Most anime fans have at some point come across a sentence or expression that seems like complete nonsense. Sometimes, we can infer the sense from context. Sometimes, these sentences are so frequent that we stop really noticing them even though they still aren’t exactly clear. In some occasions, they are even visually depicted rather than spoken, which leads to completely surreal scenes that are inexplicable unless you know the reference. I absolutely love these expressions and will occasionally use the translated version in casual conversation to the great confusion of the other person.
This happens because, due to its particular evolution, Japanese language tries to be concise and proverbs are commonly used, often shortened to just the first part of common phrases, to that end. Idioms are therefore used to express quite complex ideas in a very simple and memorable way. As someone who speaks almost entirely in incomprehensible truncated references, I really appreciate this. I’ve also always loved idiomatic expressions. They are a great window into a culture’s history and influences, and are just plain fun.
After noticing some repetitive proverbs used in some of my favorite shows, for instance “jakuniku kyōshoku” repeated almost as a mantra in Rurōni Kenshin, (translated sometimes as ‘If you’re strong, you live, if you’re weak, you die’ and other times as ‘survival of the fittest’, I decided to do a bit of research on the subject. Let me tell you, it was nothing short of delightful. Because I want to share my joy with you, I’ve put together a list of my favorites, I hope you have as much fun with them as I did:
十人十色 – jūnin toiro
“Ten men, ten colors.”
Basically meaning: “different strokes for different folks”. Some of you may already know this, but I have a strange fixation on colour schemes so I appreciate any expression that incorporates the idea. This said, Japan is not known for that much diversity, having been historically isolated from the mainland, so this saying is particularly interesting in that regard.
我田引水 – gaden insui
“Pulling water to my own rice paddy.”
From what I gather this means doing or saying things for one’s own benefit. I really love how this instantly conjures up images of rural Japanese landscapes. You drop this at a dinner party and everyone thinks you’re a world traveler.
見ぬが花 – Minu ga hana
“Not seeing is a flower.”
This is a bit like “ignorance is bliss” but has the idea of reality can’t ever live up to your expectations/imagination. The word “flower” is very evocative in Japanese and can be used as a poetic way to signify purity, beauty, imagination or even politeness. It’s just a beautiful saying and a little melancholy.
弱肉強食 – jaku niku kyō shoku
“The weak are meat; the strong eat.”
The aforementioned “jaku niku kyō shoku”, most commonly translated as “Survival of the fittest” but there is a very predatory and more menacing edge to this one.
海千山千 – umisenyamasen
“Ocean thousand mountain thousand.”
This refers to someone that’s seen it all and done it all, and has gained wisdom from it. They’ve seen a thousand oceans and climbed a thousand mountains and are way cooler than you now!
酔生夢死 – suiseimushi
“Drunken life, dreamy death.”
This actually means to waste your life but I like to take it literally.
美人薄命 – bijinhakumei
“Beautiful person, thin life.”
No this isn’t fat shaming, it basically means that “a beautiful woman is destined to die young,” but is probably something like “beauty fades.” I’m not sure why all the sites I searched referred to “women” specifically. We do historically tend to sacrifice those, so it may have something to do with it.
猿も木から落ちる。– Saru mo ki kara ochiru
“Even monkeys fall from trees.”
This is a cute way of saying everybody makes mistakes. It is somewhat reminiscent to a random fact I read in a Douglas Adams book once, that baby sloths are so inept at existing, they will occasionally grab their own limbs instead of the branch and fall from the tree. They’re sturdy and don’t climb too high up so they pretty much never injure themselves while doing this. For some reason I tell this to everyone I meet.
麒麟の躓き - Kirin no tsumazuki.
“Even Kirin stumble”
This is another variation of “everyone makes mistakes” and my favorite one! A kirin is a mythical hooved chimerical creature known in Chinese and other East Asian cultures. It is a good omen thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. It represents grace and serenity. If it helps, you can think of it as a Unicorn. So the Idea that even Unicorns sometimes trip is both poetic and reassuring.
蛙の子は蛙。– Kaeru no ko wa kaeru
“Child of a frog is a frog.”
We would say something like “the apple never falls far from the three” or “like father, like son” but I just like how blatantly obvious it sounds. It has a cute cat is cute feel to it.
知らぬが仏 – Shiranu ga hotoke.
“Not knowing is Buddha.”
Another iteration of the “ignorance is bliss” idiom. This one sounds super mystical and profound though. First date material if you can work it into the conversation.
井の中の蛙大海を知らず。– I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu
“A frog in a well does not know the great sea.”
This is a colourful way of saying that we are the products of our environment. Basically, it means that you can only expect someone to make judgments and decisions based on what they know or have experienced.
“An apprentice near a temple will recite the scriptures untaught.”
A slight variation of the above expression, you could interpret it as our environment influences who we are.
