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“Keep quiet! You can’t even read Latin!” The satirical purpose of Western Classics in Natsume Sōseki’s I am a Cat.

James R Townshend

University of Miami

The study of the reception of Greek and Roman antiquity in Japan (and East Asia more generally) is a growing field exploring both the creative use of this material in modern cultural artefacts and the history of Greek and Roman studies as a discipline (for both, see most recently Renger and Fan 2018). This paper explores how the Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) incorporates references to ancient the Greek and Roman world into his first novel I am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko Dearu). I argue that Sōseki’s use of this material has literary and thematic point—that it contributes to his satire of middle-class intellectuals in the Meiji period and the contemporary shift away from traditional Confucian education towards western academic practices, a particular preoccupation in his writing. Moreover, it sheds some light on the diffusion of Greek and Roman material among the “educated elite” and so can inform our understanding of the development in Japan of “Western Classical Studies” (Seiyōkotengaku) as a discipline.

Sōseki was familiar with Greek and Roman Antiquity. In the preface to his Theory of Literature (Bungakuron), he remarks that he studied Latin for three years. Latin was a required subject in the English department at Tokyo Imperial University (Taida 2018: 81). He was also on good terms with Raphael von Koeber, a Russian-born German philosopher who came to Tokyo Imperial University in 1893 and pioneered the study of Latin and especially Greek in Japan (Notsu 1996: 108–109; Taida 2018: 82–83; Marcus 2009: 163–166 on the relationship with von Koeber). There is therefore a solid basis for Sōseki’s familiarity with Greek and Roman material. Von Keober’s influence would also explain the strong philosophical tenor of much of the references. There is also evidence of his awareness and consultation of secondary materials in English (Gonoji 2016).

I am a Cat reflects satirically on the habits of Meiji “intellectuals.” The novel is narrated by an unnamed cat in the house of Kushami, a middle-school English teacher who doesn’t really understand English. The cat reports the many conversations of Kushami’s circle of friends including Meitei the “aesthete” (bigakusha) and Kangetsu, a former student of Kushami and doctoral candidate who is now said to have surpassed his old teacher. The Greek and Roman material—literary, historical, and especially philosophical—ranges from unattributed anecdotes to direct citations. For example, during a conversation about death by hanging in chapter 2 Meitei refers to a story about a “Greek” who would give hanging demonstrations at dinner parties. Subsequently, Kangetsu states that the first recorded use of execution by hanging occurs in the Odyssey. He declines to recite the passage, but does provide the correct book and line numbers (Od. 22.465–473). According to Kushami and Meitei, reciting the Greek would just be showing off, but the cat remarks that neither man can actually read Greek. Nor can they read Latin. In chapter 11, Meitei and Kushami consider the Latin phrase quid aliud est mulier nisi amicitiae inimica. Each asks the other to translate it, but both deflect until Meitei changes the subject. But when Meitei tells an embarrassing story from Kushami’s student days, Kushami tells him to shut him up, adding “you can’t even read Latin.” Sōseki satirizes these men by highlighting how their failure to understand the language does not prevent these men from deploying material from Greek and Roman antiquity against those they believe to be their intellectual inferiors. The Latin phrase in question is quoted in Thomas Nashe’s Anatomy of Absurdity and later in the same episode the men return to that book’s collection of ancient Greek and Roman indictments of women and marriage. This suggests that although some individuals could and did consult original texts (like Kangetsu and the Odyssey), for many their knowledge was likely mediated through translations and other secondary sources.

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