It didn’t work for stoicism

一子相伝
i-.sshi.sou.den

Literally: one – child – mutual – transmit

Alternately: A traditional system where the inner, secret, or ultimate teachings of an art, craft, school of thought, etc. are passed on to exactly one heir (usually from a father to an oldest or chosen son).

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. Isshi means “one child,” as you’d expect, and souden refers to inheritance across generations.

The idea expressed in this phrase is practically a staple in martial arts stories, where interpersonal and familial drama are spiced up with (often supernatural) violence. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly bright idea if you want your “house style” to survive long-term, but what can you do.

A variant replaces 一 with 父 (“father,” pronounced here as fu), making the patrilineal transmission explicit. Reading 相 as shou in this case is considered an error.

"Old sake"

Also the label of this sake that sells for a little over $100 per bottle on Amazon, of all places.

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The disaster’s antecedent

蟻の穴から堤も崩れる
(Ari no ana kara tsutsumi mo kuzureru;
“Even a dike crumbles due to an ant’s burrow”)

Definition:

Big events can arise from small causes. Specifically, even errors, negligence, or lack of attention or preparation that didn’t seem important at the time can cause significant problems down the road. Even a tiny ant-sized hole, if not attended to, can worsen over time and cause the collapse of an entire dike – and thus, presumably, also be responsible for the ensuing flood.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 蟻 (ari), “ant,” with the associative particle の (no) marking it as modifying (and possessing) the noun 穴 (ana), “hole.” This in turn is marked by the particle から (kara) as being the source “from” which the following independent clause arises. In this, the noun 堤 (tsutsumi), “embankment,” “dike,” is marked by emphatic particle も (mo), “even,” and implicitly acts as the subject of the verb 崩れる (kuzureru), “collapse,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

This saying comes to us from a Chinese-language philosophical treatise, the Han Feizi (Japanese 『韓非子』 = Kanpishi), which we’ve seen before.

There are a couple of alternate Japanese phrasings of the basic idea, including one that specifies the embankment as being a rather improbable 千里 (one thousand ri, which calculates out to 3,927km or a little over 2,440 miles) in length. Another raises the stakes even further by having the ant-nest destroy 天下 (tenge or tenka): “society,” “the country,” or even “the entire mortal world.” Heavy!

Example sentence:

蟻の穴から堤も崩れるというように、一文字だけレシピを読み間違えたせいで、デートの為に作っていたケーキが一口も食べられないほど苦くて、大失敗に終わってしまった」

(Ari no ana kara tsutsumi mo kuzureru to iu you ni, hitomoji dake reshipi wo yomimachigaeta sei de, deeto no tame ni tsukutteita keeki ga hitokuchi mo taberarenai hodo nigakute, daishippai ni owatte shimatta.”)

[“Like a dam brought to ruin by a mere pinhole, because I had misread a single character in the recipe, the cake I was making for the date was inedibly bitter and the whole thing ended up a colossal failure.”]

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Look at me, look at me, LOOK AT ME NOW!

(And pay no attention to the man behind the curtain)

自己顕示
ji.ko.ken.ji

Literally: self – self – appear – indicate

Alternately: Making oneself apparent. Speaking up, standing out, catching attention; making oneself conspicuous or unignorable; working to advance one’s own particular cause.

Notes: Adding 欲 (yoku, “desire”) to the end creates a phrase – apparently more common than the original four-character compound, in modern Japanese usage – meaning “a craving for attention,” “a desire for the limelight.”

In the artist's mind, doubtless a cutting and not-at-all sexist critique of how people present false selves online.

Trump, basically: a malevolent force trying to hide its true nature behind a wall of social media

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Forget little spoon; do you want to be the lid?

割れ鍋に綴じ蓋
(Warenabe ni tojibuta; “A mended lid on a cracked pot”)

Definition:

Everybody has their match; no matter how out-of-place a person may feel, there is someone out there who would make a good spouse, friend, or other sort of partner for them. Even a cracked pot has a similarly-broken lid that goes well with it.

Note that despite the literal image, this is less about people being “broken” than about two people being on the same wavelength, or well-matched with each other. Keep in mind,though, that the image of broken things makes this a humble phrase, to be used in describing one’s own situation. Using it to describe someone else is inappropriate and rude.

Alternatively, this phrase can mean that people who are well-matched will produce the best results – in contrast to the “opposites attract” conventional wisdom recently touted in the West.

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 割れる (wareru), “to break,” “to crack,” in prenominal form, preceding and modifying the noun 鍋 (nabe), “pot.” (Traditionally, this is the clay vessel that Westerners mostly associate with “hotpot”-type cooking.) This is followed by the verb 綴じる (tojiru), “to bind,” similarly in prenominal form and modifying the noun 蓋 (futa), “cover,” “lid.” Directional particle に (ni), in the center, matches the lid “to” the pot.