七転び八起き – Nanakorobi yaoki
“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
I absolutely love this one. To me it instantly evokes “never give up, never surrender” but it probably means something closer to “if at first you don’t succeed”. In any case, this is all my beloved shounen heroes rolled into a single sentence. I’m considering tattooing it somewhere.
案ずるより産むが易し。- Anzuru yori umu ga yasushi.
“Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.”
I thought this was simply a statement of fact but apparently it’s more or less equivalent to “there is nothing to be feared but fear itself”, and just like with that statement, it doesn’t seem entirely true…
馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない。– Baka wa shinanakya naoranai
“Unless an idiot dies, he won’t be cured.”
Well you can imagine what this means and it’s delightfully brutal. Needless to say, it’s another favorite.
秋茄子は嫁に食わすな。– Akinasu wa yome ni kuwasuna
“Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants.”
Possibly my favorite sentence when stripped of meaning and context. I had some interesting thoughts on what this could mean. What it does mean is: “don’t let yourself be taken advantage of”. Let’s all try and use this as much as possible, we can make it a thing!
出る杭は打たれる。– Deru kui wa utareru.
“The stake that sticks up gets hammered down”
I have heard variations of this all my life, I would say it means “don’t make waves” or essentially, if you stand out, you will be subject to criticism. I say make waves anyways!
腹八分に医者いらず (はらはちぶにいしゃいらず) – hara hachibu ni isha irazu
“Eight-tenths full keeps the doctor away”
We use apples (as in an apple a day..) but the Japanese say eat whatever you want but in moderation. I like it. I’m going for 8/10th vodka.
明日のことを言うと天井のネズミが笑う (あしたのことをいうとてんじょうのねずみがわらう)– ashita no koto o iu to tenjou no nezumi ga warau
“ If you speak of tomorrow, the rats in the ceiling will laugh”
An amusing image to illustrate the futility of trying to control the future. A bit like “even the best laid plans..” or “Man makes plans, and God laughs.” The idea of bringing happiness to rats is for some reason very attractive.
明日は明日の風が吹く (あしたは あしたのかぜがふく)- ashita wa ashita no kaze ga fuku
“Tomorrow’s winds will blow tomorrow”
I thought this was a “whatever happens, happens” sort of thing but it’s actually “tomorrow is a new day”. It’s very pretty.
雨降って地固まる (あめふってじかたまる) – ame futte chi katamaru
“ After rain falls, the ground hardens”
A variation of the famous “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, just much more literally accurate. Tons of stuff makes you weaker but doesn’t kill you. It’s nonsense in English.
There are a lot more but I need to stop at some point. There are also very interesting backgrounds to how these expressions came to be and if you’re interested I can post about that too, someday.
In any case, I absolutely love idiomatic expressions and Japanese is very rich with them. If you have a favorite, and it really doesn’t have to be in Japanese, please let me know in the comments. I would really love to discover new ones.
- Every time you see/hear any of the above – have a sip of A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea
42 thoughts on “Misplaced in Translation – The Joy of Japanese Idioms”
Do you know Japanese ??
No – I can read a few words but not much more than that
What an interesting post! I knew a few of these idioms, but I wasn’t aware of all of them. I always enjoy learning new Japanese idioms; it’s really interesting to see things which are considered to be cultural wisdom. It can also help to make sense of some at times incomprehensible translations!
Although mangled translations have a charm of their own,,,,
Amazing post. I just recently started learning Japanese, and this post is very useful. I love all the idioms, thanks for sharing them.
wow I’m impressed. Learning Japanese is quite the feat!
I haven’t watched enough anime to really catch the Japanese Idioms present, I’m still figuring out how to make sense of puns. Polar Bear Cafe is full of puns and it’s one of my favorite parts of the show.
That being said, I loved this. Me and my mom take special note of old English and American idioms that have fallen out of use and even talked about writing a book about different origins and meanings. I always liked the one about the canary in a coal mine and the best thing since sliced bread!
That sounds like a great book. Idiom histories are usually hilarious.
Excellent post Irina, I really enjoyed reading this one. I love expressions and such so definitely some keepers in here 🙂
I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
Of course! 🙂
Sorry if I’ve missed anything of yours lately btw. I’ve had to really pull away from reading and interaction for a bit. Just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t ignoring your posts or anything like that.
Oh my no worries.
Hey I’ll just have to make sure I post things you find impossible to resist! JK. Take your time. I’ve been there, I get it.
Haha well I’m doing my best not to miss any articles from folks but I know I’ve missed a pretty good number lately :/
Thanks for understanding though 🙂
What a great collection of idioms. There are plenty I hadn’t heard (I love the idea of the rats in the ceiling laughing at me, heh.)
The frog-in-a-well one I heard about during one of my favourite anime, Uchouten Kazoku, where upon the death of his father a tanuki turns into a frog and forgets how to turn back. He lives in a well. If that’s not a powerful image for depression, I don’t know what is.
