The first time I went to Tokyo, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the wild cats that roam the streets, the parks. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of cats in America. I even once had a cat that was quite a beast. But there’s no denying it: Tokyo cats will beat your #@$. Or, they could if they wanted to…

Alley Cat in Japan

Be careful wandering into Tokyo’s dark alleys.

I definitely didn’t want to mess with them.  Kind of like the crows in Tokyo.  Passing by one another on the street, we might make eye contact.  An unspoken challenge would flare up between us.  I dare you, the cat would say, come over here and see what happens.  And I would be on my way.

These, of course, are wild cats, known as 野良猫 (nora neko) in Japanese.  Literally, “field/farm cats.”  Domesticated Japanese cats seem to have a much more amicable relationship with humans.  Just look at cat cafes, which, by the way, I still haven’t been to!

Cat Kanji

Japanese has a plethora of phrases and idiomatic expressions that use the word “cat” ( 猫).  I still remember the first one I ever learned: 猫舌 (neko jita), literally translated to mean “cat tongue,” which is used to refer to a person who can’t eat or drink very hot foods.  This word needs to exist in English.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taught someone the phrase “cat tongue,” and then heard them use it months later, as if it were a totally natural English expression.

Cat Tongue = Can't Eat Very Hot Food or Drinks

“I burned my tongue >_<“

This only touches the surface of the amount of cat idioms the Japanese language has, though.

Coins to cats.  Cat-stroke voice.  Cats and ladles, too.

Karite kita neko借りてきた猫(borrowed cat) To describe someone behaving in an unusually quiet or well-behaved way opposed to his/her original nature, like a cat in unfamiliar territory.
Neko kawaigari猫かわいがり(to indulge a cat) For doting on someone in the way some people dote on their cats.
Neko mo shakushi mo猫も杓子も(cats and ladles too) Everybody, “Every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
Neko ni koban猫に小判(to give gold coins to a cat) Don’t offer things to people who are incapable of appreciating them, “Pearls before swine.”
Neko no hitai猫の額(a cat’s forehead) To describe a tiny space.
Neko no ko ippiki inai猫の子一匹いない(not even a kitten around) Some place showing no sign of life at all.
Neko no me no you ni kawaru猫の目のように変わる(to change like a cat’s eye) Something that changes rapidly.
Neko no te mo karitai猫の手も借りたい(to want to borrow a cat’s paw) Very busy and shorthanded (therefore you want to get help, even from cats.)
Neko o kaburu猫をかぶる(to put on the cat)  To play the hypocrite, “To be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Nekoze猫背(a cat’s back)  For someone with a stoop or a round shoulder.
Neko panchi猫パンチ(cat punch)  A weak punch made with limp wrists and/or partially open fists.
Neko ashi猫足(cat feet)  The act of walking without sound; someone who walks in such a manner. (nekoashi de aruku)
Neko nade goe猫なで声

(cat-petting voice)

 A soft, coaxing voice.

(Props to About.com, Everything2.com, and VirtualNeko.com for helping me fill out this list. They have a lot more on those pages, by the way.)

Lists like this can be pretty overwhelming to remember.  What I like to do is pick out one or two a day, then use them in English conversation (secretly reciting Japanese in my head).

Japanese Cat Stretching

Guy #1: “You think you’ll go out with her again?”

Guy #2: “I don’t know.  She’s kind of cat back, you know?”

Guy #1: “That’s messed up.”

Mangy Cat in Japan

Girl #1: “I made him a sparkly fun card for his birthday, but he was just like ‘cool, thanks.’  WTF?!”

Girl #2: “Coins for cats.”

Cat in Japan

“I dare you to touch me there.”

Cats in Japan

Which of these phrases do you think are the most common?  Please comment if you have a guess (I don’t know!).

Oh, and if anyone’s in Tokyo, don’t forget to stop by the cat temple!

Good luck with your studies, everyone.

Keep swimming!


p.s. Here’s my free course, bundled with awesomeness (and love):


Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!


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