Why not 千歳? I’m not sure, actually

千載一遇
sen.zai.ichi.guu

Literally: thousand – ride/publish/get on – one – encounter/receive (guests)

Alternately: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The kind of chance that only comes along once in a thousand years.

Notes: 千載 refers to a thousand years; 一遇 is a single 遭遇, “encounter.” This saying doesn’t refer to rare occurrences or coincidentally meeting someone; it refers to an unexpected opportunity to gain some profit or benefit.

I guess cats don't often get a shot a fish this big

For some reason, this was one of the top results when I did an image search. From this random blog post about fishing.

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Maybe gene therapy, some day

阿呆に付ける薬はない
(Ahou ni tsukeru kusuri wa nai; “There’s no medicine for stupidity.”)

Definition:

There’s nothing that can be done to help a fool. Note that this saying isn’t about mere lack of education, or about people holding opinions or beliefs that you feel to be wrong, even stupid-wrong. It’s about how someone who doesn’t think about things much can’t be corrected because no matter what you do… they won’t think about it much. A special case of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” A wry version of “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.”

A more positive interpretation emphasizes the fact that there is no quick fix, no simple medicine, to cure foolishness – the treatment indicated is thorough schooling, preferably chosen and pursued by the patient rather than imposed on them forcefully by others.

Breakdown:

阿呆 (originally ahou but now often aho, commonly written using hiragana or katakana, rather than phonetic kanji, in modern orthography) is both a noun and an adjective. Here it functions as a noun, with (ni), the directional particle, giving its relationship to the following verb 付ける (tsukeru) – which has many meanings such as “attach,” “fasten,” etc. but in this case refers to applying ointment. This verb in turn modifies the noun (kusuri, “medicine”). (wa), the “topic marker” particle, seems a bit odd here. I suspect that its use is contrastive, emphasizing the difference between medicine for aho versus medicines for curable conditions like rashes. At the end comes the adjective of negation, ない (nai, in kanji 無い).

Notes:

The saying can also end ~薬無し (kusuri nashi) without any significant change in meaning. Some versions substitute 馬鹿 (baka) for 阿呆.

This is the proverb given for in the Osaka/Nagoya Iroha Karuta set. (Oh, those Kansai people!) As one might guess, it’s relatively old.

Example sentence:

「あああ、またやっちまったな、あいつ!どうしようっか?」 「どうしようもない。阿呆に付ける薬はないし」

(“Aaa, mata yacchimatta na, aitsu! Dou shiyoukka?” “Dou shiyou mo nai. Ahou ni tsukeru kusuri wa nai shi.”)

[“Argh, that idiot did it again! What do we do?” ”There’s nothing we can do. I mean, there’s no cure for dumb.”]

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One year’s resolution?

Another phrase using 一念:

一念発起
ichi.nen.ho-.kki

Literally: one – idea – emit – wake

Alternately: Firm resolve to carry something through; a sincere and wholehearted intention. Originally used to describe the Buddhist resolve to leave “the world” (i.e. society) behind and take up religious practice, once a common step for aristocrats who had had enough of life at court, the phrase now refers to any such resolution to change one’s ways for the better or achieve a specific goal.

Notes: Make sure you don’t read 発起 as hakki; the main pronunciation of is hatsu but this compound is different.

No really, he was eating sand, supposedly

I firmly resolve never to eat sand again

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One shot, one kill?

Finals are coming up!

一念岩をも通す
(Ichinen iwa wo mo toosu;
“Single-mindedness pierces even a boulder.”)

Definition:

No matter what obstacles you are faced with, sufficiently determined effort will allow you to overcome them, just as even a barrier of stone can be broken through or overcome when enough force is applied.

Breakdown:

(ichi) is “one,” and (nen) is “thought,” “feeling,” “desire,” “idea.” By their powers combined they become 一念, “a single thought” or “determination.” (iwa) is a large rock or boulder; alternately a cliff or even an anchor, although here the first meaning is at play. (wo) is our object-marker particle, while (mo), often translated as “and,” is acting as an intensifier: in this usage its meaning is something like “even” or “a whole.”

