In Japanese, the word "neko" (cat) sees wide use in idiomatic expressions, and as a component of other words.
These uses give some insight into how Japanese people linguistically view cats.
I thought it might be interesting to collect Japanese words and expressions that contain "neko", the kanji ideograph of "cat". So I did. About six hours into this project, I noticed that there are a lot more than I had initially thought, certainly more than in English. I'm sure I've missed or mixed up many, please contact mowph with any additions or mistakes.
Note that a lot of these words and expressions are not in common use. Know them, and send Japanese people scrambling for their dictionaries! The entries are sorted in Japanese dictionary order, with all words starting in "neko" first.
WARNING! Unicode! Browser Problems?
Ordinary nouns that contain "neko". In many cases, it is difficult or impossible to determine what they have to do with "cat".
- neko 猫 (cat) - the leather piece on the inside of a bellows that seals the nozzle.
- nekoashi (cat legs) - 猫脚 refers to table or chair legs which bend inwards at the bottom, resembling the back leg of a cat (Carpentry)
- nekoashi konbu 猫足昆布 (cat feet kelp) - A variety of kelp which is found in the ocean northeast of Hokkaido and near the Chishima island chain. It is characterized by triangular leaves and a very sweet flavour. Also known as mimikonbu. (Despite best efforts, I could not find why the word "neko" is used in the name.)
- nekoita 猫板 (cat board) - a plank next to the brazier of a nagahibara (traditional Japanese charcoal heater)
(Obviously named such because a cat would tend to gravitate towards there)
(Abbreviated as simply "neko")
- nekoirazu 猫いらず (cat not needed) - a type of rat poison
- neko'omote 猫面 (cat face) - a very small, compact face; a person with such a face. (derogatory term)
NOTE: also read as "nekozura".
NOTE: while "kogao" (small face) is a compliment, "nekozura" is usually derogatory.
- nekokaburi 猫被り (cat-wearing) - hypocrisy. A wolf in sheep's clothing.
- nekoguruma 猫車 (cat car) - a wheelbarrow or handcar.
(Abbreviated as "neko")
- nekokke 猫っ毛 (cat hair) - very fine, soft (human) hair.
- nekogusa (catgrass) 猫草 - another name for okinagusa, a flower of the celandine family
- nekomanma 猫まんま, nekomeshi 猫飯 (cat rice) - steamed rice in miso soup. (a very inelegant image of using leftovers or bachelor's cuisine)
(sometimes also refers to steamed rice with katsuobushi sprinkled on top.)
- nekozame 猫鮫 (catshark) - a small (1m), brownish-gray shark that is thought to resemble a cat in shape. also known as sazaewari due to its very sharp teeth.
- nekoshide 猫四手 (four cat's paws) - a fern with white-backed leaves. also known as urajirokanba.
- nekojita 猫舌 (cat tongue) - a tongue which is very sensitive to heat
- nekojarashi 猫じゃらし (playing with a cat) - a style of fastening obi (belt for kimono) popular during the Edo period. another name for foxtail (setaria viridis)
(A common use of foxtails in Japan is as a toy for cats, often for tickling the nose/ears)
- nekozukin 猫頭巾 (cat hood) - a dark-coloured, heavy cotton Edo-period hood worn by firefighters to protect the face.
(You might see these if you watch Japanese WWII movies.)
(The name might stem from the squarish, stiff top that looks a bit like a cat's ears.)
- nekoze (cat back) 猫背 - a hunched or stooped profile (like a sitting cat). someone with bad posture. a hunchback.
- nekodamashi 猫だまし (cat deception) - a children's hand-slapping game (often very painful to the loser.) Sometimes, deceit or hypocrisy.
- neko nadegoe 猫なで声で (cat petting voice) - a soft coaxing voice.
- nekopanchi 猫パンチ (cat punch) - a weak punch made with limp wrists and/or partially open fists.
- nekomeishi 猫目石 (cat-eye stone) - quartz reflector used to mark roads (aka cat's eye)
- nekoyanagi 猫柳 (catwillow) - pussy willow (interesting coincidence)
- umineko 海猫（ウミネコ） (seacat) - a black-tailed seagull.
- kuo no nekomuchi 九尾の猫鞭 (nine-tailed cat whip) - cat o' nine tails. (from English)
Verbs or phrases that imply action, catlike or otherwise. (Many of these are used as -suru verb stems.)
