10 Japanese Expressions Involving Cats

By | March 3, 2021

Japanese is filled with memorable expressions where a comparison is used for good effect, and I realized that there seems to be a number of such expressions that involve cats. So I decided to put together a list of ten of such expressions for all you cat lovers out there.

  1. 猫の額 (neko no hitai)

This is perhaps one of the first cat expressions I learned in Japanese. It literally means “the forehead of a cat” and is used to express a very small, narrow space. Come to think of it, cat foreheads are indeed small (especially considering their already tiny heads), so it’s a fitting expression.

  1. 猫足 (neko ashi)

Literally, “cat leg(s)”, this refers to a style of furniture design where the legs of a chair are bent inwards, and the part touching the ground is a bit thicker, resembling a cat’s paw (more formally known as “Cabriole legs”). 

This word is also used to refer to walking quietly, like a cat does. This meaning is likely going to be more useful than the first (unless you are a furniture salesperson).

  1. 猫撫で声 (neko nade goe)

Literally “cat-petting voice”, this expression is used to express a gentle, persuasive voice.

  1. 猫舌 (neko jita)

This expression, literally “cat tongue”, refers to a person who has a tongue that is sensitive to hot food and drinks. I’ve never tried to give anything hot to my cat, but I imagine there is some truth to this.

  1. 猫背 (neko ze)

Meaning “cat back”, this one refers to someone who has a bent back, also known as stoop-shouldered.

  1. 猫柳 (neko yanagi)

This is the term of a species of willow technically called, “Salix gracilistyla”, or more informally “pussy willow”. This matches closely to the Japanese expression, which literally means “cat willow”, most likely because the plant resembles a cats’ paws.

  1. 猫じゃらし (neko jarashi)

This is the name of another plant, commonly called “foxtail grass”. The second part of the name seems to come from the verb “じゃらす” (jarasu), which means “to play with”, but it is unclear why this name was chosen. (This post talks about that in Japanese.)

  1. 猫の目 (neko no me)

Literally meaning “the eye(s) of a cat”, this one is used to refer to something that changes frequently. The origin is apparently because cat eyes will adjust quickly to respond to changes in lighting, but isn’t that mostly the same for human eyes?

One example of this is the saying “女の心は猫の目” (onna no kokoro wa neko no me), literally “a woman’s heart is a cat’s eye”, and refers to the fickleness of a woman’s heart (not to say that men’s hearts can’t be fickle…).

  1. 愛猫 (aibyou)

This word is made from the characters to “love” and “cat”, and refers to the act of loving (caressing, petting, treating with affection, etc.) a cat, or a cat that is loved by one or more people.

  1. 猫をかぶる (neko wo kaburu)

The verb かぶる is typically used to mean putting on items of clothing on the head, such as hats, which gives this phrase the comical literal meaning “to wear a cat (on the head)”.

This expression refers to someone who acts obediently in front of others, in other words acts like a “good boy” or a “good girl” in the right situation.

Of course Japanese culture itself is full of things related to cats, for example the Ghibli movie “The Cat Returns” (猫の恩返し)which features many cats.

You can find a bunch more expressions about cats (in Japanese) on this page and this page.

(Note: the phrase on the title image “にゃんだい?” is a play on words that combines the sound of a cat’s meow (にゃお) with “なんだい?”, a rough way to say “what is it?”)

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