The impossible wisdom

…of, you know, not deliberately endangering people.


Literally: bright – clear / philosophy – preserve – person

Alternately: The wise and rational person avoids danger and thus remains safe. Alternately (through a common misinterpretation of 保身), this phrase may sometimes be used to describe someone who lives according to the dictates of prioritizing their own safety or status over all else.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from our friend, the Classic of Poetry (Japanese 『詩経』 = Shikyou).

A synonymous phrase uses 防 (bou, “defend,” “ward off”) instead of 保. It may also be given the Japanese-style reading 明哲身を保つ (meitetsu mi wo tamotsu).

Japanese bike cop with virus mask

Japan, where the police actually see protecting-and-serving civilians as their job

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Riker, to Picard

He was always calling him “number one” even though the captain is the actual #1 officer in a ship. So….


Literally: only – one – not – two

Alternately: Unique. “The one and only.” There’s nothing else like it in the world; often with the implication that the thing being described is irreplaceable and precious.

Notes: This self-explanatory phrase is technically a compound of synonymous terms, added together for emphasis. It has relatively many yojijukugo synonyms, including the I’ll-do-you-one-better 無二無三 (muni musan or muni muzan), “not two and not three,” and 唯一不二 (yuiitsu fuji; be careful!).

One thing to watch out for: while 空前絶後 and 史上空前 also refer to uniqueness, they focus on the singular nature of something compared to the historical sweep of time, while today’s phrase focuses on something’s value due to its singular nature “in the world.”

It drives me up the wall how some of the stamps aren't properly mirror-imaged

There’s apparently a company (site) that crafts personalized name stamps.

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Somebody remind the CEOs

Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
A plutocrat: “… I went to space. Best day ever!”

(Isshoukou narite bankotsu karu;
“A general achieves glory; ten thousand bones dry out”)


For each person of notable fame and success, there are countless more people in the background whose hard work made that fame and success possible. A general who achieves glory, or an honored hero, leaves behind innumerable corpses. Nobody achieves greatness on their own… and all too often the common folk who built that “great” reputation are repaid with suffering and loss.


Today’s saying begins compound noun 一将 (isshou); this looks at first blush like a number-noun, but in practical terms it refers to a military rank: essentially, “general.” (Note that it is not used in the modern Japanese military; see below.) This noun is essentially the topic, but observant students will notice that all particles are elided.

Anyway, the comment on this topic begins with the noun 功 (kou), “success,” “achievement,” “glory,” followed by the verb 成る (naru), “to become,” “to achieve a rank,” etc. It appears in conjunctive form as 成り (nari) with assertive suffix つ (tsu), itself in conjunctive form so that it can lead us into the following verb phrase.

This verb phrase consists of number-noun 万骨 (bankotsu), “ten thousand bones” (or by metaphorical extension, a large number of human lives ended) as its subject and the verb 枯る (karu), “to dry up,” “to whither,” “to die,” in conclusive form. (In modern Japanese this takes the form 枯れる kareru and is most often applied to plants.)


As you may expect after the classical grammar and paucity of particles, this one comes to us from Chinese antiquity; it is the famous, final line of a poem by late Tang-era poet Ts’ao Sung (曹松, Japanese Sou Shou) about Huang Chao (黄巣, Japanese Kou Sou), who led an ultimately ill-fated rebellion and military campaign.

At least within the sphere of human relations, this saying is considered synonymous with 小の虫を殺して大の虫を助ける (and presumably related permutations).

Example sentence:


(“Rekishijou no ijintachi no hotondo wa, ikusa no seikou de meisei wo eta nda yo. Isshou kou narite bankotsu karu to iu kara, saikin wa ijin no hanashi wo kiku to hen na kanji ga shite shimau.”)

[“Almost all of the ‘great people’ of history won their fame through success in war. But because the general’s success is built on the corpses of his soldiers, it’s started feeling weird for me recently when I hear about these ‘great people.’”]

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For acting poetry


Literally: wake up – receive – revolve – bind

Alternately: The four phases of a text, according to traditional analysis: “introduction, development, turn, and conclusion.” In other words, the setup, development, climax (or major change, twist, etc.), and resolution of a narrative or rhetorical arc. By extension, the concept of story structure and composition.

Notes: Apparently the concept originates with classical Chinese poetry – specifically a four-line form called the jueju (絶句, Japanese zekku) – and has influenced literature across East Asia ever since. Note that many short Japanese comics appear in four-panel format, in contrast with the three panels common in many American newspaper comic strips.

Sometimes one of the characters may be used on its own and suffixed with 句 (ku) to denote the individual phrase (or phase) in question. A synonymous phrase replaces 結 with 合, gou, “join.”

Compare and contrast the tripartite structure of 序破急 (jo ha kyuu), “beginning/order, break, and quick (conclusion).”


