Cats are the best animal in the world.
Everyone loves cats. They are cute, sweet, and make us feel warm and fuzzy.
As almost all languages have cat words and cat idioms, Japanese has many words and idioms which have “cat" (猫) in them, too.
Some of them are understandable out of the Japanese context, but some of them are based on Japanese cultural ideas for cats.
In this article, we are going to learn 7 cat words and cat idioms which Japanese natives are using in real life!
猫 (Neko) means “cat” and 舌 (jita) means “tongue.” So, it means literally “cat’s tongue.”
But in Japanese, 猫舌 (Neko-jita) means a person who can’t handle eating hot food. In this word, it doesn't mean hot as in spiciness, but as high temperature.
Have you ever burned your tongue when you ate hot food? If your tongue hurts a lot when you have a hot meal, you are definitely 猫舌 (Neko-jita).
猫舌 (Neko-jita) can be used for all hot food, but Japanese natives usually say it when they have liquid food, like a hot drink, hot soup, or stew. (It’s because it happens more when they have liquid food!)
Why is 猫舌 used for a person who can’t eat hot food?
It is simply because Japanese people have the idea that cats can’t eat hot food.
Have you ever watched Ghibli’s movie “魔女の宅急便 (Kiki’s delivery service)”? There is a scene where Jiji (Kiki’s cat) had hot food and he was surprised by its hotness. He couldn’t drink it. It is expressing the idea of 猫舌 (Nekojita).
I don’t like to eat hot food because I have a cat tongue.
Tom has a cat tongue.
Many people may have gotten scolded by their parents when they had bad posture. They got scolded because they had 猫背 (Nekoze).
猫背 means that your back is round like cats when you slouch over.
Literally, 猫背 (Nekoze) is “cat’s back.” 背(ze) means back. (Japanese usually say 背中(Senaka) for back.)
A cat’s back is usually round when they are sitting or sleeping. So, Japanese natives say 猫背 for a person who’s back is round and your head is leaning to front.
Hey, you've got a cat's back! Fix your posture!
He's got a cat's back so he looks shorter than he is. He's actually tall.
Next word is 猫の目(Nekonome). It literally means “cat’s eye.”
You might guess it means something cute or big when you hear that.
But this is often used as a metaphor to mean something that quickly changes. Cat’s pupils change quickly from big to small depending on the light, so it’s used to describe people’s quick-changing decisions or mood.
When you want to use this word, you say it with みたいに(mitaini)orのように(noyouni) after 猫の目.
Her feelings change as quickly as a cat’s eye.
In this case, we can use this to mean a girl/boy who changes her/his opinion on something easily. For example, she/he might want to go to one restaurant, but then immediately change her/his mind right after.
We can also use 猫の目 (Nekonome) in this way.
He changes what he means as easily as a cat’s eye.
This one might seem a little difficult to understand at first. You can use this for, say, your boss. He will tell you one thing, and after you do it, he will say right after, “Actually, that’s not what I wanted you to do.”
招き猫 is a lucky cat.
You see them in Japanese gift shops at sightseeing spots. They’re usually depicted as a cat sitting on its hind legs with a paw in the air.
招き猫 has different colors and each color expresses different meanings!
Calico 招き猫 is especially lucky, It expresses the calico 招き猫 will bring you very good luck!
Black 招き猫 has a meaning of strong magical charm. Black 招き猫 protects you from evil spirits and bad luck.
Red 招き猫 is especially lucky for your health.
Why is 猫 a symbol of luck in Japan？
For ancient Japanese, cats were a beneficial animal to people because they catch rats, which eat food, crops, and silkworms. There were many farmers that had been in the silk fabric business at that time in Japan.
There were many 大名 (Daimyo) and 将軍 (Shogun), like 豊臣秀吉 (Hideyoshi Toyotomi) who had cats as their pet, too.
One story got famous in the Edo era.
A Daimyo, 井伊直孝 (Naotaka Ii) saw a cat beckoning him in front of a gate of Gotoku temple (豪徳寺). When he went into the temple and took a rest with the cat, it started to rain heavily and thunder cracked loudly.
He thought the cat helped him escape from the lightning and the bad weather and he really appreciated it. The monks also welcomed him even though he came so suddenly. After that, the Daimyo donated money for the temple because of the cat.
The most common Japanese cat idiom is 猫の手も借りたい (Nekonotemo-karitai). It literally means, “I want to borrow a cat’s paw.” This idiom actually came up in a text I (Justina) translated for a game!
You use it when you’re so busy, you’d even ask a cat to help you with work.
Today, so many customers came in, so I was so busy I even wanted to ask a cat for a hand.
*sigh* I’m so busy that I even want to ask a cat for help.
In these situations, you’re so busy with work, even just a little help, such as from a cat, would make you feel better!
Another idiom we have is 猫に小判。
It literally means “A coin for a cat.” A “koban” is one of those ancient Japanese coins. You may have seen it on the Pokémon meowth’s head!
This idiom is used for situations when you give a present for someone. If you give a present for someone who won’t understand its use or worth, it’s a waste, just like giving a cat a coin. Cats don’t understand the concept of money!
猫に小判の例文 -for example-
It’s a waste if you give him such expensive wine! For him, it doesn’t matter how expensive it is.
In this situation, this man probably doesn’t understand the value of expensive wine, so if you give it to him, he won’t enjoy it to the fullest.
If you give her such a high-quality painting, it’d be a waste. She doesn’t have any interest in art, after all.
This girl doesn’t have any interest in art, so she won’t recognize the painting’s full worth!
This idiom actually comes up in Japanese Pokémon games as a Pokémon move. This move is called “pay day” in English, but is called 猫に小判 in Japanese.
窮鼠 (kyu-so) means a cornered rat and 噛む (kamu) means to bite.
It literally means a cornered rat bites a cat. But it express that a weak person or team (a rat) sometimes fight back against a strong person or team (a cat) when they are driven into a corner.
Japanese usually use this idiom so they do not be careless when they are in a game or a competition.
窮鼠猫を噛むの例文 -for example-
Don’t be careless even if we have a big lead. It is said a cornered rat bites a cat.
You should not make him angry because a cornered rat bites a cat.
Cats are heavily connected to Japanese culture
Cats are heavily connected to Japanese culture. It is said that cats were imported from China into Japan 1300 years ago. In the Heian era (794~), cats got a reputation as a cute pet among Japanese royalty. Japanese people has been spending a lot of time with cats. They gave us happiness and comfort even in hard times.
Let's learn Japanese like cats! With curiosity and at your own pace.🐈