Writer/Musician Kou Machida — A long life together

Jun 8, 2011 / Interviews

Photo: Shin Suzuki / Edit&Text: Madoka Hattori / Translation: Seth High

Writer and musician Kou Machida has been known as a cat lover since publishing books such as 'Neko ni Kamakete' (Consumed by Cats), an essay about his days spent with cats. In his first floor work space, we encountered 3 cats - Nigo, Olsen and Puffy. Moving up to the 2nd floor bedroom, we discovered 7 more felines - Nana, Elle, Shanti, Punk, Beach, Tona and Nemuri Kyoshiro - for a grand total of 10 cats. In May, the third volume of Machida's 'Neko to Ahondara' (Cats and a Fool) went on sale. We visited Mr. Machida at his house in Izu, where he escaped Tokyo for views of the ocean.

The Machida household - A collection of abandoned cats

— Have you always loved cats?

"I never really had a special affinity for cats. I just kind of found myself living with them. Initially, my wife brought two cats to our home, Cocoa and Karu. We then started taking in abandoned cats and accepting others from the human society, gradually increasing our number of pets. At that time, there were no other houses around us, only a shrine. It was an ideal environment for cats. They would go outside to play and catch birds. We lived in the city for quite a while. However, as the number of cats we kept increased, we decided to move out to Izu. As we were looking for a new house we even found another kitten to take in." (laughs)

— In your recent volume of 'Neko to Ahondara', Shanti and Punk make an appearance. In the book, you debate whether to ignore or take in abandoned cats. You wanted to help them, but it takes effort and money to keep cats. You wrote about how you were selfish in the way you pretended not to see them. However, you did end up helping them. Why is that?

"I couldn't take in all of them. There's no way I could return home with every stray cat I pass... When I encountered Shanti and Punk, they were new-born kittens. In their condition, they wouldn't have survived a single night if I hadn't taken them in. Most stray cats are not in such a dire situation. So I had to help them."

《Beach (male) approx. 3 y.o.》

— Even if your reason for keeping cats is because 'you like them', it still can't be easy to care for so many.

"It's fine as long as you maintain an environment where the cats don't feel stress. In other words, the challenge is sustaining a good vibe amongst the cats. However, we didn't purposely increase the number of cats we keep. It just happened. Because I am quite selfish, I don't think that we would have so many cats if it wasn't for my wife. She asks me to help them out, so I do. I don't deserve much admiration."

— At the end of your book, 'Beach' comes to live at your house. How did you first encounter him?

"He was living at a beach near our house. Because it's not a popular area, I imagine somebody threw him away. There was actually one other stray cat there that I took care of until I could find it a proper owner. I often take my dogs for walks by the ocean near there. Just recently, I picked up Tona there as well. Because all the cats in that area have similarly colored fur, I think they are brothers and sisters. There are a lot of stray cats near residential areas. However, there isn't any food by the sea. Occasionally, tourists will give them fried chicken. But they can't live just off of that. Once a cat is thrown away, you have to take them in right away because they will gradually become wild. I think we took in Tona soon after she was abandoned by her previous owner."

—Where did the name 'Tona' come from? Are you picky about names?

"Because Tona is really 'friendly with people' ('Hitonatsukoi' in Japanese), I gave her that name. I feel a sense of urgency in naming cats. As soon as we take them in, we need to visit the vet - which means creating a medical file with their name on it. Therefore, we christen them rather instantaneously (laughs). When we first received Nemuri Kyoshiro from the humane society, he was actually called 'Nemu-chan'. However, we didn't feel that this name really captured his character, so we changed it to 'Nemuri Kyoshiro' ('Sleepy Kyoshiro'). That said, we never call him by his full name - he just goes by 'Nemuri'."

《Tona (female) approx, 1 y.o.》

—Regarding Beach and Tona, please tell me a little about their characters.

"Those two are pretty laid back. For example, Shanti and Punk climb and scratch at the decorations at the base of the walls. However, Beach and Tona do no such things. Because I use this room for meetings and interviews, I usually don't allow cats in here. However, if I forget to the lock the door, sometimes Shanti and Beach will use a special technique they learned in order to get inside. First, they will climb up on the shelf. Next, they will walk across the door beam, go over the family shrine, and stick their faces through the decorative transom window (laughs). We also have a hibachi, which they will use as a toilet if we are not looking. Cats seem to love the feel of sand on their paws. Maybe they actually use it more for digging than as a toilet. It sure is a real pain when they leave ash footprints on the tatami floor."

Cats - Creatures that can live without the help of a human hand

— You also have dogs at home. How compatible are the dogs and cats?

