a sense. He didn’t run when I approached him. I noticed that he was unusually thin, so I decided to take him home.”
– That is strange – not a typical place for cats to hang around. Maybe he was waiting specifically for you?
“He was there all the sudden. But I guess all encounters with cats are like that, don’t you think? Other cats appeared around me all of a sudden. About a year after we started living with Kuu-chan, a stray cat gave birth to five kittens at the children’s center where my wife was working part-time. We decided to keep them until proper foster homes could be found. Including the mother, there were six cats total. We managed to find homes for four of them. The last kitten left was Mina-chan. Our original idea was to keep the mother cat, Mai-chan, and one of the kittens. But Mai-chan and Kuu-chan just didn’t get along very well. Fortunately, someone was willing to take in Mai-chan. So we had two cats for a while. But once again I stumbled on another. Tsubasa-kun was in a parking lot at Kagurazaka covered with dirt. In addition, my wife saved another black cat that she found through Twitter. It was about to be sent to the Health Department. We named him Torarin. We took the bullet train from Kobe, where we lived at the time, all the way to Shin-Yamaguchi just to pick him up. So these are the four cats we now live with.”
– You never lived with an animal for your entire life. Then all of a sudden, your in your 30s and your life is full of cats. It sounds like you didn’t really set out to be a cat owner – you kind of became one rather accidentally.
“When I picked up Chibi the first time, he made an appeal. He kind of said, ‘You’re gonna take me with you, right?’ Cats bet their life on this – literally. There was no way for me to ignore it. But as I say this, I am also aware that cats and I are obviously a good match. I’ve lived fifty-five years, and there haven’t been too many things that have made me feel truly grateful for having been born. Two things. There are two thing that make me grateful. One is the sweets that I can eat, and the other is the cats I have encountered. Being surrounded by so many cats like this, it’s been about seven or eight years, but everytime I see cats, I am grateful to be alive.”
– Is that feeling just for your own cats, or for cats in general?
“I feel that for cats. I guess I can even say all feline species. You may laugh, but if I ever become the ruler of the world, I will definitely make a ‘Cat Constitution.’ The first article of it would state, ‘All cats in this world belong to Shiraishi Kazufumi (laughs).’ I would own all the cats in the world and if anybody wanted to have a house cat, they could temporarily rent one from me at no charge. So, if any of the cat renters or other people tried to harm a cat in any way, detectives from the cat department of the police would come and investigate. The bad guy would be arrested and naturally be dealt with severe punishment (laughs).”
– Really? (laughs) Why go so far as to give cats special treatment?
“Everything about cats – from the way they look to the way they move. It’s all so cute. So they can do whatever they want. When I was a child, I was weak. And because my father was a writer, I ended up spending so much time in the world of books. Honestly speaking, I came to deify text. I hate to treat any kind literature without respect. Even now, when I buy books or magazines, I try to buy copies that have string marks from packaging or damaged covers. It’s because I’d hate to see the text thrown away for such reasons. I would go mad if somebody put something on top a publication – or if they stepped on it or spilled something on it. If my wife ever spilled something on one of my manuscripts, I’d be furious. Cats, however, are an exception. I wouldn’t get angry if a cat stepped on my writing. Rather, I actually feel lucky when that happens (laughs). In short, I can forgive anything if it’s done by cats.”
The life of a house cat as the perfect way to live
– Do you think cats understand your words?
“Cats can read our minds. And they do have their own feelings. Of course, I think they understand my words. The only major difference between our language and cat language is the verbalization. For example, a feeling prior to being verbalized is like soup before it has been served into individual cups. To know what kind of soup it is, you have to put it into a cup and label it. All human emotions as we know them are like this soup – they are already categorized by flavors. But the soup itself – before this act of categorization, the idea of this ‘soup’ itself is what emotion is all about. And it doesn’t belong only to humans. I believe cats and other animals certainly feel emotions.”
“Humans are too emotional. We can’t live without feeling love or hate towards something. The cerebral cortex, where emotion is created, has grown too big. So, we can’t help but place excessive amounts of love towards our children or pets. As a living creatures, parents who can’t let go of their children are biologically quite strange. But that is also what makes us human. We are affected so much by the joys of love and sadness of solitude that we struggle in vain our entire lives to merely take control over our own emotions. Death is the saddest event that could happen to us, so in order to overcome the fear of death, we invent many forms of faith and belief. Some of us make serious efforts to envision the world after death. Humans are the only animal that does such things. Cats and dogs are a couple of the biggest targets we throw these overflowing excessive emotions at. But then again, no matter how many balls you throw, if they are not equiped with a glove, it’ll just be one-way communication. The fact that the human relationship with cats and dogs has continued for thousands of years is proof that they have gloves. They might not catch our words, but they do have the ability to catch our emotions.”
– Some statistics show that there are now more pets than human children. How do you think pets are adapting to this situation?
