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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Reviewing "Catland: The Soft Power of Cat Culture in Japan"

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - I'm on Team Cat, after all.

Reviewing books isn't normally what I do on KoopaTV, but a fan of mine provided me a copy of Catland: The Soft Power of Cat Culture in Japan. This individual asked me how I liked the book, and I refused to actually answer this fan's question directly. Instead, I said I'd review the book on KoopaTV, and they can wait and read that to get the answer. ...Somehow, that didn't go over poorly. And here we are! I mean, the book is about cats and about Japan, and I think those are two topics that the participants and lurkers of KoopaTV like.

Fast Facts

Catland: The Soft Power of Cat Culture in Japan
Sarah Archer
The Countryman Press
Year Published
History, cats, Japan
Page Count
180, plus bibliography, credits, and index
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price
19.95 USD
It's very important to note upfront that Catland is a very quick read—it took me about two nights to get through—because a very large chunk (perhaps even a majority) of its pages are cat photos or reproductions of cat art. Here's an example of a given page:

cat cafe Japan Catland feeding cats bowls food chow
Pages 32 and 33 of Catland. Wild cats are being taken care of.

Catland is divided into four main sections as it tries to demonstrate a point: The Introduction, Japan's Lucky Cats, Nekonomics, and Crafts. The basic point is that Japan, more than any other nation on Earth, is steeped in a “cat culture” that not only permeates the interior of the nation, but is also exported to other countries that affects how foreigners view the country. Sarah Archer would know, as one of those cat-loving foreigners (she's from Pennsylvania, AKA the United States of America) who are looking into Japan instead of out from it.

The author doesn't actually have any unique expertise on Japan, history, or cats. Catland is also not a scholarly work by any means. It doesn't actually try to prove anything. There's no data presented about Japan being THE cat capital of Earth. Instead, it overwhelms you with cat photos to warm you up to the idea. Since I keep mentioning cat photos, here's another example:

Catland Japan Japanese commercials businessman carried Nameneko biker cats
Pages 20 and 21 of Catland. The right photos refer to this short Japanese commercial.

Quite frankly, you probably already believe in the deep connection between cats and Japan if you're getting this book to begin with. At the start, the book goes over wonderful purrsonality traits (my pun, not her's) of cats: they're mysterious and endearing, but also naughty and possibly also vicious if you're a rodent or encounter a cat from legends. Catland goes over a lot of the history and mythology of how cats got to Japan and how they became valued. This includes many pages on the maneki-neko and its different colours and poses and their meanings. A lot of the photos at this part come from museums and such, and the text also includes several interview quotes with professors, museum curators, and other Japanese history and culture experts. I assume the authors did her own interviews as opposed to riffing off others’, though the whole thing smacks of a high-effort attempt to be funny by taking a goofy subject seriously. (I'm an expert on this kind of humour on KoopaTV, so I can recognise it.)

Catland maneki-neko beckoning waving cat photos Sarah Archer Japan
Pages 72 and 73 of Catland. It's beckoning for you to come towards it.

The Nekonomics section of the book, which makes up a plurality of its content by page count, is where Catland goes into specific cultural examples of Japan and cats. Catland makes a point that many of the popular cultural cats from Japan aren't actually anyone's pet. Japan actually doesn't have a whole bunch of cat ownership (maybe you're familiar with how small Japanese living spaces are)—it has a whole lot of fascination with wild, stray cats (with some island communities dedicated to feeding these) and cats that hang out at cafés. That apparently only enhances their appeal, though I'm not sure if that theory actually makes sense if you apply logical scrutiny to it. The beginning of the Nekonomics section references I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki, which is a work I fully intend to read and review on KoopaTV, if only because it's Ace Attorney-adjacent. (Of course, that cat was under human ownership.) If Catland failed to mention I Am a Cat, I would've instantly deemed the book a total failure. But it passed that bar, fortunately.

Catland describes how cultural exports like Doraemon and Hello Kitty (who isn't actually a cat but some kind of mutant furry person) helped Japan project a soft power to the world after its hard, imperialistic, and rough image following World War II. The kawaii craze certainly changed worldwide opinion of Japan, and cats were a major player in that.

Catland Nyannyan-ji Temple humans cats Japan Japanese cat shrine
Pages 122 and 123 of Catland, featuring Nyannyan-ji Temple's proprietors. This place features well-dressed cats.
Hopefully you've forgiven Japan's imperialism from 80 years ago when their people are doing stuff like...this in the present.

As for the Crafts section, they have furniture, costumes, and baskets for cats to reside on/in, as well as those maneki-neko figures that are crafted by Japanese people in workshops. The majority of the section are a series of photos of these crafts, and then there's an abrupt ending to the whole book that leads to an Acknowledgements section as Sarah Archer thanks many people, including her deceased cat.

Catland neko chigura Japanese cat basket
Page 141 of Catland (photo extends to the left to page 140 as well).
This cat is inside the cat basket.

If you want to read Catland to get some insightful analysis on the connection with Japanese culture and cats, or get a primer on that, you're probably better off reading Wikipedia articles. If you want a collection of Japanese cat photos with some pretty light and topical reading that goes along with it, Catland is for you. To be fair, the back of the book description deems Catland more of a “celebrat[ion]” of “cat culture” than an analytical work. So if that interests you, there are plenty more photos like this one:

Catland cat hot spring hotel Japan Beppu Aratama Ryokan Onsen
From page 126 of Catland.
Let's exchange applause for this cat!
(Who is an abandoned cat at the Beppu Aratama Ryokan Onsen hot spring hotel.)

Ludwig wonders if the author or her publisher will ask KoopaTV to take the photographs of the book's photographs off of the website, since he has no rights to it other than claiming it's fair use. If that happens, no one's going to want to buy Catland after reading this review, because that's the strongest part of the book and that's content better shown than described. He believes it's critical to understanding the Catland experience. Ludwig also wonders if another fan of his will be jealous that her book, that she actually wrote, hasn't been reviewed or even read by Ludwig despite her sending him a copy several years ago. Ludwig obviously writes book reviews differently than he writes videogame reviews, so let him know in the comments section if he did a bad job reviewing the book, since he doesn't really know how to do so.

The last time a book was reviewed on KoopaTV, it was an Ace Attorney manga collection over eight years ago.
This review was awarded the Best KoopaTV Review of 2022.


  1. CUTE!

    The cute cat pictures have distracted me too much to be concerned with what books have or have not been reviewed.


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