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).
(“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.’”]