The cruellest cheat

Yes, lying to the people is bad, and cheats them out of good things. But lying to yourself, and cheating yourself out of what you could have been, is far more cruel and far more permanent.


Literally: self – self – deceive – deceive

Alternately: Fooling or lying to oneself. By extension: to betray one’s true feelings (or worse, one’s conscience) with false words and deeds.

Notes: Be careful not to write 己 as 已 (i, “stop”) or 巳 (shi, “snake [from the Chinese zodiac]”)


A comic about a guy whose brain tries to convince him that he can go back to bed even though it’s a work day. You can read the rest of the comic here.

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Talking through your hat

(Fuyu amigasa ni natsu zukin; “Woven hats in winter; hoods in summer”)


Things are the opposite of how they should be. Left is right, dogs are cats, up is down, people wear hats that don’t match the season, and elected officials who used to claim they cared about the law are openly supporting and defending a criminal.


We begin three characters in with the noun 笠 (kasa), your classic conical hat, compounded with and modified by verb-stem-acting-as-noun 編 (here ami), “knit,” “braid.” The woven hat is further modified by noun 冬 (fuyu), “winter.”

Similarly, the latter noun phrase centers around 巾 (kin), a rectangle of cloth, modified by noun 頭 (here zu), “head,” and this compound in turn modified by the noun 夏 (natsu), “summer.”

The two compound nouns are joined by particle に (ni), apparently functioning as a directional particle and thus literally “to,” but better read in the sense of “added to,” i.e. “and.”


Wide-brimmed woven hats allow a breeze through and keep off the hot sunlight; a zukin essentially serves the same function as a stocking cap, although as a piece of cloth wrapped around the head it can take a variety of shapes.

An alternate version of this phrase replaces headwear with bodywear: the inappropriate winter wear becomes 帷子 (katabira), a light single-layer kimono, and the summer wear becomes 布子 (nunuko), clothing insulated with cotton padding. Also compare and contrast with 夏炉冬扇.

011920 Amigasa

One style of amigasa, from a mid-1970s TV drama, eponymously titled Amigasa Juubei (編笠十兵衛)

011920 Zukin

One style of zukin, from the same show

011920 Kotobank Zukin

A selection of zukin styles from Kotobank, including possibly the dorkiest hood ever

Example sentence:


(“Ano musekinin na yatsu ga tsuyoi kenryoku wo motteiru nante, fuyu amigasa ni natsu zoukin da. Wareware no soshiki wa kore de mohaya zetsubouteki na joutai da.”)

[“For that irresponsible a-hole to have so much power, everything is upside-down and backwards. With this, our whole organization is in desperate straits.”]

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All times as one, and now


Literally: barbarian/flatten* – steep/dangerous – one – joint/section/occasion

Alternately: You should stand firm to your principles regardless of whether things are calm and easy, or dangerous and hard. Don’t sell out your values, no matter the circumstances.

Notes: This particular rare compound comes to us from Chinese antiquity, attributed to a Song-dynasty scholar called Ouyang Xiu (欧陽脩, Ouyou Shuu in Japanese).

*The character 夷 can refer to the indigenous people of northern Japan, such as the Emishi and Ainu. It can also serve as a derogatory term for foreigners or “unsophisticated” people, looked down on by the self-congratulatory, aristocratic, capital-dwelling speaker. For some utterly mysterious reason, the same character can also mean “to subjugate,” “to put down a rebellion,” “to level [something] out.”

This yojijukugo uses the meaning of “level,” or by extension “easy, peaceful.” 夷険 thus means something like “good times and bad,” while 一節 refers to having a single set of principles, in this compound of compounds.


I guess her unwavering principle is… metal?

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Coffee before coffee

It depends on how much sugar you put in

(Asacha wa shichiri kaette mo nome;
“Drink your morning tea, even if [you have to] travel seven leagues home”)


If you set out on a trip without drinking your morning tea, then as soon as you notice the error you should go back and make sure to properly drink it, even if doing so seems incredibly inconvenient.

Sadly, that seems to be all there is to it: a throwback admonition that gives us a tiny window into an old folk belief about tea. But I’d like to use it more metaphorically, as a reminder that doing the right thing is worth it, and you should put in the effort even if it’s inconvenient. That’s a lesson we need more people to learn, remember, and put into practice.


