For the very rich and the very poor?

(Either you have a big enough house for it, or you don’t have the money for multiple residences, regardless.)


Literally: accumulate – generation – same – reside

Alternately: Multiple generations of a family living in the same house. In some cases, the phrase may be used to celebrate the good fortune of a household that has seen enough health and prosperity to allow this situation to come to pass.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds: 累世 refers to multiple (successive) generations; 同居 is “living together.”

The site I got this from has multiple version of the image with varying skin tones....

Not shown: the actual house

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Serendipitous learning… about farts!

This afternoon I unexpectedly learned something new about Japanese language and culture.

In my family we’ve been making a point of watching anime together as a family, for entertainment and for Japanese practice. This isn’t just passive consumption of media, either: we regularly stop what we’re watching to discuss the plot, characters, art, direction, voice actors, and other elements, or to have The Kid practice reading if some grade-level-appropriate text has popped up on screen.

Yesterday we were watching a children’s show called Folktales from Japan (Japanese 『ふるさと再生・日本の昔ばなし』 = Furusato saisei Nihon no mukashibanashi). Each episode of the series tends to present three stories, each story animated in a different (usually very simple) style. The middle story was 「金のなる木」 (“Kane no naru ki”), “The Tree that Grows Gold.” The story goes that

…Once there was a lord was holding a dinner with his vassals when his very pregnant wife accidentally let slip a fart. (The show goes out of its way to blame this on the baby moving rather than any actual indiscretion on the woman’s part.) The lord is so humiliated that he throws her out of his household, and she flees to a remote village to raise their son on her own.

The kid is inquisitive and clever, though. When he’s nine years old, he learns this history and goes to confront his father – not directly, though. Instead he offers to sell him a “tree that grows gold”; the only catch is that it needs to be raised by a “woman who doesn’t fart.”

The lord laughs and insists that everyone, absolutely everyone farts sometimes. This is where the boy reveals that his mother was thrown out for farting, the lord (finally!) realizes the error of his ways, and the family is somehow happily reunited despite how trivial and cruel the circumstances of its initial dissolution were.

It all feels very silly. Except…

Another part of The Kid’s language study is that he’s doing some Japanese writing practice every day. He’s more or less mastered close to four hundred characters, including the first- and second-grade 教育漢字 (kyouiku kanji, the characters that the Japanese Ministry of Education has mandated to be taught in elementary schools) and a smattering of characters from higher grade levels. I’m actually keeping a spreadsheet of everything he’s officially learned as part of this practice, including a note of the date of the most recent usage, so that we can ensure repeated practice without too much time allowing any characters to fall by the wayside.

One of the characters that has dropped to the bottom of the list (and thus become a high priority for review) is 科, so I opened an online dictionary and started looking for good words using this character that might be incorporated into The Kid’s practice sentence. But what I discovered is that 科 can also be pronounced toga, in which case it takes on the meaning of “error,” “offense,” “sin,” “crime.” So a 科人 is a toganin (although this can also be written as 咎人); a “criminal.”

And a 科負い比丘尼 (toga-oi bikuni) is, essentially, a whipping-girl: a servant whose job description includes taking the blame for her mistress’ offenses. The title literally means “sin-bearing nun,” as in “bearing” a burden on your back, although note that the “nun” part is probably not literal – 比丘尼 came to be applied to a variety of female jobs, from entertainers who dressed as nuns, to prostitutes, to servants. Anyway, an alternate term for the 科負い比丘尼 is the much more direct 負い比丘尼 (he-oi bikuni), the “fart-bearing ‘nun.'”

So perhaps the folktale, despite how stupid and petty it may seem to a modern viewer, isn’t quite so distant from reality as we might have liked. And perhaps the lady’s actual “sin,” in practical terms, wasn’t that she dared be human enough to allow a fart to escape, but rather that she had failed to bring along a random servant who could be blamed (and punished!) in case of gas. The horror, the horror.

Just to show that everything is connected, keep in mind that modern Japanese toilets may have a built-in function that allows them to play music in order to cover up the sound of any bodily functions that may be going on, and that Japanese society perceives this function as being for the benefit of female users. It’s one of those little bits of “quirky Japan” trivia that a lot of people may have heard of… it’s just a surprise to discover how deep the roots of this “quirk” may actually go.

