A kind of discrimination that’s totally okay

Encouraged, actually.


Literally: public – private – blend / confuse – equal

Alternately: Failing to properly differentiate between public and private business. Getting one’s private interests and personal affairs entangled in public policy-making. Using a public institution for private profit – in a word, corruption. (I’m sure you can think of a contemporary example!) Alternately, allowing one’s private life to interfere with school, work, or some other aspect of one’s place in society.


A relatively minor sin in this case, but poorly timed.

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All the king’s horses shouldn’t cry over spilled milk

(Fukusui bon ni kaerazu; “You can’t put spilled water back in the saucer”)


You can’t undo what’s been done. You can’t redo what’s been undone. You can’t uncrack an egg. As much as you may sometimes want to negate actions taken in the past or restore things that have been lost, doing so is often no more possible than retrieving water spilled onto the ground and putting it back in its former container. Due to its origin (see below), this phrase is especially appropriate when commenting on the impossibility of restoring human relationships that have ended.


Despite being shorter than some noun-phrase sayings we’ve covered, today’s kotowaza is a full sentence, if one presented with extreme pithiness. We begin with the subject 覆水 (fukusui), “spilled water,” a noun apparently used nowhere else in Japanese. The particle that would mark it in proper modern Japanese is elided, and next we find the noun 盆 (bon), in Japanese a tray for serving meals but in this case a term referring to classical Chinese drinking saucers. The particle に (ni) marks the tray as the target of a motion, in this case the verb 返る, “to put something back.” In turn, the verb appears in imperfective form so that we can append the negative suffix ず (zu), which appears in sentence-final form.


One of my sources asserts that replacing 返 with homophone 帰 is an error. And this makes sense, since the latter specifically denotes returning to one’s home. That said, you’re going to be seeing a lot of 帰 in the wild, if only because kaeru is no longer a common usage of the 返 character, allowing mis-writing or especially mis-typing to become an easy and common error.

I was surprised to learn that this saying also comes from classical China – from the Zhou dynasty, specifically. It’s said that in his youth, Lü Shang (also known to history as Jiang Ziya, among other names) didn’t work and instead sat and read books all day. This upset his wife, who left him. Later on he became powerful famous, working under the kings of Zhou and gaining a reputation as one of the greatest strategists in all of Chinese history. After his rise in society his ex came back and asked to become his wife again; in response he spilled a saucer of water on the ground and said that if she could put the water back in the saucer, he would accept her and they would re-marry. The story comes to us from a 1600-year-old text known as the Shi Yi Ji (拾遺記)。

Example sentence:


(“Donna ni ayamatte mo atomodori wa dekinai kara, kenka wo suru toki koso kotoba wo tsutsushimou. Fukusui bon ni kaerazu yo.”)

[“You can’t take things back no matter how much you apologize, so you’ve got to especially watch your words during fights. You can’t put back spilled water, after all.”]

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Toddler Cognitive Development: And then the questions began.

(Note: Because we’re working on raising the kid Japanese/English bilingual, pretty much all my conversations with him these days are about 99% in Japanese. I render everything below in English for simplicity’s sake.)

So the kid’s thing, recently, has been questions. We have yet to get to the big one (“Why?”), and he still seems to have a little trouble with the whole idea of what a question word actually does because sometimes I’ll ask him “what” or “which” of several options and he’ll answer “No!” (That could just be him being ornery, though.) But he has started asking questions.

One of them is about shapes. As in, he’ll see a truck and he’ll ask what shape it is. We quiz him a lot about things such as shapes, colors, and numbers, so maybe he just thinks that’s what you do for conversation. Or maybe he’s genuinely asking for information to help categorize the world. It may not help that sometimes I give simple 2D answers – e.g. the truck is a rectangle – and sometimes I give more complicated answers – e.g. the truck is “box-shaped.”

His absolute favorite question right now, though, is “What is [noun] doing?” We still see woodchucks on a near-daily basis, and we count them, but now he asks what each woodchuck was doing when we saw it. (The answer is usually “eating, probably.”) He’ll remember a spider that we saw and ask what it’s doing (“Hunting insects to eat, probably.”) He’ll note that his mother is somewhere else and ask what she’s doing. (“I don’t know. Reading, maybe.”)

It gets a bit weird sometimes. Remember that truck? He asks what it was doing. Fair enough; it was driving. It was carrying things somewhere. Next… remember how he asked about the truck’s shape and I told him it was a rectangle? He asks what the rectangle was doing. I’m at a bit of a loss… the rectangle was being a property of the truck? And puddles. What are puddles doing? Just sitting there, mostly. Existing.

It’s not that I can’t answer the question; it’s that I can’t answer it in a way that’s going to be even remotely comprehensible to a two-year-old. And I don’t want to delve too much into anthropomorphizing things by ascribing recognizable actions to inanimate objects or qualities that are not in fact “acting” in a way that English is really built to discuss.

Finally, he asks if people are happy. We’re working on labeling and discussing feelings so that he can understand when he (or someone else) is mad or sad and deal with it in a productive way. But one of the unintended consequences of this strategy is that multiple times a day he’ll try to confirm with me パパ嬉しい? (“Are you happy, Papa?”)

My base response is that I’m happy that he’s with me and doing okay. I’ll more enthusiastically tell him I’m happy when he’s done something especially good or well, like pee in the potty or clear his pencils up properly. I’ll also admit when I’m upset, especially if he’s done something bad like throwing stuff around. He’s pretty sensitive, though – a couple of times me saying I’m not happy has been met with actual tears. It’s possible that he fears some sort of punishment and is crying to avoid it, so that’s something we need to watch out for – people’s unhappiness should mostly be associated with offering comfort and searching for solutions, not the immediate overwhelming need to stave off some sort of backlash or harm from the upset person.

That said, overall he’s cheerful, he’s curious, he’s super into books, and if this level of sass and Drang is as bad as his “terrible twos” get then we’ll have been pretty lucky. The kid’s got an interesting summer coming up. He’ll turn three and we’ll be moving to another town, among other things. We’ll see how it goes.

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(It’s a French song; very appropriate.)


Literally: bystander – possibly / (young) – nothing – person

Alternately: Doing or saying whatever the hell you want without caring that you’re in public. Acting however you feel like without consideration for the thoughts or feelings of one’s fellow humans. Arrogance. A complete lack of regard or empathy for others. In a word, presidential, ha ha ha.

Notes: Writing boujaku as 暴若 (no actual meaning) is an error, as is reading 無人 as mujin. However, replacing 傍 with 旁 is an acceptable variation.

This compound comes to us from the Records of the Grand Historian, a Han Dynasty era historical text. In a chapter on the biographies of assassins, it discusses one Jing Ke – who would later try and fail to assassinate the king of Qin – and his tendency, when drinking, to sing loudly or break down in tears and otherwise make a nuisance of himself.


Perhaps justified iff (math) you have the godlike power to rewrite reality itself.

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Like falling off a bike, but very different

(Anzuru yori umu ga yasushi; “Birthing is easier than planning”)


The deed is often less terrible than anticipation-nerves would have it. Before starting a course of action people tend to worry about this and that, but find the actual experience smoother than they’d feared, or after finishing, find that the task was less fearsome than expected. Just Doing a thing is less harrowing than merely thinking about it. Disclaimer: May not always be applicable to actual childbirth.


We begin at the end with the adjective 易し, “easy,” in sentence-final form. Note that in modern orthography this would be pronounced yasashii, but that here it’s yasushi. The thing that is easy is marked by the particle が (ga), and that thing is 産む (umu), “give birth.” (Note that in modern Japanese the verb would be changed into a noun by adding の or こと, but here the same function is fulfilled by the attributive form of the verb.) The ease of giving birth is より (yori), “more than,” that of something else. And the something else is a noun-turned-verb-turned-noun: the add-on verb ずる appears here in attributive form, attached to the noun 案 (an), “plan.”


It’s acceptable to replace 易し with the more modern 易い (yasui) or to write 産む as homophone 生む without any change in meaning, but replacing the character 易 with 安 is considered an error. There are a number of synonymous phrases that use 案じる instead of 案ずる (the two are largely interchangeable), but all of them contain other changes beyond simply swapping out the verb-forming element.

Despite my “disclaimer,” it’s worth pointing out that one of my sources goes out of its way to mention that the saying actually can apply in metaphorical cases and not just in real childbirth, implying that there was at some point a widespread impression among Japanese people of looking back after giving birth and going, “Well, that went a lot more smoothly than I’d feared; I don’t know what we were all so worried about!” Go figure.

Example sentence:

案ずるより産むが易しよ、好きな人にデートしようって言ってみな」 「けど先輩、そんなのは、ナンパに過ぎないじゃないですか?」

(Anzuru yori umu ga yasushi yo, suki na hito ni deeto shiyou tte itte mi na.” “Kedo senpai, sonna no wa, nanpa ni suginai ja nai desu ka?”)

[“It’s easier done than said, just go up to whoever you like and be all, ‘Let’s go on a date!’” “But isn’t that just trying to pick up random women on the street?”]

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Spread your tiny wings

And fire the FBI director if the investigation scares you?


Literally: small – heart – wing – wing

Alternately: Timid; nervous; fearful.

Notes: As always the doubled character can be replaced by the doubling mark 々.

小心 refers to a tendency to watch out for even small things; or by extension, timidity. 翼翼 refers to the tendency of parent birds to cover their chicks with their wings in a protective manner, and by extension, to a surfeit of caution. It used to be a term of praise, suggesting politeness and circumspection.

This compound comes to us from the Classic of Poetry, a twenty-six-century old collection of Chinese poetry and one of the “Five Classics” of the Confucian canon.


In case you wanted a more accurate and more grotesque version of Operation….

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Magic Monday – Red Light

Dazayn Lock (Slow; Hold Person)

This complicated spell exerts the caster’s will through the Shadow to place a target into a dreamlike state; their minds are trapped as their bodies become sluggish or even immobile.

This spell has a base cost of two strain plus one for each round it is maintained, and requires a challenge roll against the target’s Psychic save. Each degree of success allows the caster to remove one of the target’s actions each round… but the degree of success or failure can be shifted by one step through extra effort, adding one to the per-round cost in strain. At the cost of reducing the caster’s challenge dice size by a step, the spell can be expanded to multiple targets, although the initial cost (and any strain spent on extra effort) are increased by one per additional target.

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