Notes:

Some versions of this saying replace 割れ鍋 with 破れ鍋, or 破鍋, without any change in meaning or pronunciation. However, allowing your computer’s kanji autofill to replace 綴じ with homophone 閉じ (“closed”) is (obviously) an error.

Other variants make the lid chipped (欠け蓋, kakebuta), replace the clay pot with a metal one (釜, kama) – often accompanied by changing the verbs as well – or even drop the brokenness and simply compare a married couple to a pot and lid. Last week’s 蓼食う虫も好き好き is considered synonymous, although that is more about personal taste and less about life partners specifically.

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

Example sentence:

「あんまり自信ないけど、割れ鍋に綴じ蓋があると信じて、出会い系サイトでプロフィールを作ってみることにした」

(“Ammari jishin nai kedo, warenabe ni mo tojibuta ga aru to shinjite, deai-kei saito de purofiiru wo tsukutte miru koto ni shita.”)

[“I don’t really have a lot of self-confidence, but I decided to trust that even a cracked pot has its lid, and try making a profile on a dating site.”]

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When you write the right rite

温柔敦厚
on.juu.ton.kou

Literally: warm – soft – kind – thick / kind

Alternately: Kind and gentle, considerate and loving.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. 温柔 expresses a warm, mild disposition; 敦厚 is humanity and kindness. Similar terms include 温厚篤実.

This yojijukugo comes to us from our friend the Book of Rites (Chinese 禮記 or 礼记, Japanese 『礼記』= Raiki); apparently used by Confucius to describe the power of poetry to gently instruct and guide.

Brothers

Google image search gifted me with this juxtaposition and honestly, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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The taste of a beetle

蓼食う虫も好き好き
(Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki;
“Even the bug who eats knotweed likes it”)

Definition:

Yet again, “different people have different tastes.” A person can like a thing that you don’t (or vice-versa), and that’s okay. Even spicy plants have insects that like to eat them.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 蓼 (tade), any of a number of more-or-less edible plants in the Persicaria genus of the knotweed family. Any following particle is elided, but we may imagine an (を) marking this noun as the direct object of the verb 食う (kuu), “to eat,” here in prenominal form, attached to and modifying the noun 虫 (mushi), “insect.” This is followed by the emphatic particle も (mo), which often serves as “also,” but here is probably something closer to “even.” And finally we get the noun 好き好き (sukizuki), a set phrase meaning something like “a matter of taste” or “personal preference.”

Notes:

Although the kanji 蓼 is not part of the contemporary standard set, and in contrast to some other sayings with the writing adjusted for ease of reading, this one always seems to be written with 蓼 instead of substituting in any sort of kana. On the other hand, 好き好き may occasionally be replaced with equivalent phrase 好き好き (suki busuki), which emphasizes that “personal taste” includes both likes and dislikes.

Knotweed, sometimes called “smartweed,” is not usually cultivated, although it it is one of the standard wild edible plants known as 山菜 (sansai). Making it edible takes a bit of work; it generally requires soaking, boiling, or pickling, and even then has a sharp taste. It’s also used as a spice, and in a number of folk medicines. In most of the world it is a tough and aggressive invasive species.

A number of sayings play with the same basic idea as this one: the insect that eats tade knows no bitterness (蓼の虫苦きを知らず, tade no mushi nigaki wo shirazu); it won’t abandon its home to move to a mallow plant (蓼の虫葵に移らず tade no mushi aoi ni utsurazu); it will die on the tade after spending its whole life there (蓼の虫は蓼で死ぬ, tade no mushi wa tade de shinu).

It appears that the 蓼の虫 is in fact a specific species: Monolepta dichroa, a leaf beetle that doesn’t seem to have a common name in English but is known in Japanese as ホタルハムシ (hotaruha mushi, traditional kanji 蛍金花虫), presumably so named because of a superficial resemblance to actual fireflies.

Example sentence:

「ゴマアイス食べたい!」 「えーっ、チョコが良い!」 「意地悪言わないでよ!蓼食う虫も好き好きじゃん」 「お前虫じゃねぇやろ」

(“Goma aisu tabetai!” “Eh, choko ga ii!” “Ijiwaru iwanaide yo! Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki jan.” “Omae mushi ja nee yaro.”)

[“I want sesame ice cream!” “Ugh, chocolate is better!” “Don’t be mean; even knotweed has a bug that likes it.” “You’re not a bug, though!”]

Monolepta dichroa

I hate chocolate! Leave it for the humans.

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Fly, cow, fly; cow, fly, cow

蚊虻走牛
bun.bou.sou.gyuu

Literally: mosquito – horsefly – run – cow

Alternately: Something powerful being defeated by something weak; the great overthrown by the small. Literally, a cow being driven to run away by the onslaught of tiny biting flies.

Alternatively, this can refer to large events, especially terrible catastrophes, developing out of small matters; a destructive stampede being caused by mere mosquito-bites.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from the Garden of Stories (Chinese 說苑 = Shuo Yuan, Japanese 『説苑』 = Zeien), a two-millennia-old anthology.

