Author Shimamoto Rio × Tabi — A Cat's Co-existence with Humans

Oct 18, 2012 / Interviews

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

Shimamoto Rio is the author of numerous books, including novels such as 'Little by Little' and 'Narratage'. She currently lives alongside a 6-year-old tomcat named Tabi. Though known for being prone to illness, Tabi constantly presents himself with an impregnable air of dignity. Shimamoto was kind enough to contribute a cat-themed short story titled 'I Came Looking for a Cat' to the book that will be published on October 26th.

The Arrival of a Helpless Cat

- How did you first encounter Tabi?

"Having long wanted a cat of my own, I visited an online bulletin board for people who wished to adopt pets. After finding some cats that were up for adoption, I went out to visit them. At first, I was really attracted to this white female cat. However, it wasn't friendly with me at all... While I was deliberating what to do, a helpless snot-nosed kitten waddled over to where I was. My mother, who had come with me, instantly exclaimed, 'He's so cute and polite, we'll take that one!' Without even asking my permission, my mom made the decision (laughs). Just like that, we took him home with us and he became my cat."

- Is Tabi your first cat?

"We had a cat at home when I was growing up. Moreover, my grandparents kept a cat. However, the cat we had when I was a child got sick and died right away. That's why we resisted getting another. It wasn't until I came to live by myself that I started wanting a cat again. Always working alone at home on my manuscripts, I would sometimes begin to feel as if I was suffocating. It was at such times that I thought, 'It would be nice to have a cat.' Even though I'd be in the exact same space, it would feel like I was doing something different. I just thought that life with a carefree cat would be lovely."

- When Tabi came to actually live with you, did you experience any kind of transformation?

"Having a cat was completely different from what I had imagined it to be. I previously thought that, having originally been wild animals, cats were highly independent. However, perhaps because he's a boy, Tabi is so sweet and touchy-feely. The prideful cat that my relatives kept always maintained a strong spirit of independence. In fact, if you didn't give it several feet of space, it would become irate. Even if you came close to feed it, the cat would scratch at you. Tabi, on the other hand, perhaps because he is prone to illness, needs constant nursing and attention. Even though he's now officially an adult, Tabi is still a spoiled baby. When I'm trying to get some writing done, he'll come up on my desk. However, because this interferes with my work

- Does Tabi have any favorite toys?

"He likes Suzuran brand packing tape. Tabi also likes when I use ribbons or wires as cat-teasers. When I first took him in, I bought a lot of different toys. However, he's never been a lively cat. Even if I try playing with him, he'll be totally out of breath in about five minutes (laughs). One thing Tabi does like is cloth. If people wear jeans, he'll sometimes scratch at them. This means he also likes to sharpen his nails on the sofa. Because he likes to scratch things when stress builds up, I have cat scratchers set up in all over the house, including the hallway and kitchen."

- Does Tabi have any preferences regarding food or his litter box?

"I give him a mix of wet and dry food by Hill's. I have to feed him a little at a time or he will eat it all in one go and end up getting sick. As for his litter box, I put it in the crawl space under the stairs. I use a type of litter that can be rinsed."

- Do you collect cat-related items or have any favorite books and manga that feature cats?

"In addition to cats, I actually like all kinds of animal-related items. I received this cat stamp from a friend. I also collect objects that feature bird and deer motifs. As for books, I love Oshima Yumiko's 'Saba no Natsu ga Kita' ('Saba's Summer is Here'). It's so realistic that I feel like I'm actually living the book. The manner she expresses living through different seasons as well as the way she draws cats - there's nothing else like it. A novel that I like is Ekuni Kaori's 'Holy Garden'. There's a scene where the cat's master comes home early in the morning and comforts their cat after it complains about 'tabi'. As opposed to treating cats as some kind of special existence, I tend to like it when they naturally co-exist alongside people. I received a copy of 'Uchi no Ume wa Kyo mo Genki' ('My Ume is Happy Today as Well') from a person who loves animals. At first, the writer of the book keeps a raccoon, a dog and a rabbit. However, at the end they get a cat as well. The cat is so cute and admirable that you can sense the writer's affection for it."

The Humanity of 'Looking for a Cat'

- When writing novels, what motifs often give rise to the appearance of cats?

