But, what if you have both a sword AND a pen?

A good, balanced approach to life.


Literally: sentence/missive/literature – military/warrior – two/both – road/way/teaching

Alternately: Both the military and the literary arts. A person who excels at both athletic endeavors (especially, but limited to, martial arts) and scholarship.

Notes: With the changing times, the samurai-inspired world of 武道 (swordsmanship, spear, archery, horse-riding, judo, karate, etc.) has given way to modern sporting practices – including “sport” versions of martial arts, but also game-sports such as soccer. Similarly, the ancient aristocratic arts of letter-writing and poetry have been replaced by a wider array of fields of scholarship: literature, to be sure, but also history, social science, and the physical sciences, among others. These days any physical pursuit and any course of study are probably going to fall within the scope of this phrase.

Let's see 弘法 try this!

Fighting with a writing-brush… is doing it wrong.

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Who knows Snake Road?

(Ja no michi wa hebi; “Snakes [know] the snakes’ road”)


People who belong to a certain group are the ones who know the most about the ways of that group. Specialists understand other specialists in their field better than anyone else could. “Set a thief to catch a thief.”


is “snake,” but here it’s pronounced two different ways. The first is ja, with the nuance of a large snake; the second is hebi, implying a small one. In between these two snakes is (michi, “street,” “road,” “path,” “way,”), connected to the first with the associative particle (no). (wa) is the topic-marker particle. The result becomes roughly, “As for snake’s path, snake.” (But see below.)


The phrase can be completed by adding ~が知る (ga shiru), a subject marker plus a sentence final form of a verb approximate to the English “to know.” This longer form thus becomes “Snakes know the ways of snakes.”

As mentioned above, ja implies a large snake, while hebi is a smaller one. Supposedly the saying originally referred to the belief that smaller snakes would travel along the trails left by larger ones – meaning that the hebi would be well acquainted with the “ways” of the ja. If you want to know “the path of the ja, then, you would do well to ask a hebi.

Keep this in mind, because while the common negative interpretation of “snake” fits well with the given English-language rendition of “Set a thief to catch a thief,” ja isn’t just a large snake: it can also be a dragon. (For example, the Nagasaki Okunchi festival features a Chinese-style “dragon-dance” called 蛇踊り – ja odori, “ja dance” – usually “dragon dance.”) It was believed that a snake that lived long enough would grow and develop into dragonhood, spending a thousand years in the sea and a thousand years in the mountains in the process. Think of how long and sinuous Eastern Dragons are. And maybe next time you meet a little green snake, show it a little more respect.

Example sentence:


(“’Hitsuji-tach no chinmoku’ to iu eiga no zentei wa hitokoto ni ieba, ‘ja no michi wa hebi‘ rashii”)

[“Summing up the premise to the Silence of the Lambs movie in a single phrase, I'd say it's 'Set a thief to catch a thief.'”]

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A villanelle in a voice


The world is old and hums with power
In many voices; I should know
I speak for all that comes to flower

I came to being in a bower
Born of the wild’s ebb and flow
The world is old and hums with power

My home a wood and not a tower
I wield no fire, bend no bow
I speak for all that comes to flower

I could not order sun or shower
But crops were mine to kill or grow
The world is old and hums with power

I feel my fate in some dark hour
What will my story have to show?
I spoke for all that comes to flower

Although I fear, I will not cower
My face shows where I chose to go
The world is old and hums with power
I spoke for all that came to flower.

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Some hard-core traditional Japanese culture, in a small convenient package

This is quite possibly the most famous yojijukugo in Japan. I’m not entirely sure how it took me so long to get around to it.


Literally: one – time (period) – one – meeting

Alternately: (Every time you meet someone, you should treat it as) a cherished once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Every time you meet someone is precious (because it might be your last). Focus on the moment with an open and honest heart.