That eggplant-image? I’m not sure you’ve seen Denpa Onna, but that’s Maekawa’s (oh, how I love her) way to tell the hospitalised main character to get well. The joy of visualised puns. (Nasu = Eggplant = romaji for katakana “nurse”) [The School Rumble picture reminds me of Trauma –> Tora Uma –> Tiger Horse. Anime is educational.]
[Btw, this time you have 3 images I don’t recognise: the writing in the header, drunken woman on the floor, and the fist-of-the-north-star lookalike.]
That visual frog metaphor is rather heartbreaking.
I have not seen Denpa Onna but I love the English title so much: Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl. I would watch on the basis of the title alone.
As for the images – I’ll admit I do not know where my banner image is from. The drunken woman is a selfie, but it also looks a lot like Margery Daw from Shakugan no Shana and last one is Golden Boy! It’s kind of an old school anime but it always makes me laugh.
1) I so, so love Uchouten Kazoku. My entire attitude towards life is contained within it.
2) Denpa Onna is great for around 7 episodes (until the launching of the bottle rockets), and after that it contents itself with being merely good. It’s a tad strange, maybe, but that’s why I love it. It will teach you how to eat pizza without getting out of the futon you’ve wrapped yourself in entirely.
3) a) It’s not very distinctive a picture. Many people write stuff in anime. The art-style might give a hint, with its lack of coulour and precise contours, but I’m drawing a blank.
b) I’ve never watched Shakugan no Shana nor have I ever seen a picture of you before, so I cannot comment on the likeness.
c) Ah, Golden Boy. I’ve seen one or two episodes when it aired on MTV around here. It’s been… decades (I’m old).
4. I can’t believe I forgot to express my appreciation for the picture of Nibutani Shizuku from Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, perhaps the most no-nonsense female lead in any rom-com. One of my favourite anime characters right there on the page.
1) The eccentric family is on my never ending to watch list but it just got bumped up
2) Seems like that’s absolutely necessary information
3a) I think we might need to let this one go
b) well I am blonde..
c) old happens to the best of us. the very best…
4) That is a beautiful gif of her, too.
Very interesting, thank you! I’d never heard a lot of these before.
One of my favorites is, “Hiding your head, but not your butt.” It refers to an attempt to protect yourself that exposes weakness instead. Has many applicable situations, from so-called “leaders” burying their heads in the sand hoping a problem goes away instead of acting on it, to people trying to cover up crimes and making things worse for themselves.
I had never heard that one but it’s wonderful imagery. I love it!
I LOVED THIS POST AAAAA
Idioms are even better than puns. Thank you so much for sharing!!
It’s (probably) not my favorite, but one idiom that’s stuck with me is “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” It’s basically the same as saying you are in a dilemma or that you’ve been caught “between a rock and a hard place” but it actually has a sense of urgency. Like you’re being chased by the devil and you’re running like in a marathon only to come across an oceanside cliff with nowhere else to go.
I also remember this phrase, “In like a lion and out like a lamb” that’s supposed to describe March. Since It’s still winter-y during that third month of the year, but it’s (supposed to be) completely spring-y by the end of the month. I suppose this only applies to some countries!
Irina does it again, yay!
Ohhh I like those tooo! I’ve always been found of “Not my monkeys – not my circus”. There’s also a Bulgarian saying that’s “sending someone out for green caviar” (i.e. wild goose chase), that I like to use because there are in fact quite a few wild geese here. I regularly have some in my yard…
And also thank you so much! I owe you an entire bar by now…
Yay! Glad to hear it!
Heh both of those are great. I need to work em into my casual speech…
Wow, wild geese chilling in your yard! Canada is a wild place.
Eh, I’ll just have a wee dram here or there. Save the dough for yourself as you drink me under the table, yeah?
Very seasonal lion idiom, considering 3-gatsu no Lion airs this season. 😀
Hey, thanks for sharing. I love discovering stuff like this. I saw so many things that’s similar to what we say here. Regardless of language and culture, thought process is the same everywhere.
That’s a beautiful way of seeing it. Seems we could use a reminder of that lately
Being a huge fan of everything Asian I absolutely loved this post. I learned so many things that I never knew just by reading this. Thanks for sharing! 😀
It really was my pleasure. I hope to find more subjects for these types of posts. This and my Yokai post are some of my favorites.
Reblogged this on Manga Toritsukareru Koto and commented:
Love idioms? A manga fan/ someone who enjoys languages?
Then, please give this post a try- I absolutely loved it!
Wow I loved this!
Thank you so much for sharing this with us!!!
(I’m probably a little more excited than warranted for…)
Yeah, umm… I hope you don’t mind, but I reblogged this.
Not at all – I’m honored
I am so glad you enjoyed it. Honestly one of my favorite posts to write!
My most favorite has to be Emiya Shirou’s, “You die when you are killed.”
Oh I love it!
I’m going to scare the pants off the next rando I decide to use this line on!
Made my day as always!