Getting in touch with your animal nature

I did it. Finally dipped into dobutsu uranai (animal fortunetelling), the Japanese fengshui of human relationships. For the past year I’ve endured the discomfort of having acquaintances whisper across the table at lunch: “I know what you are, you’re a monkey. The way you slurp your noodles like that? That’s a monkey if I ever saw one.”

Having no knowledge of the intricacies of dobutsu uranai, I couldn’t say whether the whisperer was right but deep in my heart wished it wasn’t so. A monkey? No way. An elegant lion, a panther on the prowl, these were the creatures I identified with. And so I got the “Dobutsu Uranai” book (sold over 2.5 million copies and counting) to set the record straight.

Well, I was no panther, which destroyed my faith in the uranai altogether. Not so with many people who base things like guest lists and company functions on the type of animal they’re dealing with.

For example, it’s a big mistake to put a lion and a monkey in the same room — a lion demands VIP treatment which the democratic monkey just cannot bear. A koala type likes to bask in the sun but avoids struggle so they don’t get along very well with the industrious/earnest sheep, though this may work out in a husband-wife relationship.

The Japanese have always liked to incorporate animals into their lives. Hours were represented by 12 animals, as were the years. The fifth Tokugawa shogun decreed that all fur-bearing animals (especially dogs) should be protected and revered. All Japanese folk stories include at least two animals. And the language has plenty of examples that show how close we are to other mundane earthly creatures like the dog, cat, cow and monkey.

An example of the dog: “Inu mo kuwanai (No dog would eat it).” This usually refers to couples fighting, as in “Fufu-genka wa inu mo kuwanai (No dog would stoop to eat the arguments of a married couple),” which, if you think about it, has a nice philosophical ring to it.

The traditional explanation is that married couples eventually make up and so the fight never lasts long enough for the dog to chew and digest. I’ve seen plenty of marital disputes that would have fed an army of dogs for a week, but who’s to argue with tradition?

Put a dog in the same room with a monkey and what you get is a “ken-en no naka (perpetual dog-monkey feuding).” The phrase often describes bad vibes and bad relationships: the dog-monkey chemistry boiling like lava lamps, ready to explode. Monkeys are seen as smart, but troublemakers — they’re usually up to no good and are punished for it. “Saru mo ki kara ochiru (Even monkeys fall from trees sometimes)” is a warning: If you’re feeling clever about yourself, then watch out.

Cats are in a league of their own and are used in phrases like “neko no hitai (the cat’s forehead)” to describe a small space, as in apartments, gardens and parking spaces. There’s also “neko no te o karitai (I want to borrow a cat’s paw),” which refers to being so busy you’re ready to accept help from any quarter, even from an animal so notoriously uncooperative. A similar one is “Neko no te no hoga mashi (Even a cat’s paw is more useful),” which describes the scene of a dopey person trying to help, then breaking dishes and making a lot more trouble. One of my childhood nicknames was: “Neko no Te Ika (Lower Than a Cat’s Paw).”

On the whole, cats are treated with less respect than say, the fox. Foxes are venerated in jinja (shrines) and given packets of abura-age (fried tofu) which they supposedly love. Felines are killed to make shamisen, and are then believed to come back as bake neko (ghost cats), completely fitted out in horror-movie effects. When a man keeps company with a woman other than his wife, she’s immediately labeled a dorobo neko (thieving cat). A woman playing the fragile innocent is called neko kaburi (wearing cat hide).

In literature, however, cats are the object of love and reverence. Soseki Natsume wrote his famous “Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I Am a Cat),” and Junichiro Tanizaki was convinced that cats were more feminine than women.

As for other four-legged friends, there’s “Buta mo odaterya ki ni noboru (Flattery will get pigs to climb trees)” which was used to describe our late prime minister. “Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu (prayers in a horse’s ears)” is the equivalent of the Western “pearls before swine.” If you lay down after a heavy meal, your elders immediately rap out: “Ushi ni naru yo! (You’ll turn into a cow!)”

Which brings me to my favorite animal phrase: “ushi no yodare (cow’s saliva),” used to describe something that goes monotonously on and on, seeming to end but never quite making it. Just like this column.