Notes: 一期 is “one lifetime”; 一会 is “one encounter.” The nonstandard readings, even among the set of available Chinese-derived pronunciations (is often read ki, and is often kai), mark this phrase’s roots in Buddhist terminology and thought – but it doesn’t come to us from an ascetic monk. Rather, this four-character compound is said to come from a saying by one of the disciples of the tea-ceremony master known as Sen no Rikyuu, during the late 16th century. I could go on – this phrase unfolds and unfolds and unfolds into so many areas of Japanese history and culture – but perhaps the rest should be left as an exercise for the reader.

Strawberry! It's a pun!

This yojijukugo‘s become a commercial product too. Picture almost unrelated.

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From out of the mouth of me, I grab at thee

(Nodo kara te ga deru; “A hand comes from the throat”)


To want something very, very much; so much that you can hardly stand it. This imaginative metaphor compares desire to physical appetite, and pictures a hunger so powerful that a grasping hand comes out of the person’s throat to seize its object and pull it back. You know, like that weird second mouth inside the alien’s mouth in Alien. Except a hand, not a mouth. Um.

"I wants to play too!"

Look at that face! Doesn’t it just scream “want” to you?

…Long story short, this kotowaza expresses an almost-overwhelming want.


(nodo) is “throat” and から (kara) is a particle roughly equivalent to the English “from,” meaning the first two words of the phrase actually mark the location of the action. The actual subject of the sentence comes next: (te, “hand”), followed by the subject-marker particle (ga) and then the verb 出る (deru, “to come out”).


Although the expression can technically function as a complete stand-alone sentence, it will generally be part of a longer one, followed by terms like ように (you ni, “as if”) or ほど (hodo, “to the degree/extent”). のど can also be written with the kanji , although this is rarer – an alternate character that was only recently reintroduced to the standard set.

Example sentence:


(“Sono geemu wo nodo kara te ga deru hodo hoshii kara, baito de kaseganakya.”)

[“I want that game more than I can bear, so I have to get a part-time job and make some money.”]

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All four of them


Literally: joy – anger – sorrow – ease/pleasure

Alternately: Human emotions. The range of human emotions. All of a person’s emotions.

Four emotions

From this “motivation life hackers” blog

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Thought of the day: baby arms

When a baby is startled, even if it’s asleep, it will often go like this:


Like you just don’t care?

I’m not sure how much scientific literature is out there about this particular reflex. Someone I was talking to idly theorized that its roots go back to humanity’s more simian ancestors, when the possibility of falling out of trees was high; the purpose was perhaps to allow the baby to catch onto a branch and break its fall.

This seems unlikely. New humans spend years developing the strength and coordination they need for purposes ranging from from athletic or gymnastic activities (running, jumping, climbing, etc.) to basic tasks and abilities like holding their heads up and looking around. The chances of a newborn managing the split-second timing necessary to catch something, much less possessing the grip strength to support its own weight and thus to stop or slow its fall, are essentially nil.

What other functions could the reflex serve, then? It could be to startle predators and drive them away. Unexpected motion will spook most animals, even hunting animals. It could be a signal to parents or other caretakers that the baby is in some sort of danger. I fear, though, that the reason really is related to falling.

I have read that when an adult falls a long way, they tend to wind up with foot and/or leg injuries. We instinctively try to land on our feet, because they’re simply more expendable than all the organs above the waist. When an infant falls, however, it has no ability to control its orientation… and babies, with their proportionally large heads, are very top-heavy. Babies who fall will tend to fall head-first.

Where are infants often injured after a fall? In their arms. The statistics suggest that the arms-up reflex is to protect the head. This may be from dangers in general – animal bites, loose objects that might strike it, and so on – rather than from falling damage specifically, but the basic idea is the same.

The sad part of all this is that sufficient numbers of human or pre-human babies must have been put in danger over the course of evolutionary time that the V pose became ingrained as instinct. We get the protective reflex as a legacy from the survivors… but first, somewhere in our past there must be a great number who did not survive, and second there must also be a great number who survived, but at the cost of some sort of injury to the arms. “Nature red in tooth and claw” indeed.

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