‘Bilingual News’ is a podcast developed by a Japanese woman named ‘Mami’ and her American broadcast partner, Michael. Ever since their program was featured on a popular variety show, they have begun to gain an audience even outside of the English language learning community. Mami, who is the primary personality behind the program, is a big-time cat lover. She currently lives alongside an 18-month old black feline named Kuma-chan. Mami told us that her podcast gets a stronger audience response whenever she talks about cats. We interviewed her about the joy of living with pets and asked her about what kind of discoveries she’s made since taking in a cat.
Love at first sight at the animal shelter
– It seems that a lot of cat-related stuff is featured within ‘Bilingual News.’ How did your life as a cat-owner begin?
“I had always wanted to live with a cat. But honestly, there was also a kind of fear. To care for a life other than your own is such a huge responsibility. As a kid, I used to have goldfish and insects as pets. However, I inevitably let them die and ended up crying so hard. My mother scolded me by saying that it would be impossible for me to ever take in a cat or a dog. But I could never get the desire to have a cat out of my head. I even continued to tell the people around me how much I wanted one. Finally, one of these people said, ‘You’re an adult now – why don’t you just go get one?’ So I went to an animal shelter in Otsuka and found one.”
– So you knew about animal shelters beforehand…
“If I was to get a cat, finding one at a shelter was my only option. So I searched for shelters in Tokyo online and found one in Otsuka. The website had pictures of cats that needed to be adopted. And there was one cat in particular that just had the most beautiful fur – it looked like an Abyssinian. So I was actually on my way to get her when I encountered Kuma-chan. Though I wasn’t even looking for a black cat, Kuma-chan was the only critter that was looking at me and meowing. It was like he was talking to me, all the while the other cats were busy minding their own business. He was only about three months old back then, but he definitely knew how to promote himself. A staff member at the shelter quickly intervened, asking me if I wanted to hold him. The moment he was in my arms, I knew he was the one.”
– How did you come up with his name?
“When I used to fantasize about having a cat, I imagined how I would name it. And for some reason, I always felt that ‘Kuma-chan’ would be the right name if I ever got one. Then once I actually had him, I started to think maybe it’s not a very stylish name. So I actually re-named him ‘Koa,’ which means ‘courage’ in Hawaiian. However, maybe because of all those fantasies about the name ‘Kuma-chan,’ every time I tried to call him ‘Koa’ I’d end up going ‘Ku, Ku, Kuo-a-chan?’ It only took two days for me to decide to go back to the name Kuma-chan.”
– Have you made any new discoveries since you’ve started living alongside a cat?
“Just as I had imagined, it’s been a lot of fun. Our relationship is not ‘master-slave’ like it is with dogs. There is more freedom. However, I’m surprised by how tame he has become. He follows me wherever I go. I’d imagined cats to be more distant, but he likes to be get close. I’ve also found that I’m not as fastidious as I thought I was. I realized that I don’t really care if my couch and curtains get all torn up. That’s what cats do – and that’s the way Kuma is. I am surprised at myself for not feeling any anger about the damage. See, this couch is quite new, too, but I don’t care at all about the way it looks.”
– In your podcast, you mentioned how much you love the way cats smell.
“Yes, indeed. I think they smell very good. It’s like the smell of a futon left in the sunshine… I love the way his paws smell, too.”
– Can you tell us a bit about Kuma’s personality?
“He is mischievous and stubborn. And yet, he never acts out of spite or raises his voice. I suspect that he doesn’t know how to get angry. Once, when I hired a pet-sitter, he wasn’t afraid of the stranger at all. In fact, he was soon fawning. However, sometimes when I am working, he’ll come right in front of my computer and refuse to move. I ask him kindly to move over but he completely ignores me. To put it nicely, I guess he is very strong-minded.”
Cats and People as Equals
– How do you define your relationship with Kuma-chan?