- nekoashi 猫足 (cat feet) - the act of walking without sound; someone who walks in such a manner. (nekoashi de aruku)
- neko o kaburu 猫を被る (to wear a cat) - feign innocence, hide one's claws.
- neko kawaigari 猫かわいがり (cat affection) - to dote on someone.
- nekozuna 猫綱 (cat rope) - to stubbornly refuse to listen to someone.
(from the image of a leashed cat)
- nekosuwari 猫座り (cat sitting) - to sit with a hunch or rounded back.
- nekobaba 猫糞 (cat poop) - scavenging trash, taking something someone else left behind; petty theft.
Feline figures of speech, proverbs, and descriptive phrases.
- neko ga oki o irau you 猫が熾きをいらうよう (like a cat playing with fire) - to gingerly touch or play with something, as if it may suddenly explode
- neko ga cha o fuku you na 猫が茶を吹く (a cat blowing tea, as if too cool it) - to have a very odd expression on one's face
- neko ga kokuban o hikkakaru you na oto 猫が黒板に引っかかるような音 (a sound like a cat scratching at a chalkboard) - the sound of nails on a chalkboard
- neko ga kurumi o mawasu you 猫が胡桃を回すよう (like a cat playing with a walnut) - to frolic making a lot of noise
- neko ga chouzu o tsukau you 猫が手水を使うよう (like a cat using a washbasin) - to scrub one's face (obsessively)
- neko shikaru yori neko o kakoe 猫叱るより猫を囲え (tie up a cat rather than scold it) - Prevent a problem before it starts. (as in English a stitch in time, an ounce of prevention)
- nekojita no nagafuroiri 猫舌の長風呂入り (a long bath from a cat's tongue) - the practice of taking long, lukewarm baths instead of short, hot baths; a person who does so.
- neko ni atta nezumi 猫に逢った鼠 (a mouse who meets a cat) - refers to someone facing an unescapable danger, or someone who is completely discombobulated.
An obscure expression with the same meaning as "hebi ni niramareru kaeru" 蛇に睨まれる蛙 (a frog under a snake's gaze)
- neko ni katsuobushi 猫に鰹節 (bonito flakes to a cat) - trusting the sheep to a wolf.
(Katsuobushi, a dried, flaked fish used to make dashi, is often given to cats as a treat in Japan.)
- neko ni kasakasa 猫に傘 (an umbrella to a cat) - to start, to be surprised (as a cat to an umbrella that suddenly opens), to distrust something.
NOTE: the kanji "kasa" 傘 (umbrella) is pronounced "kasakasa" in this case.
I believe this refers to childlike use of an umbrella as a toy or for mischief.
- neko ni kanbukuro de koutai 猫に紙袋で後退 (a cat retreating with a paper bag) - to back away, like a cat with its head covered by a paper bag.
NOTE: "kanbukuro" (paper bag) a variant pronunciation of "kamibukuro".
- neko ni koban 猫に小判 (gold coins to a cat) - Pearls before swine. A waste of resources.
(Also see "neko ni matatabi..." below.)
- neko ni kyuusei ari 猫に九世有り - A cat has nine lives. (proverb, from English)
- neko ni matatabi, ojorou ni koban 猫にまたたび､御女郎に小判 (Give catnip to the cat and save your gold coins for the prostitutes.) - Make effective use of what you have.
- neko no uojitai 猫の魚辞退 (a cat refusing fish) - someone pretending not to want what they most desire, generally with the implication that they will eventually break down and discreetly take it.
Also "neko no sakana o kuwaranu furi" (a cat pretending it won't eat fish).
- neko no sakaurami 猫の逆恨み (a cat's resentment) - a situation where someone receiving help resents the person who helps them.
- neko no samugoi 猫の寒乞い (a cat's craving for cold) - In the midsummer's heat, even someone who always feels chilly will crave for winter. Too much of a good thing.
(derived from the way that even a cat, which ordinarily acts as a solar panel, will hide from the sun in very hot weather)
- neko no ko ippiki inai 猫の子一匹いない (not a single kitten) - not a soul to be seen, completely abandoned.
- neko no shippo 猫の尻尾 (cat's tail) - something which doesn't matter if you have it or not.
(many native Japanese breeds of cat have very short tails.)
- neko no tabenokoshi 猫の食べ残し (a cat's leftovers) - remains of a meal left by a picky eater.
