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Goin’ Japanesque!

15 Idioms with Cats: Japanese Love Neko

Japanese love cats. It seems this obsession with cats can seem absurd to people from overseas. The first time record of cats appears in written history of Japan is in 889 AD. The Emperor Uda of Heian Period wrote in his diary about his beloved cat. Since then, there’s the maneki-neko (figurine of the beckoning cat), Hello Kitty, Doraemon, island of cats, Kuroneko Yamato delivery service, the novel “I am a Cat (Wagahai Wa Neko De Aru)” by Natsume Soseki… and so if you see how often cats appear in the daily lives of Japanese, it shows how much the Japanese love cats. Cats make their appearances in the Japanese language as well. Today, we introduce idioms that use the word Neko (cat) as the keyword. 


1. Neko wo kaburu


Direct Translation: To wear a cat.
Meaning: To pretend to be innocent and hide one’s true personality and nature.



2. Karitekita neko


Direct Translation: A borrowed cat.
Meaning: Refers to someone who acts better behaved than they usually are. It comes from the belief that cats act more tamely when outside their typical home.


3. Neko no te mo karitai


Direct Translation: Want to borrow even the hand of a cat.
Meaning: It means that one is extremely busy, so much so that they would appreciate the help of anyone, even that of a cat.


4. Neko mo shakushi mo


Direct Translation: Even cats and rice ladles
Meaning: Anyone and everyone want to do the same thing.


5. Neko no ko ippiki inai


Direct Translation: There is not even a single baby cat.
Meaning: There are absolutely no people around.


6. Neko ni matatabi, Jyoro ni koban


Direct Translation: Catnip to a cat, a coin to a prostitute
Meaning: To put someone in a good mood by providing that which they most desire. Or an example of something that is very effective.



7. Neko dorobo


Direct Translation: Cat thief
Meaning: Someone who is sly and does a bad deed.



8. Neko baba


Direct Translation: Cat droppings
Meaning: To pocket, steal something and pretend not to know. It comes from cats covering their droppings with sand. They seem to hide something bad and pretend not to know anything.



9. Neko no hitai


Direct Translation: Cat’s forehead.
Meaning: A space that is very small.



10. Neko jita


Direct Translation: Cat tongue.
Meaning: Someone who is not good at eating/drinking hot foods.



11. Nekoze


Direct Translation: Cat back
Meaning: To have a rounded back like a cat. If you have done yoga before, this one was probably not too hard to guess.


12. Neko nimo nareba tora nimo naru


Direct Translation: Can act like a cat or act like a tiger.
Meaning: Depending on how the opponent acts, one can be quiet or hostile.



13. Neko no irunowa yane no ue, Tori no irunowa ki no ue


Direct Translation: A cat’s place is on the roof, A bird’s place is in the trees
Meaning: There is a place for everyone and everything.


14. Neko wa san-nen kattemo, mikka de on wo wasureru


Direct Translation: You can have a cat for three years, but the cat will forget to be thankful in 3 days
Meaning: A cat is an animal that does not feel appreciation toward their owners. There is also a saying that goes you can have a dog for three days and it will not stay loyal for 3 years.


15. Neko wa tora no kokoro wo shirazu


Direct Translation: The cat does not know the heart of a tiger.
Meaning: A person of low status does not know the thoughts of a person of status. 


There are some idioms that have meanings that are easy to guess, others with meanings far off from what you may imagine. There are so many more idioms in addition to the ones we introduced today. For those cat lovers out there, why not learn the meaning of the idioms and use them in your Japanese conversation.

13 Japanese Idioms Using Body Parts
Japanese Language (Idioms): Three Animal Phrases Meaning “Meaningless”

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About the author

Kimi is a Japanese living in Tokyo. She has spent half her life living overseas in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Her hobbies are traveling, eating, drinking and beautifying. She enjoys yoga and has a daily goal of running 6.5 km to offset her love of beer and junk food.

View all articles by Kimi