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Japanese Language (Idioms): Three Animal Phrases Meaning “Meaningless”

‘Tis the season for Japanese idioms! Today, we’ve prepared three phrases for you that carry the connotation of useless, meaningless, or pointless. All three of them guest star members of the animal kingdom, so they’re a good triad to memorize together.


Neko ni Koban


Literal meaning: to give a cat (neko) a coin (koban)

As happy as a human would be to get a gold koban coin, a cat wouldn’t be able to use it or even understand that it’s something with value. From that, “neko ni koban” is a metaphor for something made useless because the person who has it doesn’t understand its worth or how to use it.

*On a note, this phrase isn’t related to the maneki-neko, the cat that holds a koban and invites good fortune. Koban have been associated with luck since ancient times, and so the koban-carrying maneki-neko is a symbol of good fortune.

Related: What on Earth!! Top 3 + 1 Extra, Historically Significant Spots for Maneki-neko

Koban: a type of small gold coin used during the Edo period, its unit was called a “ryō,” which was also a unit of weight.



Ōban: this was the larger version of the koban (“ko” means “small,” and “ō” means “large”), and just as the koban was used as a unit of standard currency, the ōban was used for grander purposes, like the granting of gifts and rewards. Unlike koban, they were counted not as “ryō” but as “mai,” causing one unit of gold to be counted as “ichimai” (“one flat thing”).


Buta ni Shinju


Literal meaning: to give a pig (buta) a pearl (shinju)

This phrase is synonymous with “neko ni koban” and etymological cousin to the English “pearls before swine,” both being translations from a famous biblical passage. As with the first phrase, it describes a completely pointless effort, as a pig has no idea of the value of a pearl nor does a cat the value of a gold coin.


Uma no Mimi ni Nembutsu


Literal meaning: to recite prayers (nembutsu) into the ear (mimi) of a horse (uma)
like water off a duck’s back


Strictly speaking, the situations where you use this phrase are a little different from the ones where you can use the two above. However, all of them generally carry the meaning of something done in vain or meaninglessly, so we’ve decided to present them as a group. For example, you’re likely to find “uma no mimi ni nembutsu” in a thesaurus entry for the above two.

The nembutsu is the name of the Buddha when recited as a component of salvation in some Pure Land sects, and so the image of chanting this prayer into a horse’s ear came to be a metaphor for something completely meaningless. After all, the horse doesn’t care about salvation! With that context, you can probably understand why it is often used when us humans try to talk to one another only to find our warnings or advice completely unheeded by the listener. It’s also used when the listener simply doesn’t understand the significance of what is said owing to ignorance, and it’s in that spirit we put “uma no mimi ni nembutsu” in with “neko ni koban” and “buta ni shinju.”


So there you have it! An interesting triad of idioms, don’t you think? We hope you’ll read our next installment in the series, where we’ll introduce another set of similar phrases to help you on your road to Japanese idiom mastery.

Related: Japanese Language

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