Japanese Proverbs: December 2009

I’m surprised I was able to pull myself away from FFXIII long enough to do my monthly proverb post, yay me!

As usual, I originally tweeted these proverbs throughout December–one per day (except Christmas eve)–and now I’m bringing them all together in a blog post. Enjoy! And please follow me if you like these and want to keep up with the new ones.

1. 団栗の背比べ

Reading: どんぐりのせいくらべ (donguri no sei kurabe)
Translation: Comparing the height of acorns.
Meaning: Comparing things which are only marginally different: each thing is basically the same as the next.

2. 諸刃の剣

Reading: もろはのつるぎ (moroha no tsurugi)
Translation: A double-edged blade.
Meaning: Something which can help you but also hurt you.

3. 焼き餅焼くとて手を焼くな

Reading: やきもちやくとててをやくな (yakimochi yaku tote te o yaku na)
Translation: Don’t burn your hand frying (already) fried rice cakes.
Meaning: Being overly jealous makes you susceptible to folly.
Note: Japanese often use the phrase 焼き餅を焼く (or just 焼き餅) to describe feelings of unwarranted jealousy, typically toward a romantic partner who is spending time or giving attention to someone else.

4. 虻蜂取らず

Reading: あぶはちとらず (abu hachi torazu)
Meaning: Trying to catch a horsefly and a bee in one grasp and failing to capture either.
Explanation: If you try to do too much at once, you will end up accomplishing nothing at all.

5. 宝の持ち腐れ

Reading: たからのもちくされ (takara no mochikusare)
Translation: A jewel held and rotting.
Explanation: This proverb is a metaphor for wasted talents and gifts.

6. 鯖を読む

mackerel saba

鯖 (mackerel)

Reading: さばをよむ (saba o yomu)
Translation: To read the mackerel
Meaning: To purposely miscount numbers in your own favor.
Explanation: This proverb comes from old Japanese fish markets, where fast-handed and fast-lipped salesmen would count and package their fish in front of customers, but do it more quickly than the customers could follow. Suckered customers would then end up taking home fewer fish than they bargained for.

7. 腹八分目に医者いらず

Reading: はらはちぶんめにいしゃいらず (hara hachibunme ni isha irazu)
Translation: If you only eat until your stomach is 8/10 full, you won’t need a doctor.
Meaning: Eating in moderation is good for your health.
Note: Japanese people commonly talk about 腹八分 (はらはちぶ) as the right full-ness level, not overly full, not hungry. However, remember that while there is an ん sound in the proverb, there isn’t one when the word is used alone.

8. 尻切れ蜻蛉

Reading: しりきれとんぼ (shiri kire tonbo)
Translation: A dragonfly with it’s rear end cut off.
Meaning: Unfinished business / loose ends.

9. 転ばぬ先の杖

Reading: ころばぬさきのつえ (korobanu saki no tsue)
Translation: (It’s best to have) your walking stick before you tumble.
Meaning: Being ready for accidents is the best way to keep them from happening.

10. 濡れぬ先の傘

Reading: ぬれぬさきのかさ (nurenu saki no kasa)
Translation: (It’s best to have) your umbrella before you get wet.
Meaning: Better safe than sorry.
Note: Very close in meaning to the previous proverb, but note the difference between personal blunder (avoidable) and natural occurrence (inevitable).
Note 2: This proverb can also be 降れぬ先の傘 (furenu saki no kasa) = Best have your umbrella before (the rain) falls.

11. 駄目で元々

Reading: だめでもともと (dame de motomoto)
Meaning: There’s nothing to lose (so why not try?)
Note: This proverb has a shortened version for handy usage: 駄目元 (dame moto)

12. 噂をすれば影

Reading: うわさをすればかげ (uwasa o sureba kage)
Translation: If you speak a rumor about someone, their shadow will appear.
Explanation: This phrase is used just like we would say “speak of the devil” in English.
Note: The complete proverb (rarely used) is: 噂をすれば影がさす, typically it’s shortened to end at 影, or even shorter, to just 「噂をすれば・・・」

13. 安物買いの銭失い

Reading: やすものかいのぜにうしない (yasumono kai no zeni ushinai)
Translation: Losing money by buying cheap things.
Meaning: Cheap items will end up costing you more money than expensive ones if they are junk and need to be repaired or replaced.

14. 瓜二つ

Reading: うりふたつ (uri futatsu)
Translation: Two halves of a melon
Meaning: Two people nearly identical in appearance, like the inside of a melon that has been cut in half. The “spit and image” of someone.

