Japanese Proverbs: September 2009
Every day I tweet a new Japanese proverb with it’s reading, translation, and definition explained. Here is a roundup of all 29 proverbs that I posted in September 2009 (the first full month that I’ve been doing this…). If I had done one every day there would have been 30 but it looks like I forgot one on the 30th… Anyway, if you like these be sure to follow me on twitter!
On a side note, since my parents will be visiting in October for a week and I haven’t made the switch to an iPhone yet, I probably won’t have a chance to tweet from about October 5-9 (or post any blog entries for that matter), so there will be no proverb or other tweets during those days. If only twitter still worked with my regular mobile phone…
Translation: Wives and tatami mats are best when they’re new.
Note: Sorry ladies, but I just had to start the month with something a little risqué.
Translation: Mixed with red ink, anything turns red.
Meaning: People become like those around them.
Note: This proverb is typically used in a negative sense, such as a parent telling their child not to mix with the “wrong” crowd.
Translation: A mugwort in the hemp.
Meaning: People become like those around them.
Explanation: A mugwort is a plant that grows sprawlingly and low to the ground, however if one takes root in a patch of hemp, it can grow tall and straight along with the more noble-statured hemp. So, this proverb refers to someone who has been positively influenced by the people around them.
Translation: Take a loss, make a gain.
Meaning: One step back, two steps forward.
Translation: The stake that sticks up gets beaten down.
Note: This proverb well known to foreigners as a symbol of Japanese “conformity” culture.
Also: Sometimes, 釘 （くぎ） or “nail” is used in this proverb with the same meaning, but 杭 (stake) is the “correct” version of the proverb.
Translation: Water in a sleeping ear.
Meaning: Something unexpected and shocking. (Yes, I imagine that would be quite unexpected and shocking…)
Translation: Even rotten sea bream is sea bream.
Explanation: Sea bream (an common fish for a sushi or sashimi) is regarded as a delicacy and something of significant value. Thus the meaning of this proverb is that something of high quality, even if it is not in it’s best condition, still can fetch a good price.
Note: No, Japanese people will not actually buy rotten sea bream.
8. 他 人の飯を食う
Translation: To eat an outsider’s food.
Meaning: Leaving home to live in the world and experiencing the hardships of everyday life.
Note: Unlike western youth, who very often move out as soon as they finish their education, Japanese youth continue to live with their families until they get married, often into their late 20s or 30s, and depending on the situation a family may keep on living together even after that point.
Translation: Rice cakes at the rice cake store.
Meaning: Things are done best when they’re done by the professionals.
Translation: A lie can be a convenient means to an end.
Translation: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Translation: Even pockmarks seem as dimples.
Meaning: Love is blind. When you’re head-over-heels for someone, even their flaws (pockmarks) seem attractive (dimples = cute).
Note: Yeah, I decided to throw a hard one in to keep things interesting. I’d bet 95% of Japanese can’t read these kanji, much less write them. However, they still know the proverb.
Also: Because that last kanji is so hard, えくぼ is more commonly written as 笑窪 (if written as a kanji at all).
Translation: Rust from the blade.
Meaning: What comes around goes around.
Explanation: The 身 in this proverb refers to the blade of a katana. If you don’t keep it in good condition it will rust and lose it’s usability. Thus this proverb refers to some negative thing that is happening to a person because of their own poor judgment or actions.
Translation: If you’re fully prepared, you need not worry.
Translation: Wherever you live, it’s the capital.
Meaning: There’s no place like home. If you live somewhere for long enough, you will learn to love it.
Translation: Make someone wear wet clothes.
Meaning: Putting the blame on someone innocent.
Translation: Teaching Buddhism to the Buddah.
Explanation: This proverb refers to the foolishness of talking like a know-it-all to someone who is wiser than you.
Translation: He who chases two rabbits catches neither.
Meaning: Rather than waste your energy trying to do more than you are able, stick with what you know you can accomplish.
Translation: An undisturbed God wreaks no vengeance.
Meaning: Let sleeping dogs lie.
Note: Be careful not to confuse these kanji 祟 = たた・り // 崇 = あが・める
Translation: To throw down the spoon.
Meaning: To throw in the towel. The spoon in this proverb refers to a doctor’s medicine spoon. It envisions a situation where a patient is beyond hope of recovery, when the doctor has given up.
Translation: You can’t shake an empty sleeve.
Explanation: Up until around a 100 years ago the main daily Japanese attire was a kimono (though not exactly the fancy silk kimono that geisha wear, mind you). And the place you keep your wallet in a kimono is in the sleeve. Thus, this proverb is used to describe wanting to help someone out, but being unable to do so because of a lack of money or influence.
Translation: Even dead trees give live to a mountain.
Meaning: A mountain with dead trees is better than a mountain with no trees at all. Basically, this proverb is saying: something of little value is still that much better than nothing at all.
Translation: Third time’s a charm. (more literally: the third time is honest/for real)
Translation: Too much of something is the same as not enough.
Meaning: Not doing enough and doing too much are both to be avoided.
Translation: Even monkeys fall from trees.
Meaning: Even the experts make mistakes sometimes.
Translation: Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
Note: A 里 (ri) is actually an old Japanese measurement of distance equal to roughly 4km (2.5 miles). However, if you’re in China then a 里 (li) is around 500 meters. And if you’re in Korea, it’s about 400 meters! …Thank God the world now uses the metric system! (…except of course for a certain country)
Translation: A married pair of fleas.
Meaning: A married couple in which the woman is taller or larger than the man.
Explanation: Female fleas are larger than male fleas.
Note: Usually the kanji for flea is not used, and it’s just written in the hiragana. But the kanji exists, so I am using it here. I like kanji.
Translation: A lantern in the moonlight.
Meaning: This proverb refers to something unnecessary or superfluous, because you don’t need to carry a lamp when the night is lit by a bright full moon.
Translation: Dumplings beat flowers.
Meaning: Utility over beauty. You can eat a dumpling, but a flower will serve no useful purpose.