Japanese proverbs

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It's discouraging to make a mistake, but it's humiliating when you find out you're so unimportant that nobody noticed it.
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For the meaning and classification of kotowaza (諺, Japanese proverbs), see: wikipedia:Japanese proverbs

Sayings

  • 案ずるより産むが易し。
    • Anzuru yori umu ga yasashi.
    • Literally: Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.
    • Meaning: Fear is greater than the danger. / An attempt is sometimes easier than expected.
  • 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない。
    • Baka wa shinanakya naoranai.
    • Literally: Unless an idiot dies, he won't be cured.
    • Meaning: Only death will cure a fool. / You can't cure stupidity.
  • 出る杭は打たれる。
    • Deru kui wa utareru.
    • Literally: The stake that sticks out gets hammered down.
    • Meaning: Don't make waves / Apply your effort where it will do the most good / Excellence breeds envy and/or enmity / It's better to conform than to stick out.
    • Note: kui shouldn't be confused with kugi (nail).
  • 挨拶は時の氏神。
    • Aisatsu wa toki no ujigami.
    • Literally: A greeting is the local deity who turns up providentially.
    • Meaning: Arbitration in a quarrel is a godsend.
      • Background: Here, 挨拶 aisatsu (greeting) means arbitration.
  • 秋茄子は嫁に食わすな。
    • Akinasu wa yome ni kuwasuna.
    • Literally: Don't let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants.
    • Meaning: Don't let yourself be taken advantage of.
      • Background: Eggplants are delicious in the fall season when they tend to be seedless. A mean mother-in-law would rather not share such a delicacy with her daughter-in-law.
  • 悪妻は百年の不作。
    • Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku.
    • Literally: A bad wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.
    • Meaning: A bad wife is a ruin of her husband.
  • 残り物には福がある。
    • Nokorimono ni wa fuku ga aru.
    • Literally: Luck exists in the leftovers.
    • Meaning: There is luck in the last helping.
      • Background: A mother might say this to console a young child who is left with the sweets that were not grabbed by faster, elder siblings.
  • 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず。
    • Koketsu ni irazunba koji o ezu.
    • Literally: If you do not enter the tiger's cave, you will not catch its cub.
    • Meaning: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. / You can't do anything without risking something.
  • 晴天の霹靂
    • Seiten no heki-reki.
    • Literally: Thunderclap from a clear sky.
    • Meaning: A bolt from the blue. / A complete surprise.
  • 猿も木から落ちる。
    • Saru mo ki kara ochiru.
    • Literally: Even monkeys fall from trees.
    • Meaning: Everyone makes mistakes. / Nobody's perfect.
  • 蓼食う虫も好き好き
    • Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki
    • Literally: There are even bugs that eat knotweed.
    • Meaning: There's no accounting for taste. / To each his own.
  • 井の中の蛙大海を知らず。
    • I no naka no kawazu taikai o shirazu.
    • Literally: A frog in a well does not know the great sea.
    • Meaning: People are satisfied to judge things by their own narrow experience, never knowing of the wide world outside.
  • 蛙の子は蛙。
    • Kaeru no ko wa kaeru.
    • Literally: Child of a frog is a frog.
    • Meaning: Like father, like son.
  • 鳶が鷹を産む。
    • Tonbi (or Tobi) ga taka o umu.
    • Literally: A kite breeding a hawk.
    • Meaning: A splendid child born from common parents.
  • 覆水盆に帰らず。
    • Fukusui bon ni kaerazu.
    • Literally: Spilt water will not return to the tray.
    • Meaning: It's no use crying over spilt milk. / A separated couple can never go back to as it was.
    • Background: Original meaning comes from an old Chinese story of a couple, but the proverb is often used in a more general sense today.
  • 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず。
    • Nito o ou mono wa itto o mo ezu.
    • Literally: One who chases after two hares won't catch even one.
    • Meaning: Trying to do two things at once will make you fail in both.
  • 継続は力なり。
    • Keizoku wa chikara nari.
    • Literally: Continuance (also) is power/strength.
    • Meaning: Don't give up. Just continuing to hold on will yield/reveal strength and power. Continuing on after a setback is its own kind of strength. Perseverance is power.
  • 門前の小僧習わぬ経を読む。
    • Mon zen no kozō narawanu kyō o yomu.
    • Literally: An apprentice near a temple will recite the scriptures untaught.
    • Meaning: The environment makes our characters.
  • 知らぬが仏
    • Shiranu ga hotoke.
    • Literally: Not knowing is Buddha.
    • Meaning: Ignorance is bliss. / It's better to not know the truth.
  • 見ぬが花
    • Minu ga hana.
    • Literally: Not seeing is a flower.
    • Meaning: Things will never be as you imagine, so you're better off not seeing them. / Reality can't compete with imagination.