“I think he sees me as his mother. He’ll raise his tail and bat his paws on me. Because he’s lived in this house since he was a baby, part of me hopes that he kind of thinks of me as his parent. But right now, I think we are more like roommates. I cannot train him to be part of a master-slave relationship like you can with dogs. At the same time, I must turn on the vacuum cleaner every now and then, which must be very inconvenient for him. So I guess we are equal in that sense.”
– Do you think he understands your words?
“I don’t know… I think he understands his name, though. Or I should say rather, that I hope he does. I think I understand most of his meowing with some degree of accuracy. Most of the time he just wants me to pat him it seems.”
– When you talk to him, do you speak Japanese or English?
“I use Japanese most of the time. But when I’m in a hurry – like when I need to warn him about a danger, I turn to English. This is another thing that has kind of surprised me – but when I talk to him, I use baby language. Until recently, I didn’t understand the people who show off pictures of their cats and dogs. I had thought they all pretty much just look the same. But now I notice that the photo album in my iPhone is filled with photos of Kuma-chan. And I consistently talk to him. For example, when I was changing the bed sheets, he jumped up on them and I said, ‘Oh honey, you don’t have to help me with this.’ I know it’s ridiculous, but this is what happens to everybody once they get a cat. That was a discovery for me.”
– You talk about pets during your podcast, such as shelters and pet shop information.
“At pet shops, kittens are separated from their families and kept alone in cages even though that’s when they’re supposed to be learning about sociality. My friends abroad are usually shocked to see how pet shops are run in Japan. They are disappointed to see the way living creatures are sold in a supposedly advanced country – Japan. I think it is simply because of ignorance. If people knew about what is going on in pet shops, I’m sure they would prefer to go to shelters. So I basically try to talk about the facts I’ve discovered.”
– Another recent topic during your show was toxoplasma, an infection that originated in cats…
“Toxoplasma does not effect cats so much, since they rarely come in contact with rats. But the disease is still being researched. I don’t feel my own cat is unsanitary – and I think a lot of cat owners feel the same way. I don’t mind him drinking out of my own cup, but there are still some things we have to be very careful about.”
Living with cats gives us confidence
– In your serial column, photos of Kuma-chan make a regular appearance. And the ‘Bilingual News’ t-shirt features the ‘Neko Seijin’ (‘Cat Planetarian)’ design, which takes its motif from Kuma-chan. It seems that Kuma-chan plays a variety of roles…
“Indeed he does. Everything I do turns into a cat-related event. When I go through the news, I stop and carefully read anything related to cats and animals. I used to just skip over these things after a quick glance. And every time I find an article like, ‘Twenty things all cat lovers do when…,’ I just can’t help but read them even though I know they are pretty much the same every time. Moreover, after I was featured on that famous radio show, I found out that one of the show’s host (Tanaka-san) is a total cat-lover. Once we started talking cats, he was completely absorbed. Even during the commercial breaks, he showed me his cat photos and I quickly came to feel very close to him.”
– Do you feel there’s much of a difference between cat and dog owners?
“I think dog-lovers are more active. They have to go for walks. It’s too much trouble for me to have to always do that. The way dogs beg for my attention also tires me out. I like the way cats stay independent. It’s like a friend you share your room with. We don’t bother each other. That’s the kind of relationship I like. But then again, I do talk to him in baby language… so I don’t really know… (laughs)”
– What is the biggest change you’ve undergone since you started living beside a cat?
“For one thing, he has the power to heal, which makes me more relaxed and easy-going. I have a habit of keeping myself too busy with things all the time. But then I look at the cat, and all he does is eat, play and sleep. It makes me realize that’s the way animals should be. Holding Kuma-chan also makes me sleepy from time to time. It’s like I am forced into ‘relax-mode.’ Another important thing is that I became aware of how much responsibility it takes to care for another life. Before I had Kuma, when I was searching online for info about caring for cats, I read some stories about people who treated their cats violently after becoming irritated with them. So when Kuma came to live with me, I was a bit relieved to find out that I’m not the type of person who would ever do such a thing. Living with Kuma-chan gave me self-confidence.”