Bells with clappers and bells without

A grand excuse

(Sao no saki ni suzu;
“A bell on the end of a pole”)


Something especially noisy; a huge racket; by extension, when someone talks far too much. A pole is long and thin and often kind of whippy – think of a fishing pole – so putting a bell on the end of one would produce noise magnified along the pole’s length with every tiny motion.


This simple phrase begins by using the associative particle の (no) to link the noun 先 (saki), “tip,” with the noun 竿 (sao), “rod,” “pole.” The particle に (ni) marks the resulting noun phrase as the location of an action. In this case, the action itself is left as mere implication, while its object is included: the noun 鈴 (suzu), a small, often-round bell.


This is the さ (sa) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. A closely related noun phrase, with the に changed to an associative の (no), refers specifically to someone who talks way too much, or is all talk and no substance. A slightly more distant variant replaces the pole-end with a leaf of bamboo grass: 笹の葉 (sasa no ha).

Example sentence:


(Sao no saki no suzu tte koto da ne, tonari no yatsu wa ichinichi juu denwa yara nani yara de ooki koe de shabettette yamenai.”)

[“It’s like a bell that rings every time you move; that guy next door is talking all day long, on the phone or whatever, and just never shuts up.”]

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Greetings from a distant riverside

If only the poets of Chinese Antiquity had had video chat, right?


Literally: Wei river – tree – large river – cloud

Alternately: To miss, to think fondly of, or to worry about a friend who is far away. Truly a yojijukugo for our times.

Notes: This is another gift from our poetic friend Du Fu (Japanese 杜甫 = To Ho). The compound is contracted from the actual verse, which goes 渭北春天樹 / 江東日暮雲: the speaker is looking out on trees north of the Wei River, while his friend Li Bai (李白, Japanese Ri Haku) is (imagined as) watching the sunset clouds from east of the Yangtze River. Different elements of the same verse may be extracted to produce the synonymous compound 春樹暮雲 (shun ju bou un) or its flipped version 暮雲春樹 (bou un shun ju).

Alert readers may have noticed that we’ve come to ゐ (wi) in the iroha ordering, and I was relieved after significant searching to that 渭 used to have ヰ (wi) as its onyomi (Chinese-style reading) and is used as the first character of an appealing, not-too-desperately-obscure compound.

The problem is that it also turns out that the very first compound I used in this current series, 葦編三絶, also starts with a character that used to be read as ヰ. Which means that I owe you a post with a character read as い (i) even in the pre-reform orthography that used characters like ゐ (and) ゑ).

Is it a boys' love romance? Read to find out!

Why yes, there IS a pseudo-historical manga about it starring the poets as pretty boys.

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Suddenly, given the bird

Imagine if it did just literally “stand up,” though!

(Ashimoto kara tori ga tatsu;
“A bird takes flight at one’s feet”)


An expression of startlement. Something happens suddenly close at hand, or someone abruptly begins doing an activity, especially if they’re rushing it. Like when a human is passing by and a bird lies low, but if the human comes too close then the bird will take its chances by bursting out and flying off – which in turn startles the person with the beating of its wings.


We begin with compound noun 足下 (ashimoto), “underfoot” or “at one’s feet.” This is marked by the particle から (kara) as the start of some verb of motion. Next comes the particle が (ga) marking the noun 鳥 (tori), “bird,” as subject of the verb. And finally comes the verb itself, 立つ (tatsu), “to stand,” or in this case “to rise,” “to depart,” “to take flight” (as seen previously) in conclusive form.


Ashimoto may also be written as 足 or 足 without any change in meaning or pronunciation. The final verb may also be replaced with 飛び立つ (tobitatsu), making the “flight” part explicit. The generic “bird” may also be replaced with 雉 (kiji), “pheasant” – which makes sense, given that the original image is probably of ground-nesting pheasants. In a slightly more distant variant, the bird taking flight may be entirely replaced with 竜が上がる (ryuu ga agaru), “a dragon rises,” or 煙が出る (kemuri ga deru), “smoke comes out.”

This is the あ (a) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. It is attributed to a 1692 浮世草子 (ukiyozoushi) titled 『世間胸算用』 (Seken mune san’you), roughly “Off-the-cuff calculations about society.”

