Wise and Witty Words: Japanese Proverbs

Proverbs have been around since as far back as men could speak; more so when humans learned to write and read. A proverb is a saying that is repeated often and is characterized as being concrete, simple, and known to many to be true. Sometimes, proverbs don’t get directly to the point and make use of metaphors for the reader to interpret him or herself.

All From Across the World

There are proverbs across all cultures, nations, and continents; some of the points of the proverbs (or the style they try to convey it in) can be exclusive to that country or culture. However, you’ll find that many sentiments and ways of publishing those thoughts can also be shared across the world. Japanese proverbs, for instance, have been notorious for their wisdom that sits behind such unassuming word combinations.

Proverbs of the Japanese language have a way of making you read between the lines. They are usually deep, though not all of them are. They are considered “deep” by many, usually because they don’t tell you what you need to know upfront; they are mere expressively put hints. With each proverb comes a handy life lesson condensed into a few words – and if you ponder on it properly, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble, or perhaps, make the right decision about whatever situation you’re facing.

The Different Kinds of Japanese Proverbs

The Japanese call their proverbs “kotozawa”, written as “諺, ことわざ”. Under kotozawa are three different categories. One of them is for proverbs that are considered idiomatic phrases, or “kan’yoku” – written as “慣用句”. Next are short sayings, or “iinarawashi”, (言い習わし), and lastly, “yojijukugo”, or a four-character idiom, written as “四字熟語”.

Understanding Yojijukugo

While you’re probably familiar with idiomatic phrases and short sayings, four-character idioms are exclusive to Japanese culture. These yojijukugo are endearing because of their short and sweet delivery, as well as script. They are made from strictly only four kanji, all of which combined make something completely out of context from what their original kanji would usually mean. It’s also fun to memorize them and use them as a conversation centerpiece because of how mysterious and sage-like its wisdom sounds.  

Here is an example of a yojijukugo. Just like the saying “survival of the fittest”, the Japanese have a proverb that bears almost the exact same idea – except with a little more violence, and the use of only four kanji to write it down. “弱肉強食”, when translated into English, means “the weak are meat, the strong eat”. Those who are stronger will overtake those who are weaker, and quite even possibly use them to get ahead.

Another example that youngsters may draw a slight comparison to the acronym “YOLO” or “you only live once”, is the yojijukugo “一期一会”. This means “one life, one encounter”. You do only have one life, and every single thing that happens throughout the day is actually a new experience (even petting a cat, or having a sandwich) that begins and ends, implying you should take a moment to really seize – if not appreciate the present moment.  

Not All Are Proverbs

Not all kan’yoku, or idiomatic phrases, and yojijukugo, or four-character idioms can be considered proverbs. Some of them are simple phrases that mean something, but they do not necessarily have a lesson or truth behind them that most other proverbs do. For example; whenever it rains and the sun is still out, the Japanese have an idiomatic phrase for that called “kitsune no yomeiri”. That translation of this is “a fox getting married” – which is a saying used for when something strange happens, like seeing sunlight on a rainy day.

The History of Japanese Proverbs and Sayings

Many Japanese proverbs are linked to metaphors and stories that have an agricultural background to them (“pulling water to my own rice paddy”, for example, when you do or say something that benefits yourself). This is because, before the Meiji period, Japan was so intensely focused on cultivating its agricultural powers that it became an intrinsic part of so much of Japanese culture and tradition.

There is no general history of how or when proverbs got to become so popular in Japan; perhaps many of them were taken from Chinese traditions or sayings from way back in ancient Japan. Also, because Buddhism was, and still is a widespread religion in Japan, it’s no wonder where the proverbs take such a mystical and Zen approach of conveying itself, and letting the person listening to the proverb let the meaning come to him or herself. This is opposed to them being spoon-fed the meaning.

Literal Versus Hidden

Take, perhaps, the proverb, “actions speak louder than words”. It’s direct, no nonsensical, and simply puts that what you do tells more about yourself rather than what you say. Compare that to a popular Japanese proverb, for example, “yoraba taiju no kage”, which means “If you take shade, do it under a large tree”. It would take quite a bit of contemplation to arrive at its meaning, means that if you were to go out and serve a powerful force, make sure to maximize your benefits from it from the start.

Then again, there are also Japanese proverbs that are direct, like “tagei wa mugei”, (多芸は無芸) which means “many skills is no skill”. This, quite clearly, looks down upon the idea of being the jack of all trades, as the man who wrote this believes it’s better to master one skill completely than to be a little knowledgeable in many skills.

Interesting Japanese Proverbs about Love

Love is a universal element. Whether it be romantic or sexual amorousness, there are Japanese proverbs that emerge from both. One of them, though you’d never guess it’s related to love, is “iso no awabi”. When translated into English, it means “an abalone on the beach”. The abalone is considered a metaphor of one-sidedness because of its univalve nature, thus its metaphoric representation of unrequited love.

