Udo you, man

(Udo no taiboku; “A large udo tree”)


Of a person, big but good for nothing. An udo plant can grow up to about two meters tall and as thick as some trees, but its flesh isn’t strong or hard like wood (and it’s only edible as a young shoot), so it’s considered useless out of proportion to its size – and this saying is used to apply that situation specifically to a person who is physically large but not actually strong or useful. Like an executive who stands 6’2” but still couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag.


This is another simple phrase comprising two noun phrases connected by the associative particle の (no). The first noun is 独活 (udo), an herbaceous flowering plant also known as “Japanese spikenard.” The second noun is 大木 (taiboku), “large tree.”


A longer version of the phrase specifies that that large udo tree ~柱にならぬ (hashira ni naranu), “doesn’t become a pillar” – i.e. no matter how thick the stem is, it’s too weak to be used as a structural support. Keep in mind, though, that this saying can only be applied to people, not other inanimate objects or potential building materials.

Example sentence:


(“Banjin Nanko wa shokuyoku morimori de, kinniku mo morimori ni mieru mono no senryoku wa nashi. Sonna udo no taiboku taru mono wo nakama ni ireru to, kekkyoku kiken wo okasu ni suginai to osorete orimasu.”)

[“Nanco the Barbarian has a burgeoning appetite and the appearance of burgeoning musculature, yet lacks in martial ability. I fear that for us to admit such an ineffectual behemoth into the fellowship would in the end be no more than to place ourselves at risk.”]

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In one ear and then who cares?

[Insert tofu joke here]


Literally: horse – ear – east – wind

Alternately: When a person utterly fails to heed what others have to say. Opinions, criticism, and so on just go in one ear and out the other.

Notes: This compound comes to us from the poetry of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai. The image appears to be a contrast between human enjoyment of a spring breeze (which for Li Bai blew from the east) while horses were unimpressed. It also seems likely that he was complaining about how people with no taste remained unmoved by his poetry!


Ayup. “BaJiTouFuu problem child going strong!” Source.

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Elbow grease begins at home

Be nice to your neighbor, and you’ll attract better neighbors?

(Mazu Kai yori hajimeyo; “First, start with Guo Wei”)


When starting a large, ambitious undertaking, it’s best to begin with what’s close at hand. By extension, it can also mean that the person who talks about getting something done should be the one to start doing it; “Practice what you preach.”


We begin, appropriately enough, with the adverb 先ず (mazu), “first of all.” Next comes the proper noun 隗 (Kai), short for the name 郭隗 (Guo Wei). This is followed by the directional particle より (yori), in this case “from.” And finally we have the verb 始める (hajimeru), “to start [something],” in imperative form.


In the Kingdom of Yan, during the Warring States period of Chinese history, King Zhao asked Guo Wei how to gather clever men to serve his country. Guo Wei modestly suggested that Zhou begin by treating him well, reasoning that if even he, a relatively ordinary guy, could receive perqs and benefits, then the truly wise and clever would come of their own accord in hopes of receiving at least that level of hospitality themselves.

Note that the above story comes from a text known as the Strategies of the Warring States (『戦国策』, in Japanese Sengokusaku) and the anecdotes it contains should be taken as apocryphal rather than factual historical records.

This saying can also be shortened to 隗より始めよ or expanded to 賢を招くには隗より始めよ (ken wo maneku ni wa ~), “In order to invite the wise, ~.” Replacing 隗 with homophone 魁 is of course considered an error.

Example sentence:


(“Hontou ni bideo geemu wo tsukuritai nara, sassa to puroguramingu wo hajimetara ii ja nai ka. Mazu Kai yori hajimeyo, gurafikku dezainaa wa ato de sagashite mo ii nda shