Whether baffled by riches or picking up sticks, cats and dogs make an appearance in many Japanese proverbs.
Cats are popular pets in Japan, but as the following proverbs point out, they are not necessarily associated with practical intake.
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 to provide something to someone who does not understand or appreciate its value, and therefore cannot benefit from it.
猫に鰹節 — Neko ni katsuobushi. Meanwhile, katsuobushi are dried bonito flakes. This expression, meaning “to place katsuobushi alongside a cat”, imagines placing the tempting fish treat next to the animal, and represents a dangerous situation or a situation where a high level of vigilance is required.
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” when one knows that this feline companion will not help much is a way of describing how extremely busy one is.
Among the next mix of sayings are those that emphasize the tiny and cute side of cats.
猫の額 — Neko no hitai. A “cat front” is used to refer to something that is extremely small, such as, usually, a garden or a plot of land.
猫をかぶる — Neko or Kaburu. Metaphorically, “putting on a cat” or acting like the animal is pretending to be silent and harmless, hiding its true nature. It also describes someone who gives an air of innocence.
猫も杓子も — neko mo shakushi mo. When it is said that all kinds of people were present at an event, an English expression is “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry”. The Japanese equivalent is to say “even the cats and the ladles” were there.
Moving on to the canine side of things, we see that dogs are linked to different kinds of quarrels in some Japanese proverbs, whether as participants or spectators.
犬猿の仲 — Ken’en no naka. Having a relationship “like dogs and monkeys” means being hostile towards each other or on very bad terms.
犬の遠吠え — Inu no toboe. When someone criticizes other people behind their back, this slander can be compared to the “distant howl of a dog”, which does not want to get close enough to get into a real fight.
夫婦喧嘩は犬も食わない — Fufu genka wa inu mo kuwanai. Arguments between husbands and wives are often triggered by petty causes that are difficult for strangers to understand and quickly resolved. In Japan, there is a saying that “even dogs don’t eat marital quarrels”. Dogs are well known for not being picky about what they gobble up, but even they don’t “eat” (or get involved) in married couples’ altercations. The saying also advises people to keep their distance.
There are two sides to everything, as this last set of proverbs demonstrates.
飼い犬に手を噛まれる — Kaiinu ni te o kamareru. Dogs are generally loyal pets, so being “bitten on 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.” It’s a way of saying that someone is stating the obvious.
犬も歩けば棒に当たる — Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru. “If a dog walks around, it will find a stick.” This old proverb can be read in two different ways. According to one reading, the dog is hit with the stick, and so the phrase warns that advancing carries the risk of disaster. However, in another contradictory reading, the stick is the toy dogs love to carry around. In this interpretation, it is better to act than to do nothing, because it could lead to a reward.
(Originally written in English. Title photo: A cat with a koban. © Pixta.)