A kanbun-style rendering of a Chinese poem

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You kiss your mother with that mouth?

“No, but I do eat reptiles.”

(Ano koe de tokage kurau ka hototogisu;
“With such a sweet voice, do you devour lizards, o lesser cuckoo?”)


You can’t judge a book by its cover. People and things often have aspects that are not immediately apparent from how they look or are usually seen to act. If the only thing you know about the lesser cuckoo is its much-celebrated song, you may be startled by its predatory diet. This phrase may accordingly feel most appropriate when a benign or pleasing surface appearance hides something more disturbing, but in usage it seems to just as easily apply when something is more pleasant than expected.


The final term of this phrase is the noun 時鳥 (hototogisu), the “lesser cuckoo,” here apparently directly addressed by the speaker. The phrase said to the cuckoo begins with determiner あの (ano), “that,” prefixing the noun 声 (koe), “voice.” This is marked by the particle で (de) technically as the means by which an action is performed, although here technically it marks a quality of the cuckoo that is contrasted with the following action. The cuckoo’s action is the verb 食らう (kurau), “to eat,” sometimes with violent connotations (note that an attack or other unpleasant situation is also something you can 食らう; it’s not always the “eater” doing violence to some other recipient). The object of the verb, unmarked by any particle, is the noun 蜥蜴 (tokage), “lizard,” perhaps especially the Japanese skink. Finally, the space between the phrase and the address is filled by the interrogative particle か (ka).


Careful readers (or really, anybody who’s studied enough Japanese for the final hototogisu to ring a bell) may notice that this is a 5-7-5 beat poetic phrase, i.e. a haiku. It was supposedly an actual response by Edo-era poet 宝井其角 (Takarai Kikaku) to seeing a cuckoo eat.

A similar phrase calls out the carnivory of a pheasant eating a snake: 蛇食ふと聞けばおそろし雉子の声 (hebi kuu to kikeba osoroshi kiji no koe)

In modern orthography, animal types are often expressed in katakana (e.g. tokage would be トカゲ), and hototogisu may be written with various kanji combinations, often 杜鵑, but for purposes of this phrase 蜥蜴 and 時鳥 are considered correct.

Example sentence:


(“Ano ojisan, kaotsuki wa kibishishou da kedo, hanashite mireba youki de yasashii hito da. Masa ni ano koe de tokage kurau ka hototogisu da.”)

[“That guy looks really strict, but if you try talking to him it turns out he’s cheerful and very nice. Very much a case of how appearances can be deceiving.”]

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Make like a tree and endure

Of course, the way things are going, extreme-heat resistance is probably going to be more valuable than cold resistance.


Literally: year-end – cold – pine tree – cypress tree

Alternately: Seeing one’s convictions through even when times are bad. Perseverance in adversity.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 歳寒 refers to winter (and by extension, harsh or difficult conditions), while 松 and 柏 refer to evergreen trees – that maintain their color and cover even when other trees have dropped their leaves for the winter. Note that in Japanese 柏 often refers to the “Japanese emperor oak,” but context makes it clear here that the character is referring to an evergreen, the “Chinese arborvitae.” Incidentally, the compound 松柏 seems to be commonly associated with bonsai in modern Japanese.

This phrase comes to us from our old friend, the Analects of Confucius (Japanese 『論語』 = Rongo). In some cases the reading of two halves of the phrase may be separated with a no (as in associative particle の), but has no effect on how the four-character compound is written.

A similar compound is 雪中松柏 (secchuu shouhaku), “pine and cypress amidst the snow,” although this refers more precisely to someone who holds fast to their convictions instead of changing according to what is popular or convenient at the time. See also 志操堅固.

Not that many bonsai are forced to endure harsh winters

Small but tough.

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Verweilst du in der Welt, sie flieht als Traum


(Kyou no yume Osaka no yume;
“Capital dreams; Osaka dreams”)


Dreams are mysterious and one can’t expect them to make any sense. Alternately, dreams are where one’s desires are most easily manifested; or by extension, a statement that different people wish for different things, that human desires come in infinite variety. Apparently it was also repeated as a sort of good-luck charm before talking about one’s dreams.


This is a pair of simple noun phrases, each consisting of a city name joined to the noun 夢 (yume), “dream,” by the associative particle の (no). 大阪 (oosaka), literally “big slope,” is of course Osaka, while 京 refers more generally to the imperial seat – although by the time this phrase was coined, this had long ago settled permanently in the aptly named 京都 (kyouto), “capital metropolis” Kyoto.


Perhaps ironically, this is the 京 (kyou, “capital”) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set – a sort of “plus-alpha” entry appended to the Edo and Kyoto karuta sets, but which is absent in the Osaka set. the phrase’s origins are unclear, but it is attested in the proverb dictionary 『諺苑』 (Gen’en) and a dictionary of slang, dialect, and idiom called the 『俚諺集覧』 (Rigen shuuran), although the latter seems to have used the former as a reference.

