Sometimes it helps to sit down and focus on learning (or at least get familiar with) a group of commonly used words in the language you’re learning. This article aims to do exactly that, and tell you everything you need to know about animals in Japanese.
Not only are there going to be a lot of common words that you will benefit from right away, but I’ll also explain some things that are unique to Japanese when it comes to talking about animals. Things such as the correct verbs and counters to use.
I’d also like to spend a little time going over the “sounds” that animals make in Japanese (yes, they speak Japanese too!) as that can be a really fun part of the language.
Plus there are some super cool animal proverbs that you can use in order to sound more ペラペラ when speaking with natives and whatnot.
Common Words for Animals in Japanese
Here is a list of super common animals in Japanese that will regularly appear in native material such as anime, manga, movies, conversations, and much more.
I aimed to provide you with the kanji when applicable, even when it is not commonly used to spell the animal’s name. For example, the word for fox in Japanese is commonly spelled using katakana as キツネ but I have it listed below as 狐.
Also note that certain words are presented in katakana only (like Gorilla – ゴリラ) since they are loan words taken from English.
Finally, I have divided the animals into several sections in order to make it easier to navigate through the list, but keep in mind that most of these animals could easily be a part of multiple groups.
- Animal – 動物【どうぶつ】
As a Pet:
- Dog – 犬【いぬ】
- Cat – 猫【ねこ】
- Kitten – 子猫【こねこ】
- Rabbit – 兎【うさぎ】
- Hamster – ハムスター
- Mouse – 鼠【ねずみ】
- Hedgehog – 針鼠【はりねずみ】
On a Farm:
- Chicken – 鶏【にわとり】
- Duck – 鴨【かも】
- Cow – 牛【うし】
- Water buffalo – 水牛【すいぎゅう】
- Pig – 豚【ぶた】
- Sheep – 羊【ひつじ】
- Goat – 山羊【やぎ】
- Horse – 馬【うま】
In the Forest:
- Fox – 狐【きつね】
- Wolf – 狼【おおかみ】
- Bear – 熊【くま】
- Deer – 鹿【しか】
Jungle / Safari:
- Zebra – 縞馬【しまうま】
- Giraffe – 麒麟【きりん】
- Monkey – 猿【さる】
- Chimpanzee – チンパンジー
- Gorilla – ゴリラ
- Tiger – 虎【とら】
- Lion – ライオン
- Elephant – 象【ぞう】
- Rhinoceros – 犀【さい】
In the Water:
- Fish – 魚【さかな】
- Mackerel – 鯖【さば】
- Shark – 鮫【さめ】
- Whale – 鯨【くじら】
- Eel – 鰻【うなぎ】
- Shrimp – 蝦【えび】
- Shellfish – 貝【かい】
- Crab – 蟹【かに】
- Squid – 烏賊【いか】
In the Sky:
- Bird – 鳥【とり】
- Crow – 烏【からす】(notice the slight difference from bird)
- Baby bird – 雛【ひな】
- Hawk – 鷹【たか】
- Crane – 鶴【つる】
Reptiles & Amphibians:
- Snake – 蛇【へび】
- Turtle – 亀【かめ】
- Lizard – 蜥蜴【とかげ】
- Crocodile – 鰐【わに】
- Dragon – 竜【りゅう】
- Frog – 蛙【かえる】
- Salamander – サラマンダー
- Bug – 虫【むし】
- Insect – 昆虫【こんちゅう】
- Mosquito – 蚊【か】
- Butterfly – 蝶【ちょう】
- Ant – 蟻【あり】
- Spider – 蜘蛛【くも】
- Fly – 蝿【はえ】
- Locust – 蝉【せみ】
Do you know of any additional words for animals in Japanese? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to the list!
How to Say You “Have” an Animal in Japanese
If you own a ペット (pet), then you are a 飼い主【かいぬし】(pet owner). But if you want to say that you “have a pet” in Japanese, then you have to use a specific verb for it.
飼う【か・う】 is the verb that’s used to say that you “have” a pet, but this word can mean any of the following:
- to keep
- to have (an animal)
- to breed
And it is usually seen in the te-form of Japanese, such as the phrase:
- I have cats.
Although usually when you talk about having animals, you specify an exact number, which requires yet another piece of information in order to do correctly.
In Japanese, as you perhaps already know, when you want to specify the number of something, it requires the use of a counter in Japanese.
We sometimes do a similar thing in English, like when we say “I had four bottles of root beer.” The “bottle” part could be considered a counter, and this kind of thing is routinely used in Japanese.
The important thing to remember is that there are different counters that you will use when talking about animals, and it all depends on the kind of animal that you’re counting.
The Japanese Counters Used Specifically for Animals
There are four counters that you should know about, when to use then, and also how to read them correctly based off the number of animals. Let’s start with the most common one first.
The counter 匹 is used for counting small animals. This would include things like cats, dogs, mice, fish, and so on.