Example sentence:


(“Shiken no nokori jikan wa ato juppun da to tsugeru to, shian ni kureteita seito-tachi ga issei ni bikutto shite, ashimoto kara tori no mure ga tatsu you ni hisshi ni enpitsu wo ugokashi hajimeta.”)

[“I announced that there were ten minutes remaining in the test. The students, who had been lost in thought, all gave a start at once like a flock of birds suddenly taking off from underfoot, and began writing desperately.”]

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Vignette: the Vampire’s Visit

(The Kid has been practicing writing Japanese every day for a couple of years now. These days he writes enough to fill about 3/4 of a wide-ruled notebook page – with each row of characters taking up two lines for ease of reading/writing – and I’m making a point of ensuring that he practices a variety of kanji while occasionally learning new characters. Some days I dictate to him; others I just give him a list of characters to try to incorporate and he comes up with his own sentences; it’s good practice for both of us. This is a series of linked writing exercises that turned into a little story last fall… now available in English translation!)


(On the evening when the portly vampire came, none of us knew that it was a monster. We just understood immediately that he was nobody to be trusted.

The vampire stopped in front of the gate, and called out “Is the master of the house here?” in a bored-sounding drawl.


Our parents were resting at the time, so the one who opened the door was my oldest brother. Close-up, he took in the stranger’s red eyes and long teeth in a single glance, and slammed the door shut again.


Since time immemorial the land where we live, Iwayuki, has been protected by four great lighthouses. But just as mosquitoes sometimes slip inside your mosquito netting, every once in a while a vampire will manage to get in. Naturally our big brother, who has studied monster science at high school, knows how to deal with them.


When a vampire sees a collection of small objects, it’s compelled to count them. Our brother told our little sister, “Bring some rice.” But when she came running back, she was carrying adzuki beans.


That would have to do, so our brother got ready to throw the beans in the vampire’s face. Just in case I gathered a big handful of sand.

Our brother opened the door again and in the same moment he threw the beans, I threw the sand, and then with a shriek our little brother came up behind us and threw about a liter’s worth of rice, which he had managed to find at some point, all over the ground

 でも吸血鬼はひっ死に米つぶや豆を数えはじめるどころか、ゆっくりと笑って見せた。「お主はかんちがいをしているようだ。 己は算数好きな東生まれの者ではなく、西生まれなのだ」

But the vampire didn’t start desperately counting the rice or the beans. Instead, a smile slowly spread across his face. “You seem to be under a misconception. I’m not one of those arithmeticians from the East. I’m from the West.”


Up until that point the vampire had looked more or less like a human man, but there was nothing human about that smile; it was the carnivorous grin of a wolf or a crocodile. He pointed his yellow fingernails at us, sharper than honed blades, and said, “Well, perhaps I’ll teach you one more lesson before the end.”


More than those nails, though, more than his teeth, more than anything else, what frightened me was his self-satisfied expression. My whole body suddenly went cold; it was hard to even draw a breath. But before any of us could scream or turn to run, there was a hum as something pale and shining, like a miniature thunderbolt, came flying.


Our elder sister’s job is to spend about a week out of each month in the southern ward of the capital as guard on the king’s road. She spends most of her time practicing all the skills and arts appropriate to a warrior, starting with swordsmanship and magecraft, and naturally including the reading and writing of Old Speech.


The magic of most countries uses the power of the Fire Down Below or of Starlight. But the mages of the capital, where our sister works, borrow the power of the sun.


Weapons made of mere wood and iron have almost no effect against monsters. There are times when silver is better, but silver weapons are expensive and our household had none. I have no doubt that the arrow our sister fired was able to pierce the vampire’s heart, and put an end to it, because it was filled with the power of the sun.

——完 (——End)

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Ooh, yeah; uh, no?


Literally: exist – [interrogative particle] – not – [interrogative particle]

Alternately: Vague; unclear; noncommittal; unsettled; indefinite; obscure. It’s not clear whether something is, or is not there, or in a certain state, etc.

Notes曖昧模糊 and 五里霧中 are both considered synonyms; 一目瞭然 is an antonym.

This phrase is attributed to our friend, the Buddhist-monk biography anthology The Transmission of the Lamp (Japanese 『景徳傳燈録』 = Keitoku dentouroku). The compound may also be given native-Japanese reading ari ya nashi ya, although this is rare.