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There is no rose without its thorns

…and no thorn without its roses?

(Raku areba ku ari, ku areba raku ari;
“When there is ease there is hardship; when there is hardship, there is ease”)


Where there is pleasure, there will also come suffering or toil; where there is suffering or toil, there will also come pleasure. Life is not just unending good or unending bad times, but rather a mixture. All things come to an end; “this too shall pass.”

This appears to be the primary meaning. But the saying can also be read as a warning that taking things easy can cause problems later on while hard work can pay off with greater ease and comfort down the road, and thus as an admonition to get things done quickly rather than putting them off or focusing on short-term pleasures.


We begin with the noun 楽 (raku), “pleasure,” “comfort,” “ease.” Any particles are elided, but it is clearly the subject of the copular verb あり (ari), in perfective form as あれ (are) and taking the conditional suffix ば (ba), “when.” This dependent clause is followed by an independent clause comprising the noun 苦 (ku), “pain,” “distress,” “hardship” acting as a particle-elided subject and taking as its predicate the verb あり in conclusive form.

This is followed by a reversal using the exact same pattern, but with the nouns switching places for which is the condition, and which the result.


This phrase may often be shortened to only its first half – this is the form it takes in the Edo iroha karuta set, for example. Be careful, though; apparently some people replace the first of the pair of ありs with する (suru), “to do,” which make the preceding noun into a verb, but this is considered an error.

This saying’s first meaning is considered synonymous with 禍福は糾える縄の如し, and its second, with 楽は苦の種苦は楽の種, which may actually have been derived from this one.

Example sentence:


(“Okane no yoyuu ga aru teido dekitemo, raku areba ku ari to iu kara, yappari shibaraku wa shisso ken’yaku na seikatsu wo ganbatte tsudzukete okitai to omou.”)

[“Even with a bit of leeway financially, they do say that all good things must end, so I really think that I’d like to do my best to go on living frugally for a while.”]


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A root of the problem


Literally: steal – person – root – nature (as in the innate essence of a thing, not “Mother Nature”)

Alternately: A thief’s personality. Someone’s character being cruel, devious, greedy, and generally underhanded.

Notes: 盗人 may also be read as nusutto.


The pursed lips; the utterly banal and selfish chutzpah.

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And still the generations of the birds sing through our sighing

(Elizabeth Barret Browning, “Patience Taught by Nature”)

(Naku made matou hototogisu;
“We shall wait until it sings – The lovely cuckoo”)


An expression of patience, of waiting for something good to happen or a good opportunity to arise. If the bird you want to hear isn’t singing, just wait until it does. Bide your time, then strike when the iron is hot.


We begin with the verb 鳴く (naku), a verb used for various (usually animal) calls and cries, in prenominal form, marked as the end-point of a span of time by particle まで (made), “until.” Next we have the verb 待つ (matsu), “to wait,” in volitional form as 待とう (matou), and finally the un-beparticled, somewhat disconnected noun 時鳥 (hototogisu), the “lesser cuckoo.”


Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that this phrase can be divided up into seven and five syllables, and it is in fact the latter two lines of a haiku-style poem.

The story is that several major leaders at the end of the sengoku period composed different endings to a poetic prompt that went 鳴かぬなら (nakanu nara), “If it doesn’t sing….” While the story appears to be apocryphal, each attribution reveals each would-be shogun’s personality: Oda Nobunaga’s poem killed the cuckoo; Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forced it to sing; but Tokugawa Ieyasu’s poem advised simply waiting, thus demonstrating his calculated patience and explaining his eventual victory.

Example sentence:


(“Iranai kagu wo hayaku utte shimaitai kedo, yappari shinnendo de gakusei ga suumannin hikkoshite kuru toki ga ichiban moukeraresou. Naku made matou hototogisu tte iu shi, mou chotto matte miru yo.”)

[“I want to sell off the unneeded furniture, but it seems like the best time to turn a profit is at the start of a new school year, when tens of thousands of students come to town. I’m going to try waiting a little longer for the bird to sing, so to speak.”]

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Fences within fences

I heard you like chumrot so I put a chumra in your chumra.