15.  玉に瑕

Reading: たまにきず (tama ni kizu)
Translation: A flaw on a gem
Meaning: One unfortunate defect on an otherwise perfect person or thing.
Note: The opposite of this proverb, 傷に玉 (kizu ni tama) can refer to something/someone which has a great number of flaws, but still one or two redeeming qualities.
Note 2: Mind your kanji… 瑕 (kizu) in 玉に瑕 (tama ni kizu), 傷 or 疵 (both are read kizu) in 傷に玉. Or just write it in hiragana, your choice ;-)

16. けりを付ける

Reading: けりをつける (keri o tsukeru)
Translation: To attach the “keri”
Meaning: To finish the job / wrap things up.
Note:keri” is a sound commonly used to end a haiku.

17. 終わり良ければすべて良し

Reading: おわりよければすべてよし
Translation: All’s well that ends well.

18. 暖簾に腕押し

noren entrance curtains

暖簾 (Entrance curtains)

Reading: のれんにうでおし (noren ni udeoshi)
Translation: Pushing the entrance curtains with your arm.
Meaning: Something that has little or no effect (esp. when you’re trying to get a reaction out of someone)
Note: Noren were originally used at Buddhist temples to keep cold air out.

19. 人のふり見てわがふり直せ

Reading: 人のふり見て我がふり直せ (hito no furi mite waga furi naose)
Translation: Observe others’ behavior, and correct your own.
Meaning: Learn from others’ good and bad points.

20. 叩けばほこりが出る

Reading: たたけばほこりがでる (tatakeba hokori ga deru)
Translation: If you strike it, dust will come out.
Meaning: Under close enough scrutiny, everything has flaws and weaknesses.

21. 案ずるより産むが易し

Reading: あんずるよりうむがやすし (anzuru yori umu ga yasushi)
Translation: The reality (literally: birth) of something was easier than had been planned for.

22. 下駄を預ける


下駄 (geta)

Reading: げたをあずける (geta o azukeru)
Translation: To entrust your shoes to someone.
Meaning: To entrust some task wholly to another person. To place your trust in someone to do something.
Note: This comes from the the notion that when you enter someone’s house and you leave your shoes in their care, you lose your freedom to leave.

23. 口は禍のもと

Reading: くちはわざわいのもと (kuchi wa wazawai no moto)
Translation: The mouth is the origin of disaster.
Meaning: Words, carelessly spoken, lead to misfortune.
Note: This proverb can also be 口は禍の門 (門/kado = gateway), with the same meaning.

24. 三つ子の魂百まで

Reading: みつごのたましいひゃくまで (mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made)
Translation: The spirit of a 3 year old (persists) until 100
Meaning: Our personalities as children do not change as we get older.

25. 大は小を兼ねる

Reading: だいはしょうをかねる (dai wa shou o kaneru)
Translation: A large item also serves the purpose of a small one.
Meaning: Better too big than too small.
Note: If this proverb seems a little illogical to you (certainly there are some situations when small can do what large can’t) think of clothing sizes. Oh well, whether you agree with it or not doesn’t change the fact that it’s a real proverb.

26. うなぎの寝床

Reading: うなぎのねどこ (unagi no nedoko)
Translation: The place where an eel sleeps.
Meaning: a very long and thin building or room
Note: Long, thin buildings were very common in old Japan, because houses were taxed based on frontage (= how much space they took up on the road).

27. 一を聞いて十を知る

Reading: いちをきいてじゅうをしる (ichi o kiite juu o shiru)
Translation: To hear one and know ten.
Meaning: Extremely quick to understand something based on just a small amount of information (very smart)

28. 前事を忘れざるは後事の師なり

Assassin's Creed 2 Japanese proverb

Japanese proverb in Assassin's Creed 2

Reading: ぜんじをわすれざるはこうじのしなり (zenji no wasurezaru wa kouji no shi nari)
Translation: Not forgetting the past is the teacher for the future.
Note: This is a more esoteric proverb, as you might have guessed from the grammar (-zaru, nari), I included it because I stumbled upon it in Assassin’s Creed 2. Just goes to show you never know where Japanese will come in handy!
Note 2: This proverb appears in it’s 漢文 (kanbun = Chinese style sentence) form in Assassin’s Creed 2. Kanbun typically aren’t used in everyday life in Japan but Japanese students do have to study them in high school.

29. 来年のことを言えば鬼が笑う

Reading: らいねんのことをいえばおにがわらう (rainen no koto o ieba oni ga warau)
Translation: If you speak of next year, demons will laugh.
Meaning: We never know what the future holds.

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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