I too cover my face when attacked by floating neon text

A poppy song by SixTONES from their 2021 album, 1st.

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How about umeboshi?

Benign when it’s just a matter of taste

(Teishu no suki na akaeboshi;
“The master’s favored red hat”)


When someone with power (e.g. the head of a household) has some odd or nonstandard tendency, everyone under them has to follow along. For example, even though eboshi hats (seen previously) are normally black, if the head of your household prefers red, then that’s what you end up wearing. There is no implicit value judgment in the words themselves, but given Japan’s history of Confucian-inspired patriarchal values, the phrase seems to be at least a little prescriptive.


We begin with the noun 亭主 (teishu), “master of the house,” by extension a husband, innkeeper, host of an event (especially tea ceremony), or paterfamilias. The associative particle の (no) connects this noun with the following noun phrase, which is governed by the noun 烏帽子 (eboshi), a traditional tall hat. The hat is modified by compounding it with the color 赤 (aka), “red,” and further by using the particle な (na) to attach a noun acting as an adjective. The noun in question is 好き (suki), “a thing that I like,” which itself is derived from the conjunctive form of the verb 好く (suku), “to like,” “to prefer.” This brings us back to の and completes the associated noun phrase.


亭主 may be replaced with 旦那 (danna) without any change in meaning. Synonymous phrases replace the red hat with a 薦 (komo), a woven mat generally only worn by beggars, or even with 赤鰯 (akaiwashi), “pickled sardines” – presumably because they’re an acquired taste and/or iwashi was mistaken for eboshi somehow, not because a powerful person might ever decide to wear a pickled fish.

This is the て (te) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. It is attributed to a 人情本 (ninjoubon) work titled 『恩愛二葉草』 (On’ai futabagusa), literally “Kindness and love, two leaves of grass.”

Example sentence:


(Teishu no suki na akaeboshi tte wake de juunenkan mo mainichi piano no renshuu wo shite kita keredo, seijin shite betsu no machi he hikkoshite kara, kondo wa jibun ga teishu ni natta tsumori de ongaku wa yamete irasutoreetaa wo mezashiteru.”)

[“For ten years I practiced piano every day because of how ‘father’s always right.’ But now that I’ve legally become an adult and moved to a different town, as the head of my own household I’m quitting music and trying to become an illustrator.”]

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The preferred state of Mucha


Literally: nothing – self – dream – middle / inside

Alternately: Utterly absorbed in something; a state of deep concentration or focus. This is usually positive, but it can be negative, as in losing oneself in something; losing control and failing to pay attention to the rest of the world.

Notes: Apparently some people carelessly write 夢我 for muga or 無中 for muchuu; naturally, these are errors. Replacing 夢中 with 無心 (mushin), a Buddhist term for being “free from obstructive thoughts,” though, produces a synonymous phrase. There are a number of other synonyms as well, including 一心不乱 (isshin furan), literally “single-minded, without disorder.”

This is a compound of compounds. 夢中 (“entranced,” “dreaming”) may be encountered on its own somewhat commonly, but 無我 (“self-effacement”) is more obscure and more strongly connected to a Buddhist idea that even individual souls do not truly exist.

It’s a bit of a surprise that I hadn’t done this compound yet; it’s one of the more well-known yojijukugo, and all the characters have formally been taught by the end of elementary school..

Not actually the best thing to focus on....

The name of an izakaya in Takechiho City, Miyazaki, Japan – one of three in Kyushu, it seems.

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Personal growth vis-a-vis other people’s persons

Don’t pick your nose; just pick your friends!

(Ekisha san’yuu, sonsha san’yuu;
“Three beneficial friends, three harmful friends”)


There are three kinds of friends who are good for you and three kinds who are bad for you. The beneficial kinds are the straightforward, the sincere, and the knowledgeable; harmful friends are the ones who are fawning (but dishonest), flattering (but insincere), and smooth-talking (that is, glib but shallow). An admonition to be careful and discerning when choosing your friends and associates; to be wary of people who try to butter you up without actually being good for you.


