What Will Become Of The Nekoyama?

A short story by Haruki Murakami, from the book Murakami Radio.

I once compared a difficult task to trying to train a cat, and I got an avalanche of responses from cat owners insisting they’d trained their cats just fine. Some people claimed that the trick is being patient and doing it during mealtime. I’ve fed a lot of cats in my day and I never felt that was a good opportunity for training.

To me, cats are loyal friends who are, in a sense, your strategic partners but are not there to be trained. I want Nekoyama (a pseudonym I have given to cats to make them sound more human) to live with dignity. I’m not saying that every cat is untrainable (although I firmly believe that’s a compliment), but Nekoyama are staunchly independent and, well, cool.

We have a saying in Japanese: “like a borrowed cat.” Younger people have asked me why you’d ever borrow a cat. Hmm. Why would you borrow someone else’s cat? Something to do with animal therapy? No, not at all. It was for getting rid of rats around the house. If you had a particularly skillful rat-catching cat, neighbors would drop by and ask to borrow it to deal with their infestations. Cats were an invaluable asset in the war against rats in the old days. When I was a kid our cat would periodically catch a rat and parade around with it in its mouth, thus solidifying its value as a member of the household. Cats fended for themselves, had useful specialized skills, and were regarded sort of like independent contractors. You’d never even think about training a cat in those days. It would serve no purpose.

But you don’t find many rats inside Japanese homes anymore, and that’s shifted the purpose of cats. Now people keep them as cute pets. It’s possible that’s led to an increase in cats that are trainable despite their history of independence. I imagine some annual National Meeting Of The Cats. There they are, gathered in a corner of the grounds of a shrine, and one of them says: “In order for the cat to survive in these difficult times, we must undergo a complete image overhaul.” The cats pass this resolution, arms folded and nodding in agreement.

But man, I’d love one cat to speak up: “What the hell do you mean? Training?! I’m no dog, I’m a cat!”

Best of luck, cats far and wide.