通す (toosu) is our verb; it has a long list of possible translations, but the overall gist is something like “to push something through,” “to go all the way through.” Note that the verb seems to be taking a causative (and sentence-final) form here, but that the effect is to cause the stone to be passed through, rather than causing the stone to pass through anything else. Keep in mind that passive and causative verbs can have different behavior in Japanese than they do in English.

Notes:

The origin story for this one is fascinating. Supposedly Li Guang mistook a large stone for a tiger crouching in the tall grass and fired and arrow at it. His prowess in archery was such that the arrow pierced the stone. This saying is thus based on an older version, 石に立つ矢 (ishi ni tatsu ya, “an arrow standing in a stone”). It is possible, although not certain, that the saying was altered and the Buddhist concept of 一念 added later to aid the spread of Buddhist teachings in Japan. There are a number of other sayings with related meanings, including the previously-treated 雨垂れ石をうがつ.

Although the base kanji characters involved have different meanings, in this case 通す can be replaced by 徹す without any change in meaning or pronunciation.

Example sentence:

一念岩をも通すだと思って、絶対成功してみせると断言した」

(Ichinen iwa wo mo toosu da to omotte, zettai seikou shite miseru to dangen shita.”)

[“Thinking that single-minded determination could overcome any obstacle, I declared to them that I would definitely succeed.”]

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Like a plum!

An inversion of a previous yojijukugo:

外柔内剛
gai.juu.nai.gou

Literally: outside – soft/weak/gentle – inside – sturdy/strong

Alternately: Gentle but firm. An iron fist in a velvet glove. Speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Appearing soft or weak, but actually strong.

(Sorry, folks; no media this time)
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In which it turns out that not all round things are the same

月と鼈
(Tsuki to suppon; “The moon and a turtle shell”)

Definition:

The moon is round, and a turtle shell is also round. But they have essentially nothing else in common. This kotowaza refers to things that, while they may have some superficial similarity, are in effect so different as to make any attempt at comparison meaningless.

Breakdown:

Two nouns and a particle! (tsuki) is “moon” or “month”; (suppon) is the Chinese (or Asiatic) softshell turtle, a freshwater snapping turtle native to east Asia. The particle (to, pronounced like “toe”) here is a closed “and.” That’s all there is to it.

Notes:

Apparently a native English equivalent would be “like chalk and cheese.” Other Japanese phrases of similar meaning include 雲泥の差 (un-dei no sa), “as different as clouds and mud,” and the more closely-related 提灯に釣鐘 (chouchin ni tsurigane), “paper lanterns and hanging bells,” which also lists two things that may appear similar at first glance but are really very different.

Example sentence:

「さすが先輩、上手ですね。プロみたい!」 「いやいや、俺とプロを比べたら、月とすっぽんだよ」

(“Sasuga sempai, jouzu desu ne. Puro mitai!” “Iya iya, ore to puro wo kurabetara, tsuki no suppon da yo.”)

[“Wow, you’re really good. You’re like a pro!” “No, no, comparing me to a pro is like comparing a turtle to the moon.”]

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Our greatest foe

A more pithy relative of the most recent kotowaza:

油断大敵
yu.dan.tai.teki

Literally: oil/fat – sever/refuse/decide – big – enemy

Alternately: Your greatest enemy is your own unpreparedness. Feeling secure and letting your guard down is what makes you insecure.

Notes: This yojijukugo is brought to my mind repeatedly by incidents that occur while we’re changing our baby’s diaper. Pro tip: even if a baby just peed, there’s no rule that says they won’t pee again!

油断 (yudan) is an interesting word. Although a kanji compound, it is apparently only used in Japan. The combination of “oil” and “cut” doesn’t intuitively lead to “unpreparedness” or “inattention.” There seem to be multiple etymologies floating around online. One of the more picturesque ones is the (super apocryphal) story of a king who commanded one of his retainers to carry a bowl of oil, with the admonition that if he spilled even a single drop it would cost him his life. Another possible source is the story of a temple that was maintaining a continually-lit flame; negligence in that case would literally be allowing the oil to run out.

Samurai in a fix

From this website, apparently part of a series of posts comparing the illustrations from various yojijukugo karuta card sets.

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