We begin with the noun 益 (eki), “profit,” “benefit,” compounded with the noun 者 (often mono on its own; in this case sha), “person.” Without any mediating particles, we get the comment on this topic: number-noun 三友 (san’yuu), “three friends.” Then the pattern repeats, but with 益 replaced by the noun 損 (son), “damage,” “loss.”


As you may expect from the all-kanji, no-particle structure, this is another borrowing from Chinese; specifically, our friend the Analects of Confucius (『論語』 = Japanese Rongo).

Incidentally, each half of this phrase may be used as a standalone four-character compound. When used together, the comma is optional, albeit common in modern usage.

Example sentence:


(“Daigaku ni hairu mae wa ekisha san’yuu, sonsha san’yuu wo kijun to shite ruumumeeto ya saakuru de kakawaru hitotachi wa ki wo tsukenagara erabou to omotteita kedo, kekkateki ni dou ka na, hanbun gurai seikou shita ka na.”

[“Before going to college I thought that I would choose the people I associated with, like roommates and clubmates and so on, on the basis of the ‘three good friends and three bad friends.’ But I’m not sure how it’s actually turned out; maybe I’ve gotten it about half right?”

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A compassionate landslide


Literally: “many stones” – “many stones” – fall – fall

Alternately: Generous; tolerant; forgiving; not stressing over little things.

Notes: This is a phrase that creates emphasis by doubling: 磊落 (rairaku) on its own has the same meaning. 豪放磊落 (gouhou rairaku) is a synonym, while 小心翼翼 (shoushin yokuyoku) is considered an antonym, although it focuses more on timidity than uptightness.

Naturally, replacing each doubled character with the doubling mark 々 as 磊々落々 is perfectly acceptable.

This phrase comes to us from our friend, the Book of Jin (Japanese 『晋書』 = Shinjo).

Pro tip: Don't do this; it makes you look like a stuck-up dork.

Put it on a fan to show how big-spirited you are. Why not?

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“Our chain of love”

…but hard to shake once taken on

(Ko wa sangai no kubikase;
“A child is a binding for all time”)


A connection with a child is a strong bond that affects you for your entire life. Even after the logistical burden of child-rearing has ended, the emotional connections between parents and children means that the parents are more limited in life than if they had remained childless. This can be positive, when one is moved to act in certain ways out of love… or negative, when the bond causes distress or hardship that otherwise would have been avoided.


We begin with the particle は (wa) marking the noun 子 (ko), “child,” as the topic of discussion. The comment on this topic begins with number-noun 三界 (sangai), a Buddhist term referring to the “three realms” of past, present, and future existence. The associative particle の (no) attaches this to, and allows it to modify, the compound noun 首枷 (kubikase), “pillory.” (Literally “neck-fetters.”)


A traditional 首枷 is a flat wooden board with a hole for the neck (and often separate holes for the hands) used to restrain prisoners, often with additional restraints to make sure the person bound by one can’t just use their hands to take it off again. Be very careful with image searches, though; the term apparently can also be applied to modern bondage gear, especially collars with attached handcuffs.

Bear in mind that the 界 in 三界 can only be pronounced gai; reading it as kai is considered an error.

Variant phrases include rendering 首枷 as 首枷 (kubikkase) – although why is not clear – or expanding 子 to 親子 (oyako), “parent and child.” There are a number of synonymous phrases, including a delightful one that asserts that 子が無くて泣くは芋掘りばかり (ko ga nakute naku ha imohori bakari), “only potato-diggers cry for lack of children.” On the other hand, there are a number of antonyms asserting in various ways that there is no treasure greater than a child.

This is the こ (ko) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. It is attributed to a 1700 ukiyozoushi text titled 『御前義経記』 (Gozen gikeiki).

Example sentence:


(“Omoshiroi ne. Tomodachi no naka ni wa, ko wa sangai no kubikase dakara isshou umu tsumori wa nai to itteru hito mo ireba, seikatsu wa futarigurashi yori mo kazoku ga ooi hou ga nigiyaka de tanoshisou dakara takusan umitai to itteru hito mo iru nda.”)

[“Oh, that’s funny. I have some friends who say that children are a lifelong burden so they don’t intend to ever have any, and other friends who say that things are more lively and fun when you do them as a big family than as just a couple, so they want to have a lot.”]

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