Cats often feature in the books of Haruki Murakami and, indeed, in Japanese literature and folklore in general. Of the latter, the most famous is probably the maneki neko ((招き猫)or beckoning cat, images of which can be seen throughout the country, to bring good fortune to the owners. The origins of the tale are claimed by both the inhabitants of Kyoto and Tokyo (and even the Chinese, not surprisingly), but the principle is the same: an impoverished owner of a failing store took pity on a passing cat and invited him in to share his meagre supplies of food. In gratitude the cat sat outside the store raising his paw to invite in passers-by, thus improving the fortunes of the kind-hearted shop owner.
Goutokuji Temple in Setagaya Ward, western Tokyo has its own version. At the end of the 17th century, a lord from Hikone was passing a temple when a thunderstorm was approaching. A cat emerged from the temple and raised its paw as if waving the lord inside, thus saving him from a drenching. In gratitude the lord rebuilt the temple and re-named it Goutokuji in 1697.
Nowadays this is commemorated by the display of thousands of cats beckoning the few visitors who make their way to this hidden gem off the main tourist trail.
But, in the three storey pagoda, if you look carefully, very carefully, you might just spot, and be spotted by, a cat hiding in the rafters.
Feline fans keen to improve their own luck can buy their own version made from wood, plastic or more commonly ceramics. Some even have battery or solar powered rising paws to give you a greater sense of being welcomed. And pause for thought: the right paw raised is to bring money, the left to bring in more customers. Both raised and you can’t go wrong.
An avid reader, my usual genres of choice range from historical to literary fiction, epic sagas and espionage and psychological thrillers as well as, obviously, books either set in Japan or written by Japanese authors. So, that gives me plenty of scope to hit, and usually exceed, my annual Goodreads challenge of 100 books. Not included on that list is either fantasy or science fiction but I will make an exception if there’s a crossover with one of my other genres of choice. Therefore, I recently read ‘Klara Under the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro a novel about Artificial Intelligence and in particular Artificial Friends or android. It was his first published novel since he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.
Kaz, or, to give him his full name and title, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro OBE FRSA FRSL, was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 and moved to England with his parents when he was five years old. Now, a naturalized British citizen, he writes in English and much prefers to talk in my mother tongue rather than Japanese. His books range from post-war novels set in Japan (A Pale View of the Hills), to the fictional memoir of an English butler in a stately home (the Booker prize winner, ‘Remains of the Day’) to historical fantasy (A Buried Giant), to the more speculative works such as Never Let Me Go and now Klara Under the Sun. Despite my misgivings about the latter’s subject matter, the purity of his prose had me entranced from the beginning. Told through the eyes of Klara who is chosen from a shop window to be an Artificial Friend to Josie, it explores the developing relationships between Klara and her adoptive family. Suspenseful and at times emotional (yes, robots do have feelings), it’s easy to understand why the author has won some of the world’s top literary awards.
When he won the Nobel, Japanese TV news programmes interviewed residents of Nagasaki for their reaction. Few had read his books, which would have to be translated into Japanese in order for them to do so but most were proud that a native of their city had reached such literary heights.
Unlike Haruki Murakami, another Japanese author whose books I’ve read and thoroughly enjoy who is a long-term contender. Despite having had his books translated into many languages and being the recipient of many prizes, he’s always missed out on the ‘big one’ much to his fans’ disappointment. Although his best known books are probably the earlier ones such as ‘Wild Sheep Chase’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, one of my favourites is ‘Kafka on the Shore’.
Murakami is a great music fan. A former owner of a Jazz café, music often features in his writing, and as the day of the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature approaches, his fans ( known as Harukists) gather in Jazz bars waiting to celebrate the success of their hero, whilst bookstore owners prepare to stock the shelves only to have to put his books away until the next year. Divine help is also called upon, as some will visit the Hatanomori Hachiman shrine, tucked away in side street close to the National Stadium to pray for the result. Maybe, his next novel and his first for six years, the publication of which (theme and title unknown) has been announced for 13 April will prove to be the trigger that will bring him and his loyal band of fans the ultimate prize.
A modern day ninja waits for the message to call her into action:
But win or not, I shall certainly buy the English version once published as well as other novels written by a growing list of Japanese authors whose unique style is increasing in popularity and meeting my reading needs as well as filling my bookshelves.