The popular essayist Shimao Maho lives alongside a 4-year old cat named Kemi, a dog named Maku, and her parents. Kemi is free to roam both inside and outside the Shimao home. We visited to take a close look at how he lives.
A Cat Patrolling the Home and the Neighborhood
—How did you first encounter Kemi?
“We used to have a cat named Mike (pronounced ‘Me-kay’), who lived for 23 years. After Mike passed away, we really didn’t feel like getting another cat. However, Two months after Mike’s death, our gardener happened upon a kitten. He took the cat to us to look after. That was Kemi. He was initially quite a small and fragile cat, but he grew up to be quite strong. I think the fur pattern around his nose kind of resembles a koala bear.”
—The other day, when we asked to interview you and Kemi, you told us that he lives half his life outdoors. This made us worry about whether or not we would get to meet him. We’re glad that it ended up raining so he decided to stay indoors. What do you mean when you say Kemi’s a ‘half-outdoors’ cat?
“It’s probably more accurate to say that Kemi is about one-third ‘stray.’ Just like people, he goes outside whenever he feels like it. Then he comes back when he feels like it. He wakes up in the morning, eats his breakfast, then heads out to patrol the neighborhood. Later, he comes back to take a nap and grab another meal before heading out at night. Kemi comes back at dawn to sleep in his own little bed. He’s got his own door to use. There is a litter box in the garden that he uses when he has to go to the bathroom. Mike was actually the same way. However, being a girl, she was a bit more prim and proper. That said, Kemi is quite the pampered cat. He just loves my dad. Whenever my dad is away traveling, Kemi misses him terribly.”
—Have you always been a cat-lover?
“Yeah, I guess so. The first animal I ever had was a cat. When I was in elementary school, I found some abandoned kittens in a cardboard box. There were five of them initially. After the rest were taken, only Mike remained. Back then, both my grandmother and mom weren’t crazy about the idea of keeping a cat. But I begged and begged until they relented. Because my father’s policy was basically, ‘Let animals be animals,’ we allowed him to go out of the house at his own will. Maku (the dog), on the other hand, isn’t allowed in the house. He’s kept in the garden doghouse. Now and then, we catch Maku looking at us reproachfully from the garden. Because Kemi is so affectionate with dad, he’s become a bit soft when it comes to cats.”
—What do you feel the differences are between dogs and cats?
“They are completely different. Maku was my grandmother’s dog. They lived together in Amami Oshima until my grandmother passed away seven years ago. But we decided to adopt him. Maku is now 14 years old. Because we had only kept cats, we initially worried that he might be troublesome – you know – taking him for walks and stuff. I had also been a bit scared of dogs growing up because I saw them chasing kids in cartoons. However, once we took him in, I understood why people think of dogs as cute and friendly. This is quite different from cats. Having a dog is kind of like a nice change of mood. Since we took him in, we’ve learned more about the neighborhood on our daily walks. It’s no longer an inconvenience.”
—Through caring for a cat, have you made any ‘discoveries’?
“Until I was in elementary school and actually had a cat, I had been under the impression that cats would take walks with me. But they actually don’t cooperate at all and can be quite unfriendly. Having always been the center of attention as an only child, this was a good lesson for me. I suppose Mike’s decision to not play with me was a kind of training – as it toughened me up. Mike wouldn’t allow me to have it my way – she’d refuse to let me hold her. Though I dreamed of sleeping next to a cat, my parents trained her to never go on top of beds. She wouldn’t even climb up if I invited her. It would have been wonderful if she could have just snuggled up at my feet – but she never did. But I can tell you one thing for sure – It’s so much fun having different kinds of animals in the same house. It’s like we can almost communicate with each other, but not quite”
—You don’t think cats can understand our words?
“Well, I do talk to them. I just can’t tell if they understand me or not. Kemi hates feeling lonely and being left alone in the house. So when we take trips to Amami Oshima, we take both Kemi and Maku. It’s like homecoming for Maku. And Kemi just wanders freely both inside and outside of the house. He comes back when he wants. It’s not like we use any kind of verbal communication. It’s just a kind of mutual trust that he will always come back. Mike was just the opposite. She hated traveling. Whenever we traveled, she would stay behind to watch over the house.”
Living Together as Friends
—Some people think that there are so many dangers lingering outside that it’s better to keep cats in the house. Yet others seem to think that it’s too stressful on cats if you keep them inside all the time…
“Considering that Mike was an outdoor-lover and yet lived to the ripe old age of 23, we figured that it would probably be alright for Kemi. However, we also know cats that have grown up fine indoors – some don’t even like going outside. So I guess that it’s really up to the individual cat. Kemi seems to enjoy climbing a tree in our garden. That’s great. However, it is quite a shock to me whenever he brings home a dead rat in his mouth…”
—How would you describe your relationship with Kemi?
“We’re friends. You know, sometimes when I take Maku for a walk, neighbors will say to the dog, ‘Aren’t you happy to take a walk with your mommy.’ I don’t really like that. I mean, I’m not his mother! I know they say these things with good intentions, but in our house, it’s just a human and a dog. Of course, the same goes for the cat. We try to pay respects to Kemi’s cat-life as we live together.”
—Tell us about your favorite cat-related book or manga.
“I love the Russian movie titled, ‘Kittens.’ As for manga, one of my favorites has to be ‘Yon & Mu’ by Junji Ito. But honestly, I’m not really interested in cats other than my own. I even tried out a cat cafe the other day but couldn’t really get all that excited about it. And I had actually been looking forward to it. I guess Kemi is both my favorite and only cat.”
—Has anyone ever told you that you kind of resemble a cat?
“I kind of consider myself a cat-like person – probably because of my big eyes. However, some people have said that I resemble a Chihuahua. So I think it’s way better to look like a cat! I think my family treats Maku like a big cat, too. People say that dogs are smart. But when comparing Maku to Kemi, I think that cats are smarter. Kemi has a sense of self-control over how much he eats – and he always comes back after going outside. Maku, on the other hand, will continue to eat no matter how much food he is served. And if you let go of his leash, he won’t come back. In fact, he’s gone missing about five times. We end up searching all over the neighborhood. Usually he ends up at the police station or at a neighbor’s garden. When we take him back home, we find Kemi staring down at him with a look of disgust.”