Apparently this four-character compound can be read in sentence form as 蚊虻牛を走らす (bunbou ushi wo hashirasu), and is considered a contraction of the phrase 蚊虻牛を走らす (bunbou gyuuyou wo hashirasu), adding sheep to the list of large animals that the flies send running.

Man with ox by fields full of water

Fields full of standing water must be a natural defense against wild cattle, then

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Any shape other than the actual shape, really

四角な座敷を丸く掃く
(Shikaku na zashiki wo maruku haku; “To sweep a circle in a square room”)

Definition:

To shirk; to cut corners; to do a bad job at something because you put in the bare minimum of thought and effort. Like cleaning only the middle of a room, for show, while letting crud build up in the corners. The implication is that someone is so focused on saving time and energy that they end up doing a shoddy job even when they intend to get some actual work done.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 四角 (shikaku), literally “four corners,” e.g. “rectangle,” “square,” acting as an adjective with the help of particle な (na). This modifies the following noun 座敷 (zashiki), literally “sit-spread,” but actually referring to a tatami-floored traditional Japanese room. The particle を (wo) marks this as the object of the verb 掃く (haku), “to sweep,” in conclusive form. This verb is modified by the adjective 丸い (marui), “round.” in conjunctive form and acting as an adverb. (In other words, a more literal rendition than the translation at the top would be “to sweep roundly,” perhaps.)

Notes:

Some versions may use 部屋 (heya, a more generic term for “room”) in place of 座敷, or rearrange the sentence structure a bit.

Example sentence:

「古馬君、自分のエッセイをたまたま見つけた論文一冊だけに基づいて書くのは四角な座敷を丸く掃いたような、適当過ぎる勉強方法ですよ。月末までに参考の資料を増やして、書き直してください」

(“Koba-kun, jibun no essei wo tamatama mitsuketa ronbun issatsu dake ni motodzuite kaku no wa shikaku na zashiki wo maruku haita you na, tekitou sugiru benkyou houhou desu yo. Getsumatsu made ni sankou no shiryou wo fuyashite, kakinaoshite kudasai.”)

[“Koba, basing your essay entirely on a single paper that you ran across by accident is too sloppy; you’re cutting all the corners. Gather some more material and rewrite this by the end of the month.”]

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I know why the caged monkey sings

籠鳥檻猿
rou.chou.kan.en

Literally: cage – bird – (jail) cell/pen – monkey

Alternately: Unfree; specifically, having had one’s freedom taken away. Living like a bird – or monkey – in a cage, unable to do what you want.

Notes: This phrase comes from the poetry of Bai Juyi (Japanese 白居易 = Haku Kyoi), a Tang-era official and, well, poet. Apparently Bai and his friend Yuan Zhen were both demoted and exiled, and perhaps placed under other restrictions, and Bai came up with this metaphor to describe how he felt about it.

RouChouKanEnApe

“Don’t feel too bad, Bai; not everyone even gets to release their work”

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It ain’t no thing

– but an unfelt sting

鹿の角を蜂が刺す
(Shika no tsuno wo hachi ga sasu; “A wasp stings a deer’s antler”)

Definition:

In literal terms, this phrase refers to something that doesn’t even tickle or itch, much less hurt; something that elicits no response or feedback. Like a bee or wasp stinging a deer’s (fully developed) antler, which is (presumably) largely unable to register pain. In actual usage, the pain in question seems to be the mental pain that comes from one’s own failures, and the unfeeling response indicates that the person in question is remaining blithely, or even willfully, oblivious instead of facing, repenting of, and working to repair their flaws or failings.

Breakdown:

We begin three characters in with the noun 角 (tsuno), “horn,” attached (and shown as belonging) to the noun 鹿 (shika), “deer,” by the associative particle の (no). This noun phrase as a whole is marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of a verb. The subject of the verb, marked by the particle が (ga) is the noun 蜂 (hachi), “wasp” or “bee,” and the verb in question is 刺す (sasu), “to stab,” “to sting,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

An older reading renders 鹿 as shishi, but that seems to be the less common form now.

Apparently this comes from a 1715 joururi play titled 『心中恋の中道』 = Shinjuu koi no nakamichi.

Example sentence:

「垣内さんは先生のホチキスを借りて失くしたから凄く叱られてたくせに、今日はセロテープを貸して貸してって言って、鹿の角を蜂が刺すだ。信じられない」

(“Kaito-san wa sensei no hochikisu wo karite nakushita kara sugoku shikarareteta kuse ni, kyou wa sero teepu wo kashite kashite tte itte, shika no tsuno wo hachi ga sasu da. Shinjirarenai.”)

[“Even though Kaito got seriously chewed out for borrowing and then losing the teacher’s stapler, today it was all ‘lend me your tape, lend me your tape,’ absolutely impervious to learning anything. Unbelievable.”]

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