Japanese Proverbs
Japanese Proverbs And Proverbial Phrases
Written by
Rokuo Okada
Published by
Copyright 1955
Total 111 pages

Japanese often use proverbs in daily life. They come from Chinese, Japanese, and western sources. Some come from fables, superstitions, or poems, others are simply bits of common wisdom. Many Japanese people grew up playing the card game “Iroha-garuta,” where each card has a proverb on it and the player must quickly snatch the card when its pair is read.

Enjoy these excerpts from “Japanese Proverbs”

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Asameshi mae no shigoto.

A job before breakfast (asameshi).
The phrase “asameshi mae” is generally used by itself. The usual word for “breakfast” is “asagohan.” Such expressions as “it's child's play” and “that's a cinch” are the equivalents.

Au wa wakare no hajimari.

Meeting is the beginning of parting.
This is a saying of Buddhist origin. When we meet, we must part. “To meet, to know, to love—and then to part, is the sad tale of many a human heart.” —Coleridge.

Cho chin ni tsurigane.

Cho chin ni tsurigane.

Chochin ni tsurigane. A temple bell contrasted with a paper lantern. The bronze bell drawn here is a sort prized as a national treasure. The egg-shaped lantern is called gifujochin (Gifu lantern), because it is a noted product of Gifu prefecture.

A paper lantern matched with a temple bell.
A huge bronze bell hangs from the beam of the belfry of a Japanese Buddhist temple. Paper lanterns are also often seen hanging. In other words, a paper lantern resembles a temple bell in the sense that they both can be seen hanging. But that is about the only point of similarity between them. In all other points the one can hardly bear comparison with the other. Hence, the proverb is often used as a metaphor for an unequal match, especially for a morganatic marriage, that is, a marriage between a man of high rank and a woman of lower rank. There is another proverb Tsuri awanu wa fuen no moto, of which the meaning is: “An ill-matched marriage spells discord.”

Deru kugi wa utareru.

A nail (kugi) that sticks out is hammered.
What is implied by this proverb is that there is unwisdom in being too forward, and wisdom in lying low. Impudence courts disaster. A tall tree catches much wind.

E ni kaita mo chi.

A mochi (rice-cake) drawn in a picture (e).
A: “How do you like my plan?”
B: “It sounds all right, but I'm afraid it's little better
than “a painted rice-cake” as the Japanese proverb has it; it is unrealistic and of little use. ‘The wine in the bottle does not quench thirst,' you know.”

Ebi de tai o tsuru.

To catch a sea-bream with a shrimp.
Japanese fishermen know that there is no bait like shrimps for fishing for red bream. Upon obtaining something more valuable in return for a small thing, a Japanese would say, “I've caught a bream with a shrimp.” The English equivalents of this expression are “to throw a sprat to catch a whale,” “to bait with a sprat to catch a mackerel,” and “to give an egg to gain an ox.”

Fugu wa kuitashi, inochi wa oshishi.

I would like to taste a swellfish, but I would not like to lose my life.
To eat or not to eat fugu is the question over which many a Japanese vacillates. The swellfish, or puffer (fugu), is a poisonous fish, but when gutted and cleaned carefully, it is eatable and delicious. Many careless people cleaning fugu for themselves have lost their lives by swellfish poisoning. So when a person is tempted to launch a venture but cannot make up his mind to run the risk, we often quote this proverb. By extension this expression is often applied to a clash between emotion and reason, between heart and head. “Honey is sweet, but the bee stings.”

Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto.

Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto.

Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto. The ogre shown here is, of course, a figment of the artist's imagination. The parched beans scattered about are supposed to drive away all evils. Prominent persons, usually in ancient costume, act as demon- chasers. This man here is represented with a wooden measure containing the beans.

In with luck! Out with the demon!
In Japan there is a time-honored institution known as the bean-scattering ceremony, performed on the last day of winter, according to the old (lunar) calendar. On the night of setsubun (the parting of the seasons), as this day is called in Japanese, parched beans are scattered at some temples, as well as in homes. The incantation with which beans are scattered to drive out imaginary devils and keep potential evils out has gained currency as a proverb.

Hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi.

Among blossoms, the cherry; among men, the warrior.
In Japan most cherry trees are grown not so much for their fruit as for their blossoms. The charm of the cherry blossom, though ephemeral, is too famous to need more than a mere reminder. Just as it had, and still has, pride of place among the flowers of this country, so the two-sworded samurai was highly esteemed in feudal Japan for his character. Hence this parallelism.