(Nen ni wa nen wo ireyo;
“Put thought into thought”)


An exhortation to be extra meticulous or cautious in a given task or situation. Make absolutely certain that you’re doing things right. Everybody makes mistakes, so take measures to guard against them no matter how careful you think you’re being. “Measure twice, cut once.”


We begin with the noun 念 (nen), a complex and hard-to-translate word that we’ll translate here as “thought,” marked as the target of some motion by the directional particle に (ni). This particle is coupled with the topic-marker particle は (wa), making “[in]to [one’s] thought[s]” the topic of discussion. The comment on this topic begins with a second 念, marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 入れる (ireru), “to put something into something,” which appears in imperative form.


Rendering the final verb in conclusive form (入れる, ireru) is considered an error.

Japanese products tend to have a reputation for high-quality craftsmanship. Setting aside the question of how much this is based on measurable qualities versus stereotypes, we see this reflected in a myriad of phrases that can be considered synonymous with this one, including 浅い川も深く渡れ, 石橋を叩いて渡る, and 濡れぬ先の傘.

This saying is attributed to our friend the Huainanzi (Japanese 『淮南子』 =  Enanji). It is the ね (ne) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:


(“Kagi, kaketa yo ne. Kaketa hazu da yo ne! Maikai chanto kaketeru mono, kyou dake ga chigattara okashii yo ne.”
Nen ni wa nen wo ireyo, da yo. Zutto nayamu yori, ima sugu kakunin sureba ii jan.”

[“I locked the door, right? I must have. I always lock it properly; it would be weird if today were different.”
Better safe than sorry; I’d rather you go check now than worrying about it the whole time.”]

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Teeing up some self-improvement

(Tsume no aka wo senjite nomu;
“to boil and drink fingernail-dirt”)


To follow a good example that someone has set. To learn from someone who excels, by doing whatever it takes to get any positive effect at all. Often referenced as something that you want to make someone do so that they could be more like someone else, whom you view as a role-model.


We begin three characters in, with the noun 垢 (aka), “dirt.” The associative particle の (no) connects this to, and allows it to be modified by, the noun 爪 (tsume), “[finger]nail.” The resulting noun phrase is marked as the direct object of a verb by the particle を (wo), and the verb performed on it is a compound comprising 煎じる (senjiru), “to boil,” “to infuse,” in conjunctive form and the verb 飲む (nomu), “to drink,” in conclusive form.


This is not something people actually did or do; rather, it’s playing off of a sort of homeopathic version of sympathetic magic, akin to the idea that someone’s greatness might “rub off” on you simply from shaking hands, except turned into an infusion like a perverse herbal tea.

Note that the phrase 爪の垢ほど (tsume no aka hodo, “as much as the dirt under one’s nails”) is an idiom referring to a very small, even trivial, amount of something. This kotowaza borrows that sense, as well as using the literal image of fingernail crud as a thing you could infuse into a medicinal drink. The use of something so minuscule and dirty is for emphasis: you want the person to get even a tiny bit better than they are.

Attempting to contract the phrase as 爪の垢を飲む (getting rid of the boiling step) or 爪を煎じて飲む (using the nail directly instead of the dirt under it) is considered an error.

Example sentence:


(“Kono gakusei wa kanpeki na kaitou no shukudai wo kanarazu jikan doori ni teishutsu suru kara, sono tsume no aka wo senjite minna ni nomasete mitai na.”)

[“This student turns in perfect homework, precisely on time, without fail. I wish I could make all of them even just a fraction more like that.”]

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They do toil, and they do spin

Humans aren’t plants, it turns out; we just raise ‘em.


Literally: grain* / drop – grain* / drop – spicy / unpleasant – bitter / suffer

Alternately: Hard, steady work. To carry on with plain, painstaking, long-term labor. Elbows greased and noses to the grindstone. The image is of the farmers’ work that goes into producing each individual grain of rice that goes on to become someone’s food.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from the poetry of Tang-era politician-poet Li Shen (Japanese 李紳, Ri Shin). It is apparently a contraction (a yojijukugoification?) of the poetic line 粒粒辛苦. (The 皆 is probably pronounced mina in Japanese in this case.)

As usual, the doubled character 粒粒 may be replaced with the doubling mark, 粒々.