We begin with the particle は (wa) marking the compound noun 朝茶 (asacha), “morning tea,” as our topic of discussion. The comment on this topic begins with number-noun 七里 (shichiri), “seven ri.” Without any particles, this is followed by the verb 帰る (kaeru), “to return home,” in conjunctive form and followed by emphatic particle も (mo), a structure that can be rendered as the conditional “even if [verb].” And finally, the conditional’s result clause consists entirely of the verb 飲む (nomu) in imperative form.


When tea was first imported from China in the Kamakura era it was treated as a form of medicine. What’s more, it was supposedly thought that having a cup of tea in the morning was not just good for your health, but preternaturally effective against misfortune for the rest of the day. (One of my sources specifically locates this belief in modern Nagano and Miyagi prefectures) If that were true, then it would stand to reason that it’s vitally important to drink your tea, even if you need to travel a long way home to do so.

And the way home is unquestionably long. While the length of a ri has fluctuated throughout history and across different locations, the modern Japanese length is about 3.9km or 2.4 miles (as we’ve seen before), meaning that, depending on factors such as terrain, each direction would easily make a full day’s walk! This would really only make sense for a very long trip with little chance of getting any tea elsewhere.

The saying becomes much more manageable using the original definition of a 里 as a length unit, which was 300 paces. (The original original measure was apparently of an area 300 paces on each side.) Returning home – and then heading out again – by seven ri each way would then only add 4,200 steps to your total: a bit of a pain, but eminently doable, especially for a pre-modern society in which walking was the norm.

Example sentence:


(Asacha wa shichiri kaette mo nome. Benkyou wa, mitai eiga ga joueichuu de mo, wasurezu ni chanto shinasai.”)

[“Drink your morning tea even if you have to walk miles home. And even if a movie that you want to watch is playing, don’t forget to do your homework.”]

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The scarecrow’s final blade


Literally: purple – electricity – one – flash

Alternately: The light that glints from a sword being brandished. By extension, an extremely short moment of time; a single instant. By extension, a dramatic change that happens in very little time.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 紫電 is the purple light that glints off of a sharp blade. (Why purple? I’m not sure.) 一閃 is a single, momentary flash.

Long-time readers may recall another yojijukugo on a similar themetwice.


Top results on instagram for #紫電一閃 give us a modern update of the lightning-fast sword

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Treating shallow as if it were deep

Good with rivers; bad with ideas

(Asai kawa mo fukaku watare; “Even in a shallow river, cross deep”)


Take care even with things that seem easy, or trivial in scope. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Even if a river seems shallow, ford it as cautiously as if you knew it to be deep, just in case.


We begin with adjective 浅い (asai), “shallow,” in prenominal form, attached to and modifying the noun 川 (kawa), “river.” This is given its function in the sentence by intensifier particle も (mo), which can be rendered here as “even.” The following independent clause begins with adjective 深い (fukai), “deep,” in conjunctive form and acting as an adverb. It precedes and modifies the verb 渡る (wataru), “to cross,” which appears in imperative form. The subject performing this verb is you, the listener, but as so often happens in Japanese it is elided.


Caution should be a familiar theme for kotowaza to address, as we’ve already seen several times before.

Example sentence:


(“Shoujiki, ashita no kimatsu tesuto wa rakushou darou to omotteru. Demo, asai kawa mo fukaku watare to iu shi, yappari fukushuu shitokou ka na.”)

[“Honestly, I think tomorrow’s term test should be an easy A. But they do say to ford shallows as if they were deep, so yeah, I should probably review the material.”]

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And the leaves that are green

…seem to be green again the next year… but we are not leaves.


Literally: year – year – year/age – year/age

Alternately: Every single year. Year in and year out.

Notes: As always, the second instance of each character may be replaced with the kanji doubling mark 々. Also, somewhat less commonly, the order of the elements may be flipped to give 歳歳年年 (with or without doubling marks), sai sai nen nen.

This compound comes to us from a poem by Liu Xiyi (劉希夷, Japanese Ryuu Ki’i) a mid-600s CE Chinese poet. The piece, known as 「代悲白頭翁」(Japanese pronunciation “Daihi hakutouou”), laments that 年年歳歳, the flowers bloom as always – but 歳歳年年, the people who come to see them bloom are different, because old age comes for us all.


Here quoted in 『応天の門』(Outen no mon), an obscure manga about early-Heian court politics

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