That the Japanese are great cat-lovers should come as no surprise: a taste for the elegant, the mysterious and the quirky leads in a feline direction, after all. There are paintings of cats from the classical period of the imperial court and prints from the more popular ukiyo-e of the Edo Period (1603-1867). The cat makes brief appearances in classical literature and becomes the virtual protagonist in a number of important modern Japanese novels and essays. One thinks immediately of “Wagahai wa neko de aru,” written in 1905-06 by Natsume Soseki, Japan’s most beloved 20th-century novelist. This long satiric work, narrated by a cat belonging to an academic intellectual, provides comic views of persons very much like Soseki himself, and his coterie. The humor is a bit ponderous in places, but an able translation by Graeme Wilson and Aiko Ito made this uniquely comic work by Soseki available to the English reader in 1972 under the title “I Am a Cat,” and it is still in print.

Soseki had a disciple named Uchida Hyakken, an academic, intellectual and writer, like his teacher. Among his many works, almost entirely untranslated, alas, there is “Nora ya” (1957). “Oh, Nora!,” as we might translate the title, is an elaborate account of Hyakken’s beloved cat, which has gone missing, and the author’s prolonged attempts to recover him — and it is a “him,” despite the feminine sound of the name, which derives rather from the Japanese term nora neko (stray cat). This is an extended, indeed book-length essay, a focused memoir rather than a work of fiction.

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