Cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty through cats

Cat­land: The Soft Pow­er of Cat Cul­ture in Japan’ by Sarah Archer

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These Japanese cats make a happy distraction from tense times in the US. (Image courtesy of Countryman Press.)
These Japanese cats make a happy distraction from tense times in the US. (Image courtesy of Countryman Press.)

This year was supposed to bring my first trip to Japan. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved Japanese culture: from anime to video games, to film and literature and even the language, Japan has stamped me as a writer and as an artist. But COVID-19 wrecked my travel plans for the foreseeable future, so I’m seeking remote journeys to the place that once again feels far away. Sarah Archer’s insightful and comforting new book, Catland: The Soft Power of Cat Culture in Japan, is a knowledgeable invitation to a Japanese cultural phenomenon that I’ll happily take as an escape from the tense social climate here in America.

More than just cats

Catland is a colorful collection of photographs, images, history, and more. It strives to “look at the world through a cat-shaped lens,” offering glimpses into Japanese cat culture stretching back for more than a millennium, and illustrating the timeline of the commercial cat frenzy in Japan that started in the 1970s. The history is as interesting to read as it is to look at (there are some precious cats all over this book). We learn how nekonomics, or the economic benefit that cats bring to Japanese communities, contributed to the country’s postwar rebuilding and industrialization after WWII, and its shift in how it projected itself culturally.

Instead of moving forward as a postwar military might, Japan became a “soft” power, and this was perpetuated through cinema and goods shipped around the world. This shift in the ’70s is where many contemporary cat icons were born, including the likes of Totoro, Hello Kitty (spoiler alert: Hello Kitty herself isn’t a cat) and Doraemon (who has a compelling but tragic backstory, especially for a fictional cat).

Paws for concern

Archer’s book comes with some unusual tinges. I got my invitation to review this book before quarantine. First, I was jealous—Archer is a Philadelphia writer and author and got the chance to compose a book about a kawaii cornerstone of Japanese culture. I’d love to archive and study the cat shrines, cafés, and bathhouses that densely populate Japan. But now, writing this review nearly seven months into quarantine, not only am I worried about the nekonomics and how they’ve been impacted, but I grow concerned about the adaptability of a collective society in times of strife. Catland already feels like a relic, one of the last earnest and wholesome things from a time long gone—i.e., several months ago.

This isn’t just a book about why cats are loved the way they are. The history observed here digs into the growth of a country and a people who had to bounce back from one of the most horrific events in human history. It takes the symbolic nature of cats and observes how their nature was integral to a culture trying to redefine its identity. Japan looked at its past and found something that reverberated immensely in the present: Hello Kitty is the world’s second-highest grossing franchise; 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro is one of the most recognizable anime films in the world.

It’s the little things, like cats, that can be part of the difference. Cats aren’t going to save us, but especially since we’ve adopted so many pets during quarantine, they sure can bring some peace to the little corners of the world we call home.

Image description: The cover of the book Catland by Sarah Archer, featuring a photo of a white cat wearing a sweater, a bead necklace, and an apron sitting on top of a table.

What, When, Where

Catland: The Soft Power of Cat Culture in Japan. New York, NY: The Countryman Press, August 11, 2020. 192 pages, hardcover, $19.95. Buy it and support independent bookstores at Bookshop.com.

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