Regret, Memories and Mortality: A Reflection on “If Cats Disappeared from the World”

Caption: “If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura. Photo Credit: Rachel Lemmen

If you were going to die soon and could live an extra day for each thing you made disappear from the world, what would you choose? 

This is the premise for Genki Kawamura’s first novel translated from Japanese, “If Cats Disappeared from the World,” which follows the last week of a 30-year-old postman unexpectedly diagnosed with a brain tumor and a week to live.

After the news, the devil shows up in a bright Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, offering the dying man a deal: one extra day in exchange for one thing erased from the world. The catch? It’s the devil’s choice as to what disappears. 

What ensues is a deep look into humanity and what we hold dear; challenging the reader to contemplate what they value most in their own lives, and how they should live their lives to the fullest in a mortal world. 

The man gets several more days as he gives up phones, movies and clocks. As each object disappears, he realizes too late the significance they hold in his life and his regret when they are gone.

These objects held connections with people that disappeared along with the objects. They invoke memories he had been burying underneath years of missed opportunities. He finds how each object told an intricate story of memories of his deceased mother, his estranged father, and the two cats, Lettuce and Cabbage, who held the hurting, broken family together.

Each object that disappeared was laced with the reality that life is full of moments that define our existence, and people who shape our being. His remaining days are spent regretting and reliving all these material things brought into his life and the people he took for granted that they connected him to. 

Finally, he has enough. When the Devil suggests getting rid of cats, the postman refuses. He’s willing to end his life rather than erase something from the world that has traced his memories and outlined his relationships, comforted his mother in her death, and given him a purpose he never knew.

He realizes before it is too late the resonant significance his cats have been to him and his family for so long. If cats mean so much to him, it would be unthinkable to take them away from others in exchange for another day.

The postman brings a letter to his father with his cat, Cabbage, to fulfill his mother’s last wish of reconciling with his father. 

The postman writes in the final pages of the novel, “Just being alive doesn’t mean all that much on its own. How you live is more important.” 

Today’s culture runs on self-centered, tunnel-vision decisions and actions. Each day turns into another one where everything is taken for granted. Eventually, life itself becomes something that we assume and expect we’ll have tomorrow. When the novel opens and the protagonist gets his diagnosis, he believes that though life for him is empty and lacking purpose, he is in the right for taking the Devil up on this devastating offer. 

But as Kawamura aptly describes through his novel, we often don’t realize what something – or someone – means to us until they’re gone, or the purpose our life has until it’s coming to a close. Instead, it is replaced with a myriad of regrets and realizations. The loss of my closest family member at a young age taught me you only have what each day gives you, nothing more and nothing less. Each moment becomes a memory and eventually, that’s all you have left. 

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” depicts life as complex and full of powerful, sometimes simple, meaning, even when we can’t see it. The novel employs fantastical absurdity and convicting narrative to remind the readers to be present. It’s more than simply journaling or taking deep breaths. It transcends beyond yourself to remembering the profound importance of each person, place and thing in your life, as the protagonist discovers throughout. Recognize it so that when they are gone, you know you have appreciated each memory life has brought. Your life will evolve with passing time but some things will remain. 

Kawamura addresses the world as we know it through each chapter dedicated to the protagonist’s extra day without something, revealing the meaning behind simple things. He challenges us to take a step back, and learn to live within each day, even if it is your last, as a gift, relishing all you have and all it means to you.