Incidentally, the stereotypical “Kyoto dream” is of rising to a high government rank and social status, while the stereotypical “Osaka dream” is to become a wealthy businessman. Compare and contrast 京の着倒れ大阪の食い倒れ, which uses a similar contrast for very different ends.

Example sentence:

「家の兄弟は、京の夢大阪の夢で、保育園の先生やら映画の批判者やら、将来の夢が全員見事に違ってんだ」 「ふむ。それなのに、大人になって四人とも路面電車の運転手になったとは、実に面白い」

(“Uchi no kyoudai wa, kyou no yume Oosaka no yume de, hoikuen no sensei yara eiga no hihansha yara, shourai no yume ga zen’in migoto ni chigatten da.”  “Fumu. Sore na no ni, otona ni natte yonin to mo romen densha no untenshu ni natta to wa, jitsu ni omoshiroi.”)

[“Everyone has their own unique dreams, and whether it be preschool teacher or movie critic, my siblings and I all had remarkably different dreams for our futures.”
“Hmh. Then it’s really interesting  how, despite that, as adults you’ve all become tram conductors.”]

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Wouldn’t it be nice



Literally: peace – calm / quiet – no – thing

Alternately: Peace and quiet; safety and calm. Uneventful, in a good way. This phrase evokes the pleasant side of mundane day-to-day life, on both the personal and the societal levels.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 安穏 is “peace,” “tranquility,” while 無事 is literally “uneventful,” by extension “peace,” “safety.” There is a wide variety of synonymous phrases, many of which incorporate 無事, such as 無事安穏 (this compound but with its halves reversed) or 穏無事 (heion buji).

Note that the onyomi for 穏 is normally on and in 安穏 it can be read that way (i.e. an’on), but due to phonetic slurring annon has become standard.

Peace is for the birds?


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Squeezed by one’s vices

Crunch crunch crunch

(Sui ga mi wo kuu;
“Worldly pleasures devour the man”)


Too much pleasure will destroy you. A man, specifically, who spends all his time and money on dissolution with geisha (i.e. entertainers who provide music, song and dance, and conversation) and prostitutes will eventually come to ruin.


The governing verb of this complete sentence is 食う (kuu), “to eat,” in conclusive form. The direct object of this verb, marked by the particle を (wo), is the noun 身 (mi), often “body” but in this case referring to one’s person as a whole or one’s place in society. And finally the subject, marked by the particle が (ga), is the noun 粋 (sui). Fundamentally this character means “purity” or “essence,” but by extension came to refer to “the best (stuff),” “stylish,” and eventually “worldly,” as in the worldly pleasures of song, dance, rich food, alcohol, and women. In this case its meaning rests solidly in the final zone: 粋 here refers to the world of entertainers and prostitutes.


The す (su) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set is actually 粋身を食う (sui wa mi wo kuu), using a topic-marker particle rather than a subject-marker particle and technically making the following verb phrase into an independent clause commenting on the topic of 粋 rather than its predicate. In practical terms, though, there is no difference in meaning; apparently it just happens to be the case that the standard version has shifted to using が.

粋 on its own is often read as iki, but in this saying only sui is considered correct. Similarly, the character 酔 (“drunk”) also has sui as a reading and may seem appropriate, but is not considered a correct version of the saying. On the other hand, 粋 may be swapped out for 芸 (gei, “art,” “performance”; cf. geisha 芸者) in a variety of synonymous formations. Contrast antonym 芸は身を助く.

This phrase is attributed to a sharebon titled 『大通どらの巻』 (Daitsuu dora no maki).

Example sentence:


(“Sono touji no ruumumeeto wa akigakki no aida, maiban no you ni kurabu de nondari odottari shite, kekkyoku sui ga mi wo kutta you ni, totsuzen daigaku wo yamete jikka ni kaetta sou da.”)

[“My roommate at the time spent the fall semester drinking and dancing almost every night at the clubs. Apparently all this partying was their undoing, because it ended with them suddenly quitting school and moving back to their parent’s house, I hear.”]

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Iron heart, kidney stone

(Technically intestine, but, well.)


Literally: iron – heart – stone – gut

Alternately: Ironclad willpower; unshakeable determination; hardened resolve.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. Keep in mind that the guts are thought to contain one’s courage and resolve, at least in part; compare phrases like 肝が太い, 肝試し.

This is another invention of our friend Su Shi (蘇軾, Japanese So Shoku). It can be expressed in a bewildering variety of ways, though: the two material elements and the two bodily elements can apparently be switched around at will into almost any configuration as long as the ABAB pattern is preserved.


The creed of this… eight-month-old dude from a video game?

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