Hana yori dan go.

Dumplings (dango) rather than blossoms (hana).
From of old it has been, and still is, the custom with the Japanese to go out in the cherry season to enjoy drinking and eating under the canopy of blossoms. Such a picnic gives one the impression that eating is the chief object of the pleasure seekers. This proverb is often quoted when one wants to express preference for utility to beauty. “Bread is better than the song of birds.” Another proverb of the same import is: Hana no shita yori, hana no shita. Below the nose (hana) rather than below the blossoms (hana). Note the play on the word, hana. By “below the nose” is meant “that which is under the nose; namely, the mouth.”

Happo-bijin wa hakujo.

Charming women who have a smile for everybody are cold-hearted.
By “happo-bijin” is meant a person who is affable to everybody; a person who is “all things to all men,” as the biblical expression has it. A politician who is out to be in the good books of members of other parties, as well as of his own, is also referred to as such.
“Everybody's friend is nobody's friend.”
The word, happo-bijin, literally means “an eight-side belle,” that is to say, a woman who looks beautiful, no matter from which side she may be looked at. The expression, happo, “eight sides” is, of course, synonymous with “many sides.” Combined with a similar expression, shiho, “four sides,” the word, happo, is used adverbially. Thus by shiho happo ni is meant “every which way.” The word, hattoshin, (lit., eight-head body), which has come to gain currency in recent years, is often applied to a fair girl, tall and well-balanced. (Cf. eight-head figure.)

Hara hachi-gd ni isha irazu.

If your inside (hara) is eight-tenths full, you will need no doctor (isha).
The phrase “filling eight-tenths of one's inside” means “moderation in eating.” We are healthy through temperance, and temperance is the best physic. Another proverb says, “Hara mo mi no uchi” (The abdomen is also part of the body). “Surfeits slay more than swords.”

Heta no yokozuki.

To be crazy about a game is to be a poor hand at it.
A poor hand at a game is as often as not very fond of it. Say to a Japanese “You are very fond of tennis, aren't you?” or something of that sort, and in all probability he will admit it quoting this proverb.

Hyotan kara koma ga deru.

Hyotan kara koma ga deru.

Hyotan kara koma ga deru. A hermit represented with his “shakujo,” a kind of crosier, which, serving as a magic wand, produces a steed out of his gourd. Note the hermit's talon-like nail.

Out of a gourd comes a pony.
The hard-shelled fruit of a plant called bottle gourd are dried, varnished, and used as bottles for sake, rice wine. Such bottles, as well as the fruit themselves, are called hyotan in Japanese. This proverb is often quoted when a most unexpected thing happens, or when a truth comes out of what has been said in jest. “There's many a true word said in jest.” Another “hyotan” proverb is: Hyotan namazu (It's like trying to catch a namazu, or catfish, with a gourd). This is an expression meaning (1) “as slippery as an eel” and (2) vague, non-committal.

Iwashi no atama mo shinjin kara.

Even a sardine's head may become an object of worship through faith.
The pious and credulous may pin their faith even to such a seemingly worthless thing as a sardine's head, which, in their minds, will work wonders. “Faith moves a mountain.”

Jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji.

Earthquake, thunder, fire, and father.
These were the things dreaded by the Japanese of old, as arranged in order of intensity. Typhoons and floods are, of course, among other acts of God which devastate this island country almost every year. In feudal Japan the father, the head of the house, was proverbially dreaded.

Uma no mimi ni nembutsu.

Prayers to a horse's ears.
When a person turns a deaf ear to a piece of good advice, Japanese say that it is no more effective than are prayers offered to the ears of a horse. Substitute the word, kaze, (wind) for nembutsu (prayers), and you will have another proverb of the same import: Uma no mimi ni kaze (Wind in a horse's ears).

Waga mono to omoeba karoshi kasa no yuki.

Waga mono to omoeba karoshi kasa no yuki.

Whether the snow lying thick on the umbrella is felt heavy or not depends, according to the proverb, on the attitude of mind of the person under it.

As I think it is mine, I find that the snow weighs lightly on my umbrella.
This is a modified form of “Waga yuki to omoeba karoshi kasa no ue” (When I think it is my snow on my hat, it seems light), a haiku, or 17-syllable verse, by Kikaku, one of the master hands in this particular branch of literature. Think you are doing your own job, and you will be sure to find the task you are tackling is interesting.