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…

1. 女房と畳は新しい方がよい

Tatami floor mats in a Japanese room

Tatami floor mats in a Japanese room

Reading: にょうぼうとたたみはあたらしいほうがよい
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.


Reading: しゅにまじわればあかくなる
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.

3. 麻の中の蓬

蓬 : Mugwort plant

蓬 : Mugwort plant

Reading: あさのなかのよもぎ
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.

4. 損して得取る

Reading: そんしてとくとる
Translation: Take a loss, make a gain.
Meaning: One step back, two steps forward.


Reading: でるくいはうたれる
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.

6. 寝耳に水

Reading: ねみみにみず
Translation: Water in a sleeping ear.
Meaning: Something unexpected and shocking. (Yes, I imagine that would be quite unexpected and shocking…)

7. 腐っても鯛

鯛 (Sea bream)

鯛 (Sea bream)

Reading: くさってもたい
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

Reading: たにんのめしをくう
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.

9. 餅は餅屋

Reading: もちはもちや
Translation: Rice cakes at the rice cake store.
Meaning: Things are done best when they’re done by the professionals.

10. 嘘も方便

Reading: うそもほうべん
Translation: A lie can be a convenient means to an end.

11. 火のない所に煙は立たぬ

Reading: ひのないところにけむりはたたぬ
Translation: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

12. 痘痕も靨

Reading: あばたもえくぼ
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).

13. 身から出た錆

Reading: みからでたさび
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.

14. 備えあれば憂いなし

Reading: そなえあればうれいなし
Translation: If you’re fully prepared, you need not worry.

15. 住めば都

Reading: すめばみやこ
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.

16. 濡れ衣を着せる

Reading: ぬれぎぬをきせる
Translation: Make someone wear wet clothes.
Meaning: Putting the blame on someone innocent.

17. 釈迦に説法

Reading: しゃかにせっぽう
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.

18. 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず

Reading: にとをおうものはいっとをもえず
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.

19. 触らぬ神に祟りなし

Reading: さわらぬかみにたたりなし
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

20. さじを投げる

Reading: さじをなげる
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.

21. ない袖は振れぬ

A men's kimono

A men's kimono

Reading: ないそではふれぬ
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.

22. 枯れ木も山の賑わい

Reading: かれきもやまのにぎわい
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.

23. 三度目の正直

Reading: さんどめのしょうじき
Translation: Third time’s a charm. (more literally: the third time is honest/for real)

24. 過ぎたるはなお及ばざるが如し

Reading: すぎたるはなおおよばざるがごとし
Translation: Too much of something is the same as not enough.
Meaning: Not doing enough and doing too much are both to be avoided.

25. 猿も木から落ちる

Reading: さるもきからおちる
Translation: Even monkeys fall from trees.
Meaning: Even the experts make mistakes sometimes.

26. 千里の道も一歩から

Reading: せんりのみちもいっぽから
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)

27. 蚤の夫婦

提灯 : a Japanese lantern (handheld style)

提灯 : a Japanese lantern (handheld style)

Reading: のみのふうふ
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.

28. 月夜に提灯

団子 : Skewered rice paste dumplings

団子 : Skewered rice paste dumplings

Reading: つきよにちょうちん
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.

29. 花より団子

Reading: はなよりだんご
Translation: Dumplings beat flowers.
Meaning: Utility over beauty. You can eat a dumpling, but a flower will serve no useful purpose.

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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