Then there’s “koi to seki to wa kakusarenu”, which denotes how both a cough and love that is passionate are impossible to hide. Then, another proverb that most who have fallen in love can relate to; “Horeta yamai ni kusuri nashi”. This means, “there is no herb that can cure love-sickness.”

When Life Ends: Japanese Proverbs About Death

It is noticeable how the Japanese look at death a little more lightly than westerners do. Perhaps because of their different faiths, the Japanese see it as a part of nature; something to expect and is welcomed rather than feared and escaped. You can see this in the proverb, “Duty is heavy as a mountain, but death is lighter than a feather.”

Another proverb that mentions death is “馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない。” In English, the proverb says, “An idiot cannot be cured until he dies.” In this proverb, death is a remedy to something permanent – and the Japanese seem to think there isn’t much that can be done about remedying stupidity.

Wise Japanese Proverbs About Friendship

Compared to the other categories, there are only a few Japanese proverbs about friendship. They usually talk about how one must rely on oneself and not others for happiness; possibly stemming from the Buddhist nature of Japan’s history of the importance of being in touch and content with the Inner Self. Thus, you have proverbs such as, “I have no friends, I make my mind my friend”, and “Depend on your walking stick and not on other people”.

Read Up on Japanese Proverbs About Family

“案ずるより産むが易し。”, is Japanese for “it is easier to give birth to a baby than it is to worry about it.” This hits two birds with one stone; as it talks about the sacrifice and hardships that come with birthing and raising kids, and the fear that naturally grips a person when this happens. It goes to say that worrying about things won’t help, and will cause only more suffering compared to dealing with the problem head-on.  Then there’s “a frog’s son is a Frog”, which means familiar traits are strong and usually shared.

Then, there’s the quirky “秋茄子は嫁に食わすな。”. This proverb talks about not letting your daughter-in-law eat your fall eggplants. Again, a reference to vegetables from agriculture, but more of a jab at newlywed brides who must live with their in-laws and learn their place. Japan wasn’t exactly a society where everyone was equal, so this proverb reminds to know your place and to make sure you’re not taken advantage of.

Japanese Proverbs About Strength to Help You Through Tough Times

If you’re facing a problem that seems too tough to beat, gain inspiration from this Japanese proverb. “小打も積もれば大木を倒す”, or “shouda mo tsumoreba taiboku o taosu”, translated, means “you can make a tree fall with small hits”. The meaning behind this is that if you keep at it with patience and perseverance, no matter how big the task is at hand, you can conquer it with tiny steps. Also, sometimes it’s better to be flexible than it is to be strong. After all, “the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists”.

Stressed in the Office? Here Are Some Japanese Proverbs That Can Help You with Work

When working, it can be easy to be daunted by the environment; a stressful job, toxic co-workers, or a mean boss – it’s just another day at the office. If you find yourself multitasking, or needing to be in two areas at one time because of your work’s pace, there’s a Japanese proverb just for you. It’s “nito ou mono itto mo ezu”, which is romaji for “二兎追うもの一兎も得ず。”. In English, the proverb explains that you cannot catch a hare if you run after two of them at the same time. Finish the task at hand first before trying to solve the next – you’re much more likely to get things done this way.

Perfect Quotes for Your Next Vacation Album - Japanese Proverbs About Travel

If you’ve ever been in a long-distance relationship, this proverb is for you. It’s a Japanese saying that goes, “those who travel for love find a thousand miles not longer than one”. This means that no matter how far your lover is, getting there feels as short as traveling for a mile because of your longing and excitement to return to or see the other person and be with him/her.  

Another one is “Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae”. There is an English proverbial equivalent of this, and that is: when you’re in Rome, do as the Romans do. This proverb is a little different, as it means when you enter a village, you obey the rules of that village. When you travel, you must adhere to the new cultures and traditions of the place you’re visiting to fully immerse yourself, and at the same time, show respect to their way of life.

How Important Are Aesthetics? Read Up on These Japanese Proverbs About Beauty

Whoever thought up of the Japanese saying, “What is good is not necessarily beautiful” is a smart man – as often, people get drawn to what looks better over what works better, or what is good for them. Proverbs about beauty are often linked with flowers, which the Japanese are fond of making sayings about.

Nature and Life; Inspiring Japanese Proverbs About Flowers

“Dumplings rather than flowers”, written as “花より団子” is a Japanese proverb that hints at valuing substance (a filling dumpling) over beauty (the flower). It could also have been a shortened version of the quote, “Apple blossoms are beautiful, but rice dumplings are better.”

Lastly, there’s “tsuki ni muragumo, hana ni arashi”, which is the longer version of just “hana ni arashi”. The longer version is a proverb that goes to say that the moon is always covered by a cloud, and the wind usually scatters flowers. This means that with happiness comes misfortune, and you really can’t be certain of much in this world.

It’s a fact that proverbs help those learning a new language to get the hang of it and get friendlier with dictionary terms. These proverbs are all open to interpretation – the key really is that each person understands every proverb in their own way. In the end, what’s important is that the truth is passed on.