Animals have always been prevalent in the Japanese language, perhaps more so than in other parts of the world, because Japanese people were for so long vegetarian, Buddhist or Shintoist.
Even now, upon seeing a kitsune (fox), a Japanese person is more likely to pray to it than hunt it down. Or think about asking it out for a date. Female allure is often attributed to kitsune powers, and there’s many a Japanese folk tale about some poor guy entrapped by a woman’s charms, only to discover later that he had been kitsune ni bakasareta (fooled by a fox) and the woman of his dreams had been hiding a shippo (tail) in her kimono.
The term megitsune (female fox) points to a sho-waru (bad or rotten in nature) femme fatale, who usually entices her male victims, betrays them and strips them bare. Still, it’s believed that a man should run into a megitsune at least once in his life, if only to know the difference between destructive, animal allure and normal womanhood he can rely on in a wife/mother.
The few women that transcend humanity or animal attractiveness are usually compared to tsuru (cranes). The children’s fable “Tsuru no Ongaeshi (The Gratitude of the Crane)” is about a lovely female crane who turns herself into a young woman to repay a hunter who once helped her. She marries him, cooks and cleans for him, and at night when he’s sound asleep turns herself back into a crane to pluck the feathers from her body and weave a gorgeous cloth that he sells for a lot of money.
Interestingly, the animal terms for men are a lot less flattering. The less fairer sex is compared to a kuma (bear), if they’re big and strong, a nezumi (mouse) if they’re small-statured, or a hebi (snake) if they’re abusive or stingy with money.
My grandmother tended to judge people by their animal year. She said that the best year for a man to be born in was tatsu (dragon) because of their dedication, loyalty and heaven-given grace.
The Japanese have also dispensed more than a fair share of cruelty on animals. The resonance boxes of quality shamisen strings were made from cat gut, and to prove the authenticity of the wares, decapitated cat heads were displayed on shamisen shop fronts as recently as the 1960s. Whales were traditionally hunted and eaten, and sea turtles were killed for their shells. Taxidermy was a respected skill; in fact, stuffed animals are still a mark of status and wealth in many regions.
However, relations between men and animals in Japan have mostly been fairly amicable. After all, many people like to believe that the moon is inhabited by rabbits, making mochi (rice cake).
Before westernization set in, Japanese referred to animals as kemono (creatures with fur) and fish as uminomono (creatures of the sea). Both were considered to harbor strange, mystical powers that could be beneficial or harmful to humans depending on the circumstance.
Currently, Japanese is peppered with amusing animal jargon, some of it new and others very traditional. A good swimmer is still called kappa, after the mythical creature who supposedly lives in ponds, has flippers instead of feet and a small receptacle of water attached to its head. When this receptacle dries up, the kappa weakens and may expire. An overweight or hefty person is often called todo (sea walrus). A person (mostly women) who acts cute and inoffensive, but is actually hiding a more diabolical nature, is called nekokaburi (has a cat on their head). Anyone with big eyes will have school memories of being taunted as a demekin (goldfish). A person with long legs is called kamoshika (gazelle).
The term saru (monkey) has a whole range of meanings, most of which are pretty obvious. The phrase saru no yo ni suru (do like a monkey) refers to a tendency for repetition and stupidity and has connotations that are often sexual. Other notable terms include inu-gui (eat like a dog) to describe someone with bad table manners; neko-manma (cat food) for the all-time Japanese classic meal of miso soup and rice eaten from the same bowl; and buta-nomi (pig drinking) for swilling drinks straight out of a bottle. But my personal favorite is usagi-taishitsu (rabbit disposition), which refers to a person who can’t stand solitude and must huddle with other rabbits in a cramped little warren, in order to remain healthy and sane.
Use some of the above phrases and watch your popularity with your friends unagi-nobori (eel climb), or skyrocket.
Note: Errors in the print version have been corrected online.
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Get the cat off the head