Before coming to Japan, I assumed that the images of animals must be universal. Things like dogs and cats fighting; monkeys being mischievous; and foxes being deceitful must be universal, right? Actually the truth is a little different. Coming from a culture of Suyeoka and Soseki and instead of Aesop, the images of animals in Japan can be surprisingly different.
Take my first example ‘cats and dogs fighting’ for instance. Logically, you would expect that all cultures would have an expression similar to the English phrase ‘they fight like cat(s) and dog(s)’. However, in Japan the expression is 犬猿の仲 (A relationship between a dog and a monkey) instead. Apparently Momotaro lied to us and dogs and monkeys cannot work together!
Unfortunately if the monkey and the dog had a fight, the dog would likely lose as Japan views dogs as constant losers. You will often hear the term 負け犬 (Lit: loser dogs) being used to describe a team or person who consistently loses. Strangely, the Kochi baseball team has embraced the name and are often referred to as the ‘fighting dogs’. Despite tempting fate, the team continues to be successful.
Monkeys on the other hand, have a reputation for being a little ridiculous. While we talk about pots calling kettles black, Japanese people use the far more colorful phrase 猿の尻笑い. If translated literally, it describes monkeys laughing at other monkeys for having ridiculously colored buttocks (While not realizing they too have the same flaw).
If you Google 猿の尻笑い, you will find some hilarious images of monkeys creating a never-ending circle of mirth as they each mock the monkey in front while another monkey secretly teases them behind their back.
As well as being comical, monkeys are also known for being exceptionally graceful animals. Unfortunately the recent popularity of animal videos on Youtube has also shown us that even the most graceful occasionally falls. The Japanese language describes this in the handy saying 猿も木から落ちる (Even monkeys fall from trees). When used to describe a person, it means someone who usually succeeds, but fails occasionally.
Thanks to stories like Momotaro, monkeys and dogs are believed to help humans out when they are in dire need. Cats, on the other hand, would be more likely to scoff at their masters and go back to playing with yarn. A person who is so desperately in need of help that even a cat would be of assistance might say 猫の手が借りたい (I want to borrow a cat’s paw). Cat fans can rejoice as apparently cat memes are a cultural universal and get their fill of cuteness by Googling this phrase.
However, beware a cat that looks cute but seems to be ready to scratch you at a moment’s notice. In Japanese these animals are described as being a dangerous animal disguised as a cat (猫をかぶる). If you want to have a good laugh, put this phrase in a search engine as most of the images will be of tigers awkwardly balancing cats on their heads trying to look non-threatening. When used to describe a person, it describes someone who appears to be friendly, but then reveals their mean side once you become intimate with them.
As cunning as these creatures disguised as cats may be, they will never be as cunning as a fox. Yep, foxes are known for being sly in Japan too, but in a different way to their Aesopian equivalents. Whereas Western foxes use their natural cunning to succeed; their Japanese equivalents are quite happy to use magic. 狐の嫁入り (A wedding of foxes) is used to describe a sunshower as, of course, these masters of mischief would get married when it isn’t quite raining or quite sunny. In some areas, rainbows or soft hail are also known by the same idiom.
As these fascinating examples show learners, the images of animals vary significantly from culture to culture. Therefore, as learners we should be careful not to assume things like animal behavior will be viewed the same way in culturally distinct languages. Instead, it is important to see things from a Japanese perspective and appreciate the unique way Japan views the world around it. A least when learning includes tales of magical foxes, dangerous animals wearing cat disguises and fighting monkeys that just makes it all the more awesome!!!