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