- neko no te mo karitai 猫の手も借りたい (want to borrow even a cat's hands) - to be extremely busy or short-staffed.
- neko no hana 猫の鼻 (cat's nose) - refers to something that is always cold, often compared to a woman's heart.
- neko no hitai 猫の額 (cat's forehead) - refers to land, etc., that is very small or narrow.
- neko no mae no nezumi no hirune 猫の前の鼠の昼寝 (a mouse napping before a cat) - refers to someone oblivious to danger, or behaving carelessly.
- neko no me 猫の目 (cat's eyes) - fickle, capricious; chameleon-like.
- neko wa sangatsu o hitotose to suru 猫は三月を一年とする (three months is a year to a cat) - Life is short.
NOTE: This is a classical reading; "hitotose" 一年 is normally read as "ichinen".
- neko wa san nen no on o mikka de wasureru 猫は三年の恩を三日で忘れる - A cat will forget three years of obligation in three days.
(NOTE: "on" is very difficult to translate, approximately "obligation to one's master")
This is similar to the English concept of "bite the hand that feeds".
There is also an opposite expression, "Feed a dog for three days and it will remember its obligation for three years."
- neko wa nagamono no umarekawari 猫花がものの生れ変り (Cats were long-lived creatures in their previous lives.)
(an explanation of why cats are always wasting time and sleeping)
- nekomimi o arau to ame ga furu 猫耳を洗うと雨が降る (When a cat washes its ears, it will rain.) - superstition.
- neko mo shakushi mo 猫も杓子も (cats and rice paddles) - any and everyone.
- neko o ippiki koroseba, shichidou garan o taseru yori kodoki ari 猫を一匹殺せば七堂伽藍を建立せるより功徳あり - Killing a single cat will bring more blessing that building a temple.
(stemming from the belief that cats are vindictive, magical creatures. Oddly enough, most temples are made of wood and subject to ravage by mice.)
- neko o koroseba shichidai tataru 猫を殺せば七代祟る - If you kill a cat, your family will be cursed for seven generations.
(folk tale stemming from the believe that cats are vindictive by nature)
- unchi o umeteiru neko no you ni ウンチを埋めている猫のように (like a cat burying poop) - very busy, indisposed.
- karitekita neko no you 借りてきた猫のよう (like a borrowed cat) - acting unusually quiet or meek
- kyuuso neko o kamu 窮鼠猫を噛む (a cornered rat bites the cat) - when left with no option, even someone weak can fight. or, even a coward is capable of bravery.
- kurayami de wa neko wa subete haiiro 暗闇では猫は全て灰色 (all cats are grey in the dark) - Beauty is only skin deep. (proverb)
- naku neko wa nezumi o toranu 鳴く猫は鼠捕らぬ (a cat who is always mewing doesn't catch mice) - Someone who talks or complains a lot never gets the work done.
- nezumi toru neko wa tsume o kakusu 鼠捕る猫は爪を隠す (a cat that catches mice hides its claws) - Someone with real talent doesn't show off.
(More obscure than "sainou aru taka wa tsume o kakusu" - a strong falcon hides its claws)
ALSO: jouzu no neko ga tsume o kakusu 上手の猫が爪を隠す (A clever cat hides its claws.)
According to the dictionary, Neko 猫 (Cat) is also an approved girl's given name in Japan. The first name Mineko 美猫 can also be written with the kanji for "pretty cat". Kawaii.
It is fairly common in last names -- there are a few Nekoyama 猫山 (cat mountain) families where I live, and the dictionary lists about two dozen "cat" family names, such as Nekoshima 猫島, Nekoda 猫田, etc.
- Breen, Jim. EDICT Dictionary software. http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/j_edict.html
- Koujien 5th ed. Electronic version.
- Kotoba no Jiten 1st ed. Kodansha Co., Ltd., 1989.
- Koji Kotowaza Jiten New Edition. Soutakusha Co., 1992.
- Koji Kotowaza Jiten 1st ed. 11th printing. Shougakkan Press Ltd., 1989.
- Nekozanmai. Kotowaza de Miru Neko. http://www.necozanmai.com/zatsugaku/proverb-japan.html, accessed 1 Sep 2003.
To think I started this w/u just to list some amusing uses of "neko" and create a link to my neko no hitai w/u. Should have just used a softlink...
Special thanks to Shro0m-sensei for proofreading this monstrosity!