Sayings about cats and dogs in Japan

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One of the most famous novels in Japanese literature is titled Wagahai wa Neko de Aru 吾輩は猫である (I Am a Cat; see in "Selected readings" below), which I have always taken as a sign of the degree to which Japanese, at least some Japanese, can identify with catness.  The same holds true for Japanese painted scrolls depicting people as cats (or cats as people).

Richard Medhurst, "Pet Sayings: Japanese Proverbs Featuring Cats and Dogs", Nippon.com 8/23/2022:

Cats are popular pets in Japan, but as the following proverbs underline, they are not necessarily associated with practical contributions.

猫に小判Neko ni koban. The koban was a gold coin in the Edo period (1603–1868), and “giving koban to a cat” means providing something to someone who does not understand or appreciate its value, and thereby cannot benefit from it.

猫に鰹節Neko ni katsuobushi. Meanwhile, katsuobushi are dried bonito flakes. This phrase, meaning “placing katsuobushi alongside a cat,” imagines placing the tempting fishy treat next to the animal, and represents a dangerous situation or one where a high level of vigilance is needed.

猫の手も借りたいNeko no te mo karitai. To say that one “even wants to borrow a cat’s paws,” despite knowing this feline companion is not going to help out very much, is a way of describing how extremely busy one is.

Among the next mixed bag of sayings are those that emphasize cats’ diminutive and cute side.

猫の額Neko no hitai. A “cat’s forehead” is used to refer to something that is extremely small, such as, commonly, a garden or plot of land.

猫をかぶるNeko o kaburu. To metaphorically “put on a cat” or act like the animal is to pretend to be quiet and harmless, hiding one’s true nature. It also describes someone putting on an air of innocence.

猫も杓子もNeko mo shakushi mo. When saying that all kinds of people were present at an event, one English phrase is “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” The Japanese equivalent is to say that “even cats and ladles” were there.

Turning next to the canine side of things, we see that dogs are connected with various kinds of quarrels in some Japanese proverbs, whether as participants or spectators.

犬猿の仲Ken’en no naka. To have a relationship “like dogs and monkeys” means to be hostile to each other or on extremely bad terms.

犬の遠吠えInu no tōboe. When someone criticizes other people behind their backs, this backbiting may be compared to the “distant howls of a dog,” which does not want to approach close enough to get in a real fight.

夫婦喧嘩は犬も食わないFūfu genka wa inu mo kuwanai. Arguments between husbands and wives are often sparked by small causes that are difficult for outsiders to understand, and quickly resolved. In Japan, there is a saying that “even dogs do not eat marital quarrels.” Dogs are well known for not being fussy about what they gobble down, but even they do not “eat” (or get involved in) the altercations of married couples. The saying advises people, too, to keep their distance.

There are two sides to everything, as this final set of proverbs demonstrates.

飼い犬に手を噛まれるKaiinu ni te o kamareru. Dogs are typically loyal pets, so being “bitten in the hand by one’s own dog” is symbolic of betrayal by a trusted subordinate.

犬が西向きゃ尾は東Inu ga nishimukya o wa higashi. “If a dog faces west, its tail is in the east.” This is a way of saying someone is stating the obvious.

犬も歩けば棒に当たるInu mo arukeba bō ni ataru. “If a dog takes a walk, it will find a stick.” This old proverb can be read in two different ways. According to one reading, the dog gets hit with the stick, and so the phrase warns that stepping forward brings the risk of disaster. However, in another, contradictory reading, the stick is the plaything that dogs love to carry around. In this interpretation, it is better to take action than do nothing, as it might lead to reward.

Cats, rats, foxes, and other animals are often anthropomorphized in Japanese art, but I do not recall dogs in the guise of humans so much.  When I think of dogs in the Japanese psyche, they typify unstinting loyalty, as in the case of Hachikō (November 10, 1923 – March 8, 1935), the Akita Inu who waited at a train station for his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno (January 19, 1872 – May 21, 1925).

 

Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]



15 Comments »

  1. Thomas Mair said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 9:39 pm

    I particularly like the one about a dog facing East having its tail facing West. Perfect! Also the cat's forehead for something small.

  2. Stuart Luppescu said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 10:15 pm

    What about 猫よりマシ neko yori mashi? It means, roughly, "not as bad as a cat". I could never understand where this came from. I have two cats here in Japan, and have not often encountered anti-feline discrimination here. Just look at how popular Hello Kitty is.

  3. Noel Hunt said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 1:20 am

    猫に小判, neko ni koban, is an exact analogue of English 'pearls before swine', but these days you are more likely to hear Japanse say exactly that, 豚に真珠, buta ni shinju, a sad indication of how they are forgetting their own language. Obviously some very clever journalist or politician has used this expression in the distant past to flaunt his or her knowledge of English and over time and with frequent imitation, even Japanese have come to believe it is a native expression.

  4. Uly said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 1:54 am

    It's interesting, Noel, that you think importing a new expression is the same as "forgetting your own language" and you use an example that *is not a native English expression*. Unless, I suppose, you imagine that Jesus spoke English?

