This post explains a variety of unique Japanese expressions related to cats! Not only the meanings of the expressions, this article also illustrates their vocabulary levels by the number of stars on a scale of 1 to 3, where 3 means that almost all Japanese people should know that word.
1. 猫舌（ねこじた, nekojita）★★★
猫舌 (ねこじた, nekojita) literally means ‘cat’s tongue’. Figuratively, it means that, just like a cat, you cannot take a hot food and need to cool it off before you eat it.
Because I have “cat’s tongue”, it takes time for me to finish eating ramen.
2. 猫背（ねこぜ, nekoze）★★★
猫背 (ねこぜ, nekoze) literally means “a cat’s posture”. Figuratively, it indicates that you have a poor posture and your back is rounded like a cat.
People who have “a cat’s posture” look shorter than they actually are.
3. 猫の額 (ねこのひたい, nekono hitai) ★
猫の額 (ねこのひたい, nekono hitai) literally means “a cat’s forehead”. Figuratively, it indicates with a bit of sarcasm that the area of something is very small, like a cat’s forehead. It is often used as ‘猫の額ほど’ meaning “(as small as) a cat’s forehead”.
The garden in my house is only as small as a cat’s forehead.
4. 猫に小判 (ねこにこばん) ★★★
猫に小判 (ねこにこばん, neko ni koban) literally means “(giving) gold coins to a cat”. Figuratively, it indicates the act of giving something valuable to someone who doesn’t appreciate it. It can be regarded as a variant of another idiom “豚に真珠 (ぶたにしんじゅ)”, that is, “cast pearls before swine”.
It’s “giving gold coins to a cat” to present a luxury wine to him.
5. 借りてきた猫 (かりてきたねこ, karitekita neko) ★
借りてきた猫 (かりてきたねこ, karitekita neko) literally means “a borrowed cat”. Figuratively, it illustrate when someone becomes shy and quiet because they are feeling nerves or overwhelmed in a new environment. This idiom invokes the image of a vigilant cat placed in an unfamiliar environment.
When she joined our team, she was very quiet like “a borrowed cat”.
6. 猫の手も借りたい (ねこのてもかりたい, nekono temo karitai) ★★
猫の手も借りたい (ねこのてもかりたい, nekono temo karitai) literally means “I would want to borrow even a cat’s hand (paw)”. Figuratively, it means “extremely busy” — so busy that you’re grasping at a cat’s paw, which is totally useless.
We are short-handed as if we’d want to borrow even a cat’s paw
7. 猫も杓子も (ねこもしゃくしも) ★
猫も杓子も (ねこもしゃくしも, nekomo shakushimo) literally means “cats and rice spatulas”. It means “everyone” with a bit of irony, and is often used when a plethora of people blindly follow the same trend or idea without thinking much about its value or necessity.
These days, everyone goes to university. (implying that many of those there is no point in “studying” at university.)
8. 猫を被る (ねこをかぶる) ★★★
猫を被る (neko wo kaburu) literally means “wear a cat”. Figuratively, it indicates the act of putting up a façade and pretending to be nicer than usual. For instance, when talkative people meet someone for the first time, they may “wear a cat” and pretend to be reserved.
Usually I am very talkative, but today I hid myself and behaved quietly.