Idiomatic phrases

  • 猫に小判 neko ni koban
    • Literally: gold coins to a cat.
    • Meaning: Giving a gift to someone who can't appreciate it; A useless gesture; "Pearls before swine."
    • Background: According to superstition, cats love round, shiny objects like coins even though they're ignorant of their true use, so this proverb also carries the connotation of an objective pursued without completely comprehending it.
  • 猫に鰹節 neko ni katsuobushi
    • Literally: fish to a cat.
    • Meaning: A situation where one can not let their guard down (because the cat can't resist stealing your fish).
  • 七転び八起き nanakorobi yaoki
    • Literally: stumbling seven times but recovering eight.
    • Meaning: perseverance is better than defeat.
    • Equivalent: perseverance is the key.
  • 三日坊主 mikka bōzu
    • Literally: a monk for (just) three days.
    • Meaning: Giving up at the first sign of difficulty.
  • 花よりだんご hana yori dango
    • Literally: dumplings over flowers
    • Meaning: The person to whom it is directed prefers practical gain to aesthetics.
  • 水に流す mizu ni nagasu
    • Literally: let flow in the water
    • Meaning: Forgive and forget; water under the bridge
  • 雨降って地固まる ame futte chi katamaru
    • Literally: after the rain, earth hardens
    • Meaning: Adversity builds character./After a storm, things will stand on more solid ground than they did before.
  • 油を売る abura o uru
    • Literally: to sell oil
    • Meaning: to spend time chitchatting or to waste time in the middle of a task
    • Background: Comes from Edo period hair oil salesmen who took their time chitchatting with the customers when selling.

Four-character idioms

Most of them come from either Chinese literature or writing in (pseudo-)Chinese by Japanese.

  • 竜頭蛇尾 ryuutou dabi
    • Literally: dragon, head, snake, tail
    • Meaning: Anticlimax, the beginning is like a dragons head, great and majestic and the ending is like a snakes tail, tiny and pathetic.
  • 晴耕雨読 seiko udoku
    • Literally: clear sky, cultivate, rainy, reading
    • Meaning: Farm when it's sunny, read when it rains.
  • 四面楚歌 Shimen soka
    • Literally: Soka on all sides
    • Meaning: Defeat is clear; Situation is desperate beyond hope.
    • Source: Xiang Yu, recorded by Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian
  • 十人十色 jūnin toiro
    • Literally: ten persons, ten colors
    • Meaning: To each his/her own. / Different strokes for different folks.
    • Note: This is also a pun, since even the character "十" is read in two ways, and to.
  • 三日坊主 mikka bouzu
    • Literally: 3 day monk.
    • Meaning: Someone who gives up easily or is adverse to work.
  • 大同小異 daidō shōi
    • Literally: big similarity, small difference
    • Meaning: Similarities outweigh the differences.
    • Source: a shortened passage from Zhuangzi.
  • 一石二鳥 isseki nichō
    • Literally: one stone, two birds
    • Meaning: Killing two birds with one stone; Doing 2 things with one action.
    • Source: Unknown. No similar line is known in Chinese texts and presumed a translation of an English saying, "Kill two birds with one stone."
  • 雲散霧消 unsan mushō
    • Literally: scattered clouds, disappearing mist
    • Meaning: Disappear without a trace.
  • 我田引水 gaden insui
    • Literally: pulling water to my own rice paddy
    • Meaning: Doing/speaking about things in a way to benefit yourself.
    • Source: unknown, though both Gaden and Insui appear in the Chinese classics. It is presumed to be coined in Japan.
  • 夏炉冬扇 karo tōsen
    • Literally: Summer heater winter fan
    • Meaning: Something which is out of season and therefore rendered useless.
  • 起死回生 kishi kaisei
    • Literally: Wake from death and return to life
    • Meaning: To come out of a desperate situation and make a complete return in one sudden burst.
  • 瓜田李下 kaden rika
    • Literally: Melon field, under a plum tree
    • Meaning: Stepping into a melon field, standing under a plum tree (, such behavior causes misunderstanding that you want to steal those fruits); implying that you must avoid actions which could be taken on a bad faith.
    • Source: a shortened passage from a poetry of 劉克荘 (Liou)
  • 花鳥風月 Kachou Fuugetsu
    • Literally: Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon
    • Meaning: Experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself.

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