pets

 


Chinese cats (Kara neko) were the pampered pets of royalty and the aristocracy in Murasaki's day. They had originally been imported from China several centuries earlier, in the Nara period, for the purpose of protecting valuable Buddhist sutras from being nibbled by mice. The most famous kitten in classical Japanese literature appears in Murasaki's Tale of Genji, in the chapter "New Herbs, Part I". The kitten belongs to Genji's childish wife, The Third Princess, and by dashing onto the verandah, it allows the young man Kashiwagi to catch a glimpse of the princess, thereby setting in motion a disastrous chain of events.

   Kashiwagi falls in love with the woman—even, in his hopeless infatuation, contriving to steal the cat away as a fetish he can adore in her place. Eventually he manages to consummate his love with the naïve princess, and she becomes pregnant with the child Kaoru, whom the world believes to be Genji's son. Kashiwagi dies of shame, the Third Princess becomes a nun, and Kaoru is a psychologically tortured character all his life. All because of a kitten.

   The scene on page 195 of my story in which Emperor Ichijô and Teishi bestow palace rank on a cat that has just given birth, comes directly from Sei Shônagon's Pillow Book. Later the poor dog Okinamaro chases the cat and is severely punished in the same story. This is probably a fair indication of the lowly place given dogs as compared to cats at the time. Dogs of a variety known as Nihonken (literally, "Japanese dog") existed in the country long before cats arrived. They are ancestors to today's breeds the Akita and Chiba-inu—stocky, short-haired, prick-eared, curly-tailed dogs. Many ran wild in packs through the streets of Miyako in Murasaki's time. There are descriptions of packs of dogs chewing on the corpses of plague victims, for example. The fact that the palace dog Okinamaro had a name indicates that dogs were also kept, probably as watchdogs or guard-dogs, but they were not the pampered creatures cats were.

 
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