Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
As the international economic crisis continues to intensify and unemployed people around the world struggle to find work, one cat has reached the peak of success on the strength of a smile. Known as “Basket Cat” to his Japanese fans and, affectionately, “Uncle Cat” to his Chinese fans, the cat in question is a mixed-breed named Shironeko from a small town in Iwata Prefecture, Japan.
How did a cat from such an ordinary background become the most famous feline in China and Japan? After all, the internet is filled with star mousecatchers. But this cat has a face like no other—tranquil, round and perfectly content. One look at that blissed-out smile and, so they say, a viewer’s worries will just fade away.
The term “Healing System” in Japanese refers to anything designed to help one relax and return to the “true nature of things;” its earliest incarnation was as a genre of music analogous to New Age in the West. Shironeko, who displays his laid-back ways in volumes of online photos, is a Healing System cat. Many white-collar workers attest that looking at Shironeko’s newest pics in their spare moments at the office is an excellent stress-reliever. And for writers, who spend all day glued to their computer screens, this Zen kitty is the perfect online pet. When it feels like they’ve written themselves into a corner, they take a few moments to look at his chubby face and serene expression, and inspiration spontaneously arises.
After Japan experienced a massive earthquake on March 11 2011, people around the world worried for the safety of the Japanese people. But people weren’t the only thing they were worried about. For there was also the matter of Shironeko, who had just turned nine years old three days prior, and whose post-quake status was unknown. Numerous Chinese netizens posted messages on Shironeko’s blog, hoping that he was all right. Then on the afternoon of March 14, Sina Weibo’s news page confirmed that the cat and his family were safe and sound. Within nine hours this good news was circulated nearly ten thousand times!
Ever since Chinese netizens began rabidly reposting pictures of Shironeko on their own blogs and websites, it has become clear that music and science are not the only things without national boundaries—pets can be boundaryless, too. Three Shironeko photobooks have been published to date in Japan, and earlier this year his first Chinese-language photobook hit the markets in the Mainland. Sales were huge from the get-go. Shironeko even flew to China to attend a book signing, though this was not without precedent: he had already surprised his Japanese fans at an earlier event, where he signed his books with a stamped pawprint.
Calling Shironeko “Uncle Cat” is entirely appropriate, because at nine years old he is the cat equivalent of a fifty-two year-old man. Not only that, his serene expression is also quite similar to that of a favorite uncle, one who no longer gets caught up in the common concerns of the world. In each of his pictures he appears near frame center, his narrowed eyes looking right at the lens, as if he and the cameraman were engaged in conversation. It is clear that his owner gives Shironeko no small amount of respect. And when you look into his eyes you’ll find that he’s doing the same—looking back at you and coolly sizing you up.
Shironeko grew up on a farm in the countryside with green mountains just behind his house. He enjoys wearing flowers on his furry head and posing every which way—truly a charming, fascinating character!
Neither Shironeko’s origins nor his appearance would have suggested his present superstardom but for one thing: that expression of his, that look on his face where he seems to know everything there is to know, and to be both perfectly satisfied and also entirely indifferent to all of it. This is what has won him the adoration of his legions of fans.
At almost 10 pounds, Shironeko is, strictly speaking, a fat cat. He has a big white head, and he loves squinting, loves wearing sunglasses, and adores squeezing into little baskets for a nice nap. His specialty is balancing things on his head. At this he is unrivaled. No matter what strange object is placed up there, he simply narrows his eyes and balances it effortlessly.
To help Uncle Cat fully display his talents, his owner will take at least one photo per batch in which his star subject is balancing a different plant on his head. Included with this photo will be a brief explanation of the plant’s properties and uses. In this way Uncle Cat’s many fans can learn a little something while they relax.
Doubts, however, have been expressed. Doesn’t Uncle Cat get angry when these things are placed on his head, many wonder?
“Of course there are times when he doesn’t listen,” says Uncle Cat’s owner. “And in the beginning he would often resist. When I would place a flower on his head, for example, he would swipe it off with his paw, meow, and then walk off. A real cool customer. So now I wait until he is in a good mood to take pictures. He also loves to roll around during our shoots. Luckily, it usually takes no more than five minutes to capture a pose. His favorite props are the baskets, which is why I initially took so many pictures of him lying in them, and why he was later nicknamed ‘Basket Cat.’”
Because Shironeko is so often photographed half-asleep and squinting into the camera, some netizens have wondered whether he is fed some special substance.
His owner denies the charge: “How could I ever do something like that? He always arranges himself for our shoots. No special training or substances are used. My hope has always been for Shironeko to grow up free, happy and healthy.”