Japanese Proverbs: February 2010

It’s that time of month again! Here are all the proverbs I tweeted throughout February, along with readings, translations, explanations and other interesting notes. Enjoy! Follow me on twitter to keep up with the new ones. March might be the last month I do proverbs before switching to something else.

1. 雲泥の差

Reading: うんでいのさ (undei no sa)
Translation: “the separation between clouds and mud”
Meaning: A vast difference between two things.

2. 犬猿の仲

Reading: けんえんのなか (ken’en no naka)
Translation: “the relationship of dogs and monkeys”
Meaning: A relationship of mutual hatred. Natural enemies.

3. 為せば成る

Reading: なせばなる (naseba naru)
(Literal) Translation: “if you take action, it will become”
Meaning: You can do it if you try.

This proverb comes from a poem by Uesugi Youzan (上杉鷹山), from back in the Edo period. It’s pretty cool and being a Japanese poem isn’t so long, so here’s the full text.


naseba naru
nasaneba naranu nanigoto mo
naranu wa hito no nasanu nari keri

If you try, you may succeed.
If you don’t try, you will not succeed. This is true for of all things.
Not succeeding is the result of not trying.

4. 青天の霹靂

Reading: せいてんのへきれき (seiten no hekireki)
Translation: A bolt (lit. thunder) out of the blue (sky).

5. 鴨が葱をしょって来る

Reading: かもがねぎをしょってくる (kamo ga negi o shotte kuru)
Translation: “a duck comes along carrying a leek on its back”
Meaning: A very convenient happening, a stroke of luck.
Explanation: The reason for this proverb is that duck soup is made with leek, so it’s as though the duck came along just asking you to eat it.
Note: This proverb has a short form for everyday usage, 鴨ネギ (kamonegi)

6. 忙中閑あり

Reading: ぼうちゅうかんあり (bouchuu kan ari)
Meaning: Even when you’re very busy, there’s occasionally time to take a rest.

7. 初心忘るべからず

Reading: しょしんわするべからず (shoshin wasuru bekarazu)
Translation: We should not forget our beginner’s spirit. (the excitement/humility of starting something new)

8. 頭隠して尻隠さず

atama kakushite shiri kakusazuReading: あたまかくしてしりかくさず (atama kakushite siri kakusazu)
Translation: “hiding your head but not your butt”
Meaning: Failing to completely cover up your bad deeds.

9. 沈む瀬あれば浮かぶ瀬あり

Reading: しずむせあればうかぶせあり (shizumu se areba ukabu se ari)
Translation: “if the current sinks, it will rise (again)”
Meaning: Life has its ups and downs.

10. 猫の首に鈴を付ける

Reading: ねこのくびにすずをつける (neko no kubi ni suzu o tsukeru)
Translation: “to put a bell around a cat’s neck”
Meaning: To discuss doing something that is nearly impossible to do.
Note: This proverb has its origin in one of Aesop’s fables.

11. 長所は短所

Reading: ちょうしょはたんしょ (chousho wa tansho)
Translation: “our strong points are our weak points”
Meaning: Over-reliance on our strengths leads to make careless mistakes.

12. 起きて半畳,寝て一畳

Reading: おきてはんじょう、ねていちじょう (okite hanjou, nete ichijou)
Translation: “(man needs just) half a tatami mat when awake, one tatami mat when asleep.”
Meaning: You need not be rich to live a satisfied life.

13. 李下に冠を整さず

Reading: りかにかんむりをたださず (rika ni kanmuri o tadasazu)
Translation: “don’t straighten your crown under the plum tree”
Meaning: Don’t invite undue suspicion on yourself.
Note: Because if you’re fiddling with your crown under the plum tree, people might think you’re trying to steal plums.

14. 猫を追うより皿を引け

Reading: ねこをおうよりさらをひけ (neko o ou yori sara o hike)
Translation: “rather than chase the cat, take away the plate”
Meaning: Attack problems at their root.

15. 井の中の蛙大海を知らず

Reading: いのなかのかわずたいかいをしらず (i no naka no kawazu, taikai o shirazu)
Translation: “the frog in the well knows not of the great ocean”
Explanation: This proverb is a metaphor for being mentally trapped by a narrow understanding of things.
Note: kawazu is the old way to say “frog”, in modern Japanese they are called kaeru

16. 多芸は無芸

Reading: たげいはむげい (tagei wa mugei)
Translation: “many skills is no skill”
Meaning: a Jack of all trades is a master of none.

17. 盛年重ねて来らず

Reading: せいねんかさねてきたらず (seinen kasanete kitarazu)
Translation: “the prime of your life does not come twice”
Meaning: You’re only young once.

18. 相槌を打つ



Reading: あいづちをうつ (aizuchi o utsu)
Translation: “striking the forge hammer”
Meaning: Giving verbal feedback while listening (eg. saying things like “yeah”, “uh-huh”, “I see”, etc)
Explanation: This proverb describes the rhythmic exchange of two smiths working on a katana.

19. 天は自ら助くるものを助く

Reading: てんはみずからたすくるものをたすく (ten wa mizukara tasukuru mono o tasuku)
Translation: Heaven helps those who help themselves.

20. 元も子もない

Reading: もともこもない (moto mo ko mo nai)
Meaning: Failure not only to make a profit (子 = 利益), but losing your investment (元 = 元金) too.

21. これを知るをこれを知ると為し、知らざるを知らずと為せ。これ知るなり。

Reading: これをしるをこれをしるとなし、しらざるをしらずとなせ。これしるなり。
Romaji: kore o shiru o kore o shiru to nashi, shirazaru o shirazu to nase. kore shiru nari.
Translation: To know that one knows what one knows, and to know that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know, there lies true wisdom.
Note: Okay, so it’s not a proverb, it’s a Confucius (孔子/こうし) quote. But it was my 1000th tweet and I wanted to do something a little fancy.
Original Chinese: 知之为知之,不知为不知,是知也 (thanks, @Binglun!)

22. 窮鼠 猫を噛む

Reading: きゅうそねこをかむ (kyuuso neko o kamu)
Translation: “a cornered rat will bite the cat”
Meaning: Left with no choice, even a relatively weak person/animal will fight back.

23. 庇を貸して母家を取られる


A 庇 (hisashi) covering a front door.

Reading: ひさしをかしておもやをとられる (hisashi o kashite omoya o torareru)
Translation: “to lend the eaves and have the main house taken”
Meaning: Give an inch and they take a mile.

24. 悪銭 身につかず

Reading: あくせんみにつかず (akusen, mi ni tsukazu)
Translation: Dirty money doesn’t stay with a person for long.

25. ただより高い物はない

Reading: ただよりたかいものはない (tada yori takai mono wa nai)
Translation: “nothing is more expensive than free”
Meaning: Debts of money are more easily repaid than those of gratitude

26. 毒を以て毒を制する

Reading: どくをもってどくをせいする (doku o motte doku o sei suru)
Translation: “to use a poison to overcome a poison”
Meaning: Sometimes we need shady means to tackle shady problems

27. けんもほろろ

Romaji: ken mo hororo
Translation: cackle and gobble [ken and hororo are pheasant sounds]
Meaning: Being blunt & unsympathetic (attitude, response, etc.)

28. 生兵法は大怪我の基

Reading: なまびょうほうはおおけがのもと (namabyouhou wa ookega no moto)
Translation: Newly learned (unmastered) tactics are the origin of great blunders.

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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