  5. Noel Hunt said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 2:28 am

    Clearly it is a case of `forgetting' when Japanese think that `pearls before swine' is the native expression. I suspect English had no expression to convey the notion that that expression conveys before it was encountered in Biblical translations, hence there was nothing to replace, and thus English speakers could not have then been accused of forgetting their own language. This is a case of what you call `importing a new expression', the Japanese case is quite different. You are probably not aware of the myriad expressions, introduced mainly from English, which have displaced native Japanese expressions. Primarily, these come from journalists, politicians and academics keen to display knowledge of English. These expressions and phrases, thus borrowed, are entirely opaque to Japanese since they aren't written with kanji; nevertheless, frequent use gives them a currency which makes ordinary Japanese adopt them, and even come to believe are native expressions.

  6. ~flow said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:41 am

    The new, foreign influence of outside languages has been keenly felt by the Japanese already in the Meiji period (1867–1912). Consequently many foreignisms like ベースボール were replaced by native, homegrown words like 野球. /s

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:55 am

    @~flow

    Thanks for the excellent point.

    For those who don't know Japanese:

    —–

    bēsubōru ベースボール

    yakyū 野球 (lit., "field ball")

    —–

    Readers of LL for the past fifteen and more years will understand why I go to the trouble of making such notations.

  8. George Lane said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    It's not exactly a proverb, but my favorite cat-related expression in Japanese has always been "猫舌" neko-jita, (lit. "cat's tongue") – dislike of or inability to eat or drink extremely hot things.
    I have frequently used this expression to explain to Japanese hosts why I was not immediately sipping down the cup of very hot tea that had just been served to me.

  9. Frank L Chance said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 9:05 am

    飼い犬に手を噛まれる — Kaiinu ni te o kamareru. Pretty clearly parallel to "Bite the hand that feeds you" though viewed viewed from the other side.
    On the other hand there are some very cute Japanese paintings of dogs, such as this one by Maruyama Ōkyo in the Miho Museum: https://www.miho.jp/booth/html/artcon/00001354e.htm

  10. Uly said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 3:53 pm

    These expressions and phrases, thus borrowed, are entirely opaque to Japanese since they aren't written with kanj

    Oh, good heavens! However can the Japanese ever understand anything until and unless they see it written down in kanji!?

    Do you listen to yourself?

  11. Noel Hunt said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 2:42 am

    The quality that Japanese written in kanji has is known as 一目瞭然, ichimoku ryouzen, `one look, abundantly clear'. If a Japanese were to encounter 宣言, sengen (`declaration'), or 声明書 sesimeisho (`statement') he or she would immediately understand the meaning, as opposed to being assailed in print by マニフェスト(`manifesto'), a word much used by politicians in recent years. Another example is インフォームド‐コンセント, infōmudokonsento (`informed consent"), another absurd confection introduced some years ago. Since the Japanese word for a wall-power socket is コンセント, konsento (probably from English `concentric [plug]'), there were not a few Japanese who thought the former was a variety of the latter. There appears to be a word created in Japanese just for this very concept, 解諾, gedaku (`acknowedge and accept') and once this is heard used in the medical context it is immediately clear, just as `informed consent' in English has a specific meaning in the medical context, but without that context is very vague. The mention of コンセントabove shows that there are legitimate reasons for borrowing a foreign word when there is no native word for the concept/item in question. Despite what was said in an earlier comment about the Japanese `keenly feeling' the influence of outside languages and attempting to create native expressions, that may have been true in the Meiji era, but not for many decades now.

  12. Uly said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 8:28 am

    I'm sure that if Japanese people couldn't understand the words they use, they wouldn't use them. Reasons for borrowing words are not divided into "legitimate" and "not legitimate". That's just silly.

  13. Terpomo said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 2:38 pm

    Some expressions may be intelligible to some (the young, urbanites, the well-educated, particularly scholars of English) but not others.

  14. Nathan Hopson said,

    August 27, 2022 @ 1:22 am

    @Stuart Luppescu, I believe this is related to another cat-related saying: 猫の手も借りたい (neko no te mo karitai) meaning "[so busy] that you even want a cat's help." Cats are notoriously not helpful, so this is an expression of considerable desperation. 猫よりマシ describes a slightly less awful source of help.

  15. Noel Hunt said,

    August 28, 2022 @ 12:34 am

    `I'm sure that if Japanese people couldn't understand the words they use, they wouldn't use them.' –I think you have missed the point that it is a select group of academics, scientists, jounalists, and policitians who wish to flaunt their ability by using (to the average Japanese) opaque English words or expressions. Whether their audience understands or not, they little care. What is absurd is the way these expressions, when initially used in print, are followed by the equivalent Japanese in parentheses. It is not like the case of say, a cookery book, in English, which might use the foreign word for an ingredient and then gloss it in English. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by using 'merit' and 'demerit' in Japanese (メリット、デメリット) when there are perfectly servicable Japanese equivalents, 有利, yūri, 不利, furi. If there were politicians, or journalists in Australlia or the US who did a similar thing in English, they would be made a mockery of.

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