Now, how do you read this counter? By itself 匹 is read as ひき, but this actually gets changed quite a bit for phonetic reasons on some of the numbers. Here is a list of numbers with this counter and their pronunciations:
- 四匹【よんひき】Note how these two kanji look very similar.
So if you wanted to say something like, “I have two dogs” in Japanese, you would do so as 「犬を二匹飼っている。」
The counter 頭 is used for counting large animals. Those familiar with kanji will probably recognize it as the same kanji used for the word “head” in Japanese. Sometimes the language doubles up like that on kanji usage.
This is the counter to use when talking about cows, horses, rhinos, etc. If you can ride it, then this is probably the one you want to use.
The reading for 頭 when it’s used as a counter is とう, but unlike the first one we encountered, 頭 only goes through a few changes depending on the number that comes before it. Specifically, the numbers 1, 8, and 10. Check them out now:
This same counter gets used for other things as well, such as “insects in a collection” but I don’t think you need to worry about that too much right now.
The counter 尾 is used for shrimp and sometimes fish, although 匹 is far more common for the latter. The reading for 尾 is び and it is pretty straightforward:
You probably won’t need to use 尾 all that much unless you’re in the fish market doing some shopping.
The final counter 羽 is used for birds and (interestingly enough) rabbits. It makes sense for birds since this is the same kanji used for the Japanese word for “feathers” but what’s the deal with rabbits getting the same treatment?
I did a little research, but couldn’t find a conclusive answer. Some people said it has to do with the origin of the word “rabbit” coming from Sanskrit, others said it has to do with monks who could only eat birds, but “reclassified” rabbits so they could eat them too, and I also heard it’s because rabbits come from the moon. (⊙＿⊙’)
So, I don’t really know the truth on this one. But what I can tell you, is that it is pronounced わ when it’s used as a counter!
Now one of the things to always remember about counters is that they are primarily chosen due to the shape of the thing being counted.
So sometimes you can use several counters for the same animal, for example you could use 匹 for rabbits instead of 羽. I’ve also read that 羽 is occasionally used for butterflies, instead of the typical 匹 (for bugs).
The Sounds That Animals Make “in Japanese”
In English, we have certain words that we use when we want to express the cry of an animal. Some of the most common ones are “meow” for cats and “bark bark” for dogs.
It’s no surprise then that Japanese also does the same thing. But of course the words they use are quite different from ours!
In Japanese, they are called 動物の声【どうぶつ のこえ】 which literally means “the voice of animals” but simple translates as “animal sounds” in English.
Not only is it a good idea to learn these (at least the common ones) so that you know what’s going on when they pop up in books and TV shows, but also because a lot of jokes will use a play on words that fuse an animals cry with a Japanese word that has a close pronunciation.
Trust me, if you’ve ever watched an anime with a cat character, then you’ve definitely heard these kinds of jokes!
A cat’s meow is ニャーニャー but other common ones are にゃん or any close variation.
A dog barking is ワンワン
Pigs say ブヒ instead of oink
A fox yipping is コンコン
A monkey’s screech is キキー
A sheep or goat’s bleat is メーメー
A cow’s moo is モーモー (how appropriate) and sometimes it just gets shortened to モー. Actually, most of these can be shorted to just a single syllable, but you’ll see both versions of them so just be aware of that.
Mice say チュー which you might have guessed from the famous electric mouse Pikachu’s name ピカチュウ
A frog’s rabbit is ケロケロ
A crow’s is caw is (aptly) カーカー
And there are many more, as each animal that makes a sound gets one. And sometimes animal that don’t make sounds get them too!
Do you know of any Japanese animal sounds that are missing? Let me know with a comment, and I’ll add them to the list!
Japanese Proverbs, Idioms, and Expressions That Use Animals
It’s interesting how we like to use animals in things like idioms and expressions. For example, the English one that goes “he let the cat out of the bag” when you mean that a secret was carelessly reveal by mistake.
Like, why the heck do you have a cat in a bag to begin with!?
But I digress.
There are also some well-known Japanese proverbs that use animals to express multiple ideas. I wanted to give you some common ones below, along with the meaning (but not a direct translation) in English so that you could use them yourself.
Two birds with one stone
猿も木から落ちる【さるも きから おちる】
No one is perfect
蛙の子は蛙【かえるの こは かえる】
Like father, like son
能ある鷹は爪を隠す【のう あるたかは つめを かくす】
The wise man keeps quiet
Pearls before swine
The voice of authority
鶴は千年亀は万年【つるは せんねん かめは まんねん】
A long life is something worth celebrating.
I myself have only run into about half of these organically while reading or listening to audio books. The others I had to research to find.
What about you? Do you know of any other animal proverbs in Japanese?
And That’s All Folks!
Hopefully this article has answered your Japanese animal questions!
But if not, then let me know and I’ll be sure to get back with you on it. Thanks!