"Cats are a part of the everyday experience. Before I came to live with Tabi, you would kind of have to brace yourself when an animal appeared in my work. In other words, they often held a special kind of meaning. However, now that I live daily alongside a cat, they have come to take on the opposite meaning. They are a natural part of daily life. That said, sometimes I feel like I should cut out parts involving cats because I've written enough about them already. A cat can be written about in a humorous manner. However, the same feline can also have their existence sacrificed by a person. I feel that I've come to write about cats in an increasing variety of ways."

— In 'Neko to Kimi no Tonari' ('Next to You and the Cat'), which is included within the novel titled 'Okina Kuma ga Kuru mae ni, Oyasumi' ('Saying Goodnight before the Big Bear Comes'), you describe the personalities of different people in relation to how they treat cats. Are these descriptions based on actual experiences that you've had?

"I think so - and not just with cats. By the way that someone treat animals, you can kind of get an understanding of what kind of person they are. For example, some people, even if they don't have one of their own, will naturally attract cats. On the other hand, there are people with character types that scare cats away. Sometimes, through watching a cat, I become able to see a person's sensitivity and gentleness. However, cats can also allow me to see the other side of people. Between humans, we'll say that someone is a crude person but that they also have good points. It's like we pretend not to see what we don't like about them. Cats, on the other hand, instantly decide by themselves if someone is a good person or bad person. All in all, it is only once in a blue moon that Tabi will just jump up on a visitor's lap and take an instant liking to them. It is always a real surprise to me."

- In your novel, there was a scene in which you described what seemed to be distrust when a cat owner visited a veterinary clinic. This was interesting to me.

"Trying to capture the existence of animals is quite a difficult theme to write about. I get angry when a person treats a cat poorly because they see them as something entirely different from a human. However, I also question whether someone should go too far and treat a cat excessively well. Something that I learned from viewing a lot different pet adoption sites is that different approaches to treating cats brings about a lot of trouble between cat owners. Because I've known about this world of pet ownership since before I took in Tabi, I've never really taken any sides. Instead, I've always wanted to write a novel that frames this problem in a singular form."

A Cat's Existence is 'Nothing Special'

- Recently, you kindly contributed cat-themed short story titled 'I Came Looking for a Cat' to the our book titled ''.

"Actually, I've written a number of stories that are kind of like science fiction in that they anthropomorphize cats. It's perhaps that it's easier to write about cats in a fantastical manner - at least more than other animals. Because it is hard to know what real cats are thinking, it's easy to fictionalize them into kind or selfish characters. The new story is kind of way out there. It involves a world in the not too distant future when cats become a food source for people. In a book that I previously wrote, there is an episode in which a child takes home a stray cat, only to later throw it away. There was a reader who became very angry about this. However, just because I wrote about such a thing does not mean that I approve of it. The person would not have been bothered the slightest if it had been any other animal than a feline. This made me re-think the existence of cats. On one hand, I'm a lover of cats. On the other hand, I don't think twice about eating cows and pigs in order to live. For this book, I wanted to reconsider how we treat animals by focusing on a specific creature that everyone believes should be treated specially."

- So it's not important just because it's a cat.

"I don't want to put cats or humans into a bracket. I want to better understand the personalities of each individual creature. And I'm not only talking about pets. I want to get along well with them and succeed at sharing a single existence. In addition to having a good understanding of what each other wants, I hope we can both have a 'give and take' relationship. Because I can't understand the language of cats, I have to take care and pay close attention to Tabi when he is not feeling well. However, if he calls for me to spoil him at a time that I'm busy, I'll give him the cold shoulder. That reminds me, cats are such actors. After returning from a trip, I'll go to pick him up from my parent's house. When we meet, he'll try to pretend he didn't miss me by wearing a regular expression. However, once I left him there a little longer because I had so much luggage with me. Soon, my parents called and said, 'Come back and get Tabi... He won't stop crying in the doorway.' Though I found this very cute, it also reminded me that I need to do a better of job of understanding him."

- How do you think Tabi views your own existence?

"I wonder. If there is a hierarchical relationship between us, I'm not really sure if I am the one who is on top. This is what is so interesting about cats. Sometimes they act subservient and appreciative. When I'm feeling down, Tabi will keep her eyes on me from a distance. At times like these, I can really feel that cats are sensitive and gentle animals."