Literally: surface – back – one – body

Alternately: Two things (especially things seen as being in opposition to each other) are inextricably linked, parts of the same whole, opposite faces of the same coin.


For you SF fans out there!

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But what comes from a lyre?

In Rome, a big fire?

(Usotsuki wa dorobou no hajimari; “A liar is the beginning of a thief”)


Someone who becomes capable of lying glibly will also be able to calmly steal or rob. Lies are the first step on a path to more serious wrongdoing. Becoming accustomed to lying also prepares you psychologically for other bad deeds or crimes.


We begin with the noun 嘘 (uso), “falsehood,” to which is appended the verb つく (tsuku), “to tell (a lie),” appearing in conjunctive form and functioning as a noun: an usotsuki is a liar, and the liar is marked as the topic being discussed with the particle は (wa). The comment is 始まる (hajimaru), “to begin,” also acting as a noun in conjunctive form. The particle の (no) associates this “beginning” with the noun 泥棒 (dorobou), “thief,” “robber.”


Note that this saying technically doesn’t apply to social “white lies,” childish fibbing, or even people who lie but feel nervous about it: it focuses on the presumably crime-prone sociopathy that allows someone to lie fluently and without remorse. That said, it’s still commonly used as an admonition against all sorts of lying.

The tsuki may also be written with kanji as 吐き, although this is rare.

Example sentence:


(Usotsuki wa dorobou no hajimari to kodomo ni imashimete gofun mo tatanai uchi ni, tonari no okusan ni tsumi no nai uso da to wa ie, uso wo tsuita jibun wa dou ka na. Ahaha.”)

[“I warned my kids that lying is the first step toward stealing, and then before five minutes had passed I lied to the lady next door. Even if it just a little white lie, what does that say about me? A ha ha.”]

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But are we getting a Tucker, a Church, or a Caboose?


Literally: wake up – death – revolve – life

Alternately: Coming back from the brink. Recovering from a seemingly-hopeless situation. A sudden turnaround. A Blue Team win deep in Red Team territory.

Notes: Apparently this phrase comes to us from the Taiping Guangji (太平広記, in Japanese Taihei kouki), a story collection from the early Song dynasty, where it was originally used to describe a doctor so skilled that they could bring the dead back to life.

回 may be replaced by 廻 without any change in pronunciation or meaning; the halves of the compound may also be reversed to produce 回生起死.

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Cheap is dear, but deer don’t cheep

For those counting, this is the 200th kotowaza! To celebrate, we’re… doing nothing special!

(Yasumonogai no zeniushinai; “Losing money by buying cheap”)


Especially cheap things tend to be poorly made; they fail to perform their functions properly, or wear out, or break down, and you end up losing money because they soon need to be replaced. The saying ignores factors that encourage price inflation like brand name recognition, monopolies, fads, and so on, but it still generally holds true that if you’re going to spend money on something, and you have room in your budget, it can be worthwhile to pay a little extra for quality and durability.


We “begin” three characters in with the verb 買う (kau), “to buy,” in conjunctive form, functioning as a noun. It’s prefixed by the noun 物 (mono), “thing,” causing the first consonant of 買い to become voiced, and this compound noun is further modified by prefixing the adjective 安い (yasui), “easy” or “cheap,” with the ending removed so that it too functions as a noun. Associative particle の (no) associates the result with another compound noun formed from the verb 失う (ushinau), “to lose,” also nominalized with the conjunctive form, and the noun 銭 (zeni), “money.”


銭 originally referred to a unit of mass, and later became a unit of currency equal to a hundredth of a yen, but like the more common 金 can also be a generic term for “money.”

This is the や entry of the Edo iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:

「もう、削っても削ってもこの鉛筆の芯はすぐ折れちゃうから使えない!十円だけだったけど、結局十円無駄にしちゃったぁ」 「だから、母さんいつも安物買いの銭失いに気をつけなさいって言ってるでしょ」

(“Mou, kezutte mo kezutte mo kono enpitsu no shin wa sugu orechau kara tsukaenai! Juuen dake datta kedo, kekkyoku juuen muda ni shichattaa.” “Dakara, kaasan itsumo yasumonogai no zeniushinai ni ki wo tsukenasai tte itteru desho.”)

[“Ugh, no matter how much I sharpen this pencil, the lead breaks right away. Useless! It was only ten yen, but it was ten yen wasted.” “And that’s why I’m always telling you to not waste money buying cheap.”]

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Think well, go Dan


Literally: ripen – thought – sever – go

Alternately: Thinking over a matter fully and carefully, and then taking decisive action. Instead of jumping the gun with rash action or dithering in eternal indecision, taking the best of both worlds. Something a chief executive is supposed to be capable of.

Notes: This compound is related to 思慮分別, with increased emphasis on the decisive follow-through that follows the deep and thorough thought.

JukuRyoTokugawa.JPGTokugawa Ieyasu, by Kanō Tan’yū [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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If I have seen further it is because a dwarf was standing on my shoulders

Like so.

(Outa ko ni oshierarete asase wo wataru;
“Crossing shallows with guidance from the child you carry”)


Sometimes there are things you can learn from people who are younger and less experienced. “Out of the mouths of babes.” The image is of a small child who can’t ford a river on their own and must be carried on one’s back. Somewhat ironically, this need for aid places them in a better position than the adult to see the river-bed and tell the person carrying them where it’s safe to step.


We begin with the verb 負う (ou), “to carry (on one’s back),” in past tense, affixed to and modifying the noun 子 (ko), “child.” The directional particle に (ni) marks the child as the source of the verb 教える (oshieru), to teach, here in passive form with a conjunctive ending, making all of the above a single verb phrase that pairs with the following verb phrase: the noun 浅瀬 (asase), “ford,” “shallows,” marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of the verb 渡る (wataru), “to cross (over),” in sentence-final form.


Some uses shorten this phrase by ending with 教えられる – trading in the conjunctive ending for a normal sentence-final form.

The normal modern past tense of 負う would be 負った (otta). I can’t make heads or tails of why this case is different, although it may have something to do with the classical prenominal form of the verb.

This is the お entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:


(Outa ko ni oshierarete asase wo wataru to iu koto mo aru de, Morita-san wa kouhai-tachi no iken wo shikkari kiku shuukan wo tsukeru you ni doryoku shita.”)

[“There are things you can learn from people younger than yourself, so Morita worked to develop a habit of always asking the opinions of the underclassmen ”]

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The most erudite possible yarble garble harble garble


Literally: rare – astray – Han China – astray

Alternately: Dense jargon. Gibberish. Nonsense. Incomprehensible, unintelligible, incoherent.

Notes: This phrase will usually be written in phonetic kana characters rather than kanji. Even when they are used, the kanji are ateji; that is, they were assigned to the phrase some time after its invention due to their pronunciation rather than their meaning. As such, the pun parts can also be rendered as 糞, “excrement,” or the whole can become 陳奮翰奮, or perhaps other variations.

The phrase apparently comes from Edo-era mockery of the difficult-to-understand, Chinese-laced jargon of Japanese Confucian scholars, much in the way that modern readers might make fun of people who lose themselves in academese.


“I don’t get it.”

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