“For house cats, I think that living with humans is very close to the ideal life. There’s this enormous existence that showers them with excessive affection and takes care of them without their even asking for it. For cats, all they have to do is eat, poop and sleep. If that’s not heaven, I don’t know what is (laughs). Being kept indoors all day, some people worry that house cats don’t have enough freedom. But I don’t think that’s the case. They have someone who voluntarily offers to care for them and provide an environment that assures their survival. All they have to do is play. I believe that house cats are the happiest living creatures in the universe.”
– Would you want to be reincarnated as a house cat, then?
“That wouldn’t be bad at all. In fact, I can’t think of anything better. A house cat could live up to twenty years. Stray cats live much shorter lives – so do lions and panthers in the wild. That shows how easy life is for house cats. Happiness and a sense of fulfillment can be felt the strongest when you are protected and loved by someone. People say there’s no fun if there’s no stress, but if you can feel a sense of fulfillment without having to deal with the stress – which usually comes only after taking care of the stress – then you don’t need to go through the coping with-stress process. House cats always feel a warm sense of fulfillment. Cats implemented this dream system over thousands of years, taking advantage of us humans.”
– On the contrary, what kind of benefits do humans get from being with cats?
“For humans, just having cats to take on all this excess affection is good enough. We chose cats because they are able to do so. If humans could satisfy each other, that would be great. But human relationships are usually very complicated. Especially with interests involved, there’s always hatred alongside love. All we need is an outlet for love and love only. I guess it is the same as collecting something or being a groupie for a TV star. But pets stand out as the most important existence for humans because they accept our raw affection directly. In terms of evolution, I might say cats are far more advanced than humans.”
– Humans have to work. We can’t just sleep, eat and play like cats do – if we want to live.
“We humans mistakenly believe that we are smart and rule the world as the lords of creation. But in most cases, when we are full of ourselves like that, we are just being fooled by someone (laughs). There is a master-slave relationship between dogs and humans – and dogs are the ones that serve us humans. But cats make no such obvious contribution whatsoever. For that matter, they take control over human minds. Basically, they enslaved us. Life is just much easier to understand if I believe that they are the ones who rule over us (laughs).”
Cats in literature
– In your new book, ‘Karega Toru Fushigina Kosu wo Watashimo,’ the main character has a special ability. He can read auras or sense the presence of things that are unnoticeable to ordinary people. Do you feel that cats have their own unique sense of presence?
“Cats can hide their sense of presence. That is to say they prove the existence of such invisible things as a ‘sense of presence.’ I look over there for no reason and there they are. In addition, I think cats see something completely diferent from what humans see. We cannot see what they are seeing. But at the same time, there are things that we can see that they can’t. For example, auras are usually distinguished by color, yet these recognition methods such as ‘sorting-by-color’ might be unique to humans.”
– You have written some short pieces that deal with cat-related themes, such as ‘Tsukumi no Kioku’ and ‘Shichigatsu no Massaona Sorani.’ In these works, you go beyond describing the relationship between cats and humans. You also mention specific conservation activities.
“I really think that we need to change our relationship with animals. We mass-produce animals and control their lives. We treat them as if they are things and take their lives away so that we can eat them. It is literally like a factory of life. I believe this approach to reproduction and survival is only transitional. Humans will eventually find a way to provide high calory food without taking the lives of animals. In that sense, someday we will be freed from the yoke of the food chain. Technology may wipe out the existence of cattle. Some sects in Buddhism, which we Japanese are all familiar with, prohibit carnivore. There is a possibility that the Buddha didn’t eat any meat. But why? This is one of the issues I’ve recently been thinking about. In ‘Tsukumi no Kioku,’ there is a cat that turns into a human. I have a feeling that ideas of personification like this might be an important manner of understanding this world. Therefore, I am thinking about writing a novel about the relationship between animals and humans. It would include spiritual factors.”
– In “Tsukumi no Kioku,” a dead white cat comes back as a human named ‘Tsukumi.’ The main character of the story is attracted to her personality and the way she moves. Is a cat-like person your ideal?
“If there is a woman as beautiful and free-minded as a cat – someone who would start climbing trees all the sudden, I’d fall for her instantly.”
– There was also a scene where a person’s ability to move ceases altogether while watching cats move. And I find myself just looking at the cats, even as we do this interview.
“It’s the same as babies. Everybody in a room pays attention to each and every move the baby makes. It’s not like the baby is doing it intentionally, but there is this certain shine to it, which we can’t take our eyes off of. I tend to look at cats as an object of admiration. Cats probably are not conscious of it, but I think they have already acquired absolute happiness – which is different from the relative happiness we get from comparing certain types of happiness with others. Cats get so much affection and yet they are never scolded.”
“They never, ever listen to what we say (laughs). If this kind of behavior was demonstrated by a human, they’d lose all their friends. If the person was attractive enough that we’d still want to stay with them, I guess it would be okay. But I don’t think it will happen because humans are not as cute as cats (laughs). Also, some people say that a sense of freedom is the best thing for cats, but I think being in love is more important to them than being free. There is no human who would love me the way I love cats. When it’s between humans, we have to love back the same amount as we are loved. Of course, cats love me back but they don’t act so cute with the intention of getting paid back. Cats just exist, and that is all they have to do.”