Japanese Proverbs: August 2009

1. 能ある鷹は爪を隠す


Literally: An able hawk hides its talons.
Meaning: Don’t make known your true strength.
Note: a common mistake is to write 脳 instead of 能. The pronunciation is the same and the meaning still makes sense (it becomes “a smart hawk hides its talons”), but you should know that this is technically incorrect.

2. 魚心あれば水心


Equivalent: If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

3. 隣の花は赤い


Literally: The flowers next door are red
Equivalent: Grass is always greener on the other side.

4. 時は金なり


Literally: Time is money.
Note: 「なり」 is from classical Jap., modern form is 「です」

Koban: An old Japanese coin, typically gold.

小判: An old Japanese coin, typically gold.

5. 猫に小判


Literally: Coins to a cat.
Equivalent: Pearls before swine.

6. ちりも積もれば山となる


Literally: Even dust, if piled up, will become a mountain.
Meaning: Small steps, if built up over time, can lead to big results.
Note: This proverb is most often used to stress the benefits of saving money.

7. 石の上にも三年


Literally: 3 years on top of a rock.
Meaning: If you keep trying, eventually you’ll succeed.
Note: The legend behind this proverb is that if you sit on top of a (presumably large) rock for 3 years, the rock will finally become warm. Most Japanese don’t know this part and will be surprised if you do!

8. 雀の涙


Literally: A sparrow’s tears.
Meaning:An extremely small amount of something.

9. 漁夫の利


Literally: The fisherman’s profit.
Meaning: While two people are preoccupied fighting, a third person makes gains.

10. 立つ鳥跡を濁さず


Literally: A bird takes flight, but the water is unstirred.
Meaning: When leaving some place, it’s best to leave everything in good order.

Bodisattva of Wisdom

文殊菩薩: Manjusri, Bodisattva of Wisdom

11. 三人寄れば文殊の知恵


Literally: If three people gather, they have the wisdom of Manjusri.
Equivalent: Two heads are better than one
Note: Manjusri (文殊菩薩/もんじゅぼさつ) is the bodisattva associated with wisdom.

12. 知らぬが仏


Literally: Ignorance is bliss.
Note: 仏 by itself means the Buddah, but here it refers to the Buddah’s tranquil expression and demeanor.

Japanese old coins

文: An old Japanese coinage unit

13. 早起きは三文の得


Literally: Early wakers profit 3-mon
Equivalent: The early bird gets the worm.
Note: a 文 (mon) is an old currency denomination. 3 of them would have been a very small amount of money.

Like these? Every day I post a new Japanese proverb on Twitter, so please follow me if you’re interested. At the end of every month I will recap the proverbs in a blog post.

All proverbs will be tweeted along with a pronunciation guide (in hiragana), and to help readers grasp the meaning I’ll offer either a direct translation, an explanation or an equivalent English proverb, or a combination of these as is appropriate for the particular proverb. If you have any questions you can always track me down on twitter or leave a comment here!

Finally, due to Twitter’s 140 character limit, there are times when I can’t quite explain everything there, so be sure to check the blog for more complete information.

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.