"We initially took a dog from the humane society only temporarily. However, considering we couldn't find anyone who wanted it, we decided to keep it. Six months later, we picked up its brother. After taking on yet another dog from a different place, we now have three dogs. Though the cats take absolutely no interest in the dogs, the dogs seem to be very into the cats (laughs). They actively try to get closer to the cats, which only provokes the cats to run away. You can train dogs and take them on walks - but cats won't let you do either. Until I actually had cats, I preferred dogs. Now I can't say which I like more."

—What are the differences between dogs and cats?

"Cats can live fine by themselves. Cats that aren't raised by breeders can live in the wild and naturally reproduce. Though dogs have their own life-force, they are generally raised by humans. Therefore, they are a lot like babies. If a cat goes out into the yard for a week, it will be fine. Dogs, on the other hand, wouldn't be able to survive because they don't know how to do things themselves. Put simply, cats live independently from human beings. It is said that stray cats have short lives. That is why I take them in - because I hope to help them live longer."

— If a person has only 1 or 2 cats, they can easily take good care of them. But 10 cats... how do you manage?

"It's a challenge to manage them these days. Feeding and caring for them isn't so hard. What's difficult is handling a bunch of male cats. They all want attention. However, they all want it separately. If you pet one, the others will become jealous of it. When a cat first comes over to me, the others will get irritated and start a fight. Therefore, the cats always seem to be frustrated. So I'm now trying to spend more time with each cat by working on the second floor, where they congregate. Because I let them walk around the keyboard of my computer, they sometimes inadvertently type for me (laughs). Because the cats wish to be near me, I try my best to accommodate them."

— Do you try to give each cat personal attention at meal times?

"Generally, I treat each cat pretty much the same at meal times. Nana is the exception. Her immense pride doesn't allow her to eat together with the other cats. Therefore, I have to provide her a special place for eating. I also have to be careful to keep the hungrier cats from eating food that belongs to others. For the dogs, I provide handmade food. However, the cats won't have anything to do with it, so I feed them readymade dry food. For the cats that were once strays, they show a little interest in human food as well."

— Do they all share the same toilet?

"We have three litter boxes on the first floor and seven separated in two places on the 2nd floor. The cats don't seem to be very squeamish about where they go to the bathroom. What's troubling is that they walk around with sand on their paws after using the litter box. It gets all over."

—What kind of toys do your cats like to play with?

"Elle loves the fluffy end of a yellow nekojarashi (cat-teaser) that came off. She carries it with her pretty much everywhere she goes. There's also this cheese-shaped toy that involved an air-powered pop-up mouse. The cats all played with it so much that the toy eventually broke. Another thing they seem to like is a toy I made by attaching packing string to the end of a stick. It makes them go crazy!" (laughs)

— For example, do you have any cats that like the sound of a guitar?

"Unfortunately, my guitar-loving cat, Tora, has already passed away. Based on my experiences, I can say with confidence that Kijitora loved the sound of guitars. Tora seemed to lift his ears and really listen to the music. More than any particular song, he seemed to just love the sound itself. I might be the only one who thought this!" (laughs)

— I'm sure every cat has a different personality. However, have you ever encountered a cat that in some way resembles yourself?

"There are people who try to personify dogs and cats in order to relate with them. However, I think this is wrong. Though we make analogies when we write fiction, in reality animals and humans are not the same. We should regard each animal for their own unique nature - treat cats as cats and dogs as dogs. If we fail to do this, we will become mentally impaired. Therefore, I have never thought that I resembled an animal in any way."

— By living together, to what degree do you think cats can perceive human customs?

"I think they are quite perceptive. In the past, when I was writing 'Punk Samurai, Kirarete Soro', my house and work space were separate. In those days, I was extremely focused on my work and much more intense than normal. When I would go home, the cats would sense my intensity and run away from me. (laughs) Normally, they would have been waiting for me in the entryway. However, I think that they noticed there was something different about me."

《Nemuri Kyoshiro (male) approx. 2 y.o.》

Accepting sickness and death, writing about life as it really isく

— What got you to start writing essays about cats?

"Initially, I received a request from a cat-related magazine to write about 'how interesting it is to live with cats'. Though I normally put a little fiction into my essays, when writing about cats, I write only about things that actually happened, considering that cats have their own interesting character. So I wrote about topics my cat becoming sick and dying. As it happened, an editor contacted me and said that they received complaints from readers who were bothered by the subject of sick and dying cats. They said 'don't write about such dark things'. I quit writing for them that issue. Can you believe people are so foolish? Even us humans will all die. The fact is, if you are going to keep a dog or a cat as a pet, you can't avoid the reality of sickness and death. I think it is strange to avoid facing such things. After the essays came out in book format, I also received positive messages from readers who said things such as 'I now realize I need to take better care of my cat.'"