* In this case, “grain” refers to “a small piece of something,” e.g. a grain of sand or grain of rice, rather than cereals or legumes.

You worked hard for that rice; why not drink it?

I’m starting to sense a pattern. If you’re at a loss for a name for your sake company, just use a 四字熟語.

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The sleeve’s edge; another life

(Sode suriau mo tashou no en;
“Even a brushing of the sleeves is a connection from a past life.”)


Every relationship you have in your entire life – including not just the big important ones, but the people you merely brush past anonymously on the street – carries the karmic weight of some connection from another life, (in the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation). Every person you encounter was destined to meet you based on a past life. There are no coincidences; only fate.

This isn’t just a random bit of Buddhist doctrine, though! The implication is that even the most trivial chance meeting should be treated as important, even precious. This is not just in consideration of whatever connection past-you and past-them may have had (although this aspect seems to be emphasized in most usage), but because the actions you take in this life will have karmic repercussions in future lives as well.


We begin with the noun 袖 (sode), “sleeve.” With any particles elided, next comes a verb phrase comprising the verb 擦る (suru), “to rub,” “to scrape [against something],” in conjunctive form, and the verb 合う (au), “to meet,” or less plainly but more on-point, “[two or more things mutually do an action to each other].” This is followed by an implied nominalizer, and the resulting phantom noun phrase is marked by the emphatic particle も (mo), “even.”

This も may be seen as overriding and hiding the topic-marker は (wa); the comment on this topic is the noun phrase that begins with the compound noun 他生 (tashou), “other life,” attached by the associative particle の (no), in its possessive function, to the noun 縁 (en). As we’ve discussed previously, the word can have any of a variety of meanings, but here it refers to a karmic or fated relationship. We may imagine an elided copula at the end.


This one has a lot of variations! First, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the saying itself is presented using すり, while my breakdown specifies the kanji as 擦り. Both options are valid! The kana version seems to be standard, which is why I used it at the top, but in the breakdown I wanted to stress that it’s different from the verb する that means “to do.”

Other variants replace すり entirely with 振り (furi); while 振る on its own means “to swing,” 振り合う refers to two things touching each other; this is almost certainly using the image of the sleeve (a thing that swings as your arm moves) to play on homophone 触り合う, since 触る actually does mean “to touch” – although note that in modern Japanese the fu reading tends to take the form 触れる (fureru), while 触る is commonly read as sawaru. In that vein, it is also acceptable (albeit apparently rare) to replace すり or 振り with 触 (fure), with identical grammar and meaning.

Versions that replace すり with 振り usually also replace 他生 with homophone 多生 (“many lives”). Note, however, that using 多少 (also tashou, but meaning “to some degree,” “a little”) is an error.

A number of synonymous phrases find similar karmic echoes in various phenomena, from the flowing water of a river to a stone that you’ve tripped over. Also, compare and contrast the four-character compound 一期一会.

The attributions on this kotowaza are conflicting; it is attributed in my sources to both a book-bound text called 『蛤の草紙』 (Hamaguri no soushi), and to a late Edo-era Kabuki play titled 『名歌徳三舛玉垣』 (Meika no toku mimasu no tamagaki).

The すり version of this phrase is the so entry for both the Kyoto and the Osaka iroha karuta sets.

Example sentence:


(Sode suriau mo tashou no en to iu you ni, kyou toshokan de tamatama shiriatta atarashii tomodachi mo taisetsu ni shitai.”)

[“They say that even a brief touch in passing is the touch of fate, so I want to value the new friend I made by chance at the library today.”]

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Leaving the ivory tower

What is the tower of practical applications made out of? Tungsten?


Literally: know – act – join – one

Alternately: One’s knowledge and deeds are in accordance. One’s actions must be guided by one’s knowledge, and knowledge only has meaning if it is demonstrated through action.

Notes: Reading 行 as gyou is considered an error in this compound, but 合一  may be replaced with 一致 (icchi, “union,” “agreement”) without any change in meaning.

This phrase comes to us from the work of Confucian thinker Wang Yangming in a text called the Zhuanxilu (Japanese 『伝習録』 = Denshuuroku).

Isn't this just the end of the Ghostbusters movie?

This is a thing that happened.

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