—'Hiza no Ue no Tomodachi' (The Friend on My Lap) is a short story about cats.

"This story is a little different from the essays. Because a photo book was being published of my cats, I decided to include a short story. I wrote it while imagining the kinds of things that Cocoa, one of my previous cats, might actually say. Though it has some kind of reality inside of me, it is a thoroughly fictional story."

— You also put out a picture book that involves cats.

"I wrote 'Neko to Nezumi no Tomogurashi' as an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Because the publisher told me I could freely change any elements, I decided to select a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that is rather obscure - 'The Cat and Mouse in Partnership'. Though many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales are allegorical, I don't really know what this story is trying to say. If I think about it, I imagine that it implies that people with different religions can't live together. My version starts out the same as the original. However, I wrote a different ending."

— Being surrounded by 10 cats everyday, I imagine that there are endless episodes...

"I've never thought about cats in terms of stories. My writing about cats stems from daily life. For example, it's about the surprising things I see them do and the new facial expressions I witness. In 'Neko to Ahondara', I wrote about the time I first picked up Shanti and Punk and tried taking them with me to my hotel. That was an incredible struggle. However, what is a struggle for one person may seem very funny to someone else." (laughs)

— You have had to say goodbye to many cats. How have you come to accept death?

"Cats will inevitably pass away before we do. In fact, even I will die in 20 years time. Therefore, the only thing we can do is accept death. When I watch cats draw their last breaths, I can sense that they don't want to die. It's probably a very agonizingly painful feeling. Therefore, I enjoy doing my utmost to help cats live long and happy lives. I do think that sickness is just a reality that we have to deal with. The absolute worst thing an owner can do when their pet is sick is to 'casually check up on them'. It is important to get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Nowadays there are plenty of animal clinics that are open around the clock, so take your pet in right away. That said, just choosing any veterinarian won't do. It's important to settle on a regular vet that you can really trust."

— Earlier, you talked about how cats have the ability to live naturally on their own. If this is the case, why do you care for them?

"For example, vaccinations are given to prevent illnesses even though they probably go against nature. I believe that it's fine to get such shots if they will help something live longer. Some people are against castration, but I think it is something that should be done. In addition to reducing the risk of cancer, it keeps cats from going out and getting injured during mating season. When people get cancer, they can choose whether or not they want to prolong their lives through treatment. However, basically almost everybody chooses to prolong their lives. I think it's the same thing. It might be the shallowness of human thinking. However, I believe we should be willing to do anything that will statistically lengthen our lives."

— Some people think that even if a life is short, the most important thing is that it was lived in a fulfilling manner. Why do you focus on having a 'long life'?

"To begin with, because I don't think I ever want to die. Moreover, when our cat named Hekke was succumbing to illness, I truly feel like I heard it say, "I don't want to die!" I realize this anecdote is a little sentimental... Each cat being kept in someone's home has their fate placed in human hands. Therefore, if I decide to take in a new cat, I want to give it the longest life possible.

【The Cats of the Machida Residence】 Photography by Kou Machida

《Nana(F)9 y.o.》

《Elle(M)6 y.o.》

《Shanti(M)6 y.o.》

《Punk(F)6 y.o.》

《Nigo(M)approx. 12 y.o.》

《Olsen(F)9 y.o.》

《Puffy(F)9 y.o.》

  • name: Beach / Tona / Nemuri Kyoshiro / Nana / Elle / Shanti / Punk / Nigo / Olsen / Puffy
  • age: approx. 3 / approx. 1 / approx. 2 / 9 / 6 / 6 / 6 / approx. 12 / 9 / 9
  • sex: M / F / M / F / M / M / F / M / F / F
  • lind: Mixed
  • Kou Machida
    Writer and musician. Born in Osaka in 1962. Began making music under the name 'Machida Machizo' during high school. In 1997, his novel 'Kussun Daikoku' won both the Noma Bungei Shinjin and Bunkamura Deux Magots literary prizes. Other notable works include 'Kiregire' (Shreds), which won the Akutagawa Prize in 2000, the 2001 poetry collection titled 'Doma no Yonjuhachitaki', which was awarded the Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize, 2002's 'Gonge no Odoriko', which won the Kawabata Yasunari Literary Award, 'Kokuhaku' (Confession), which took home the Tanizaki Prize in 2005, and 2008's 'Yadoya Meguri', which was awarded the Noma Bungei Prize. Machida has published numerous other titles, including 'Punk Samurai, Kirarete Soro', 'Neko ni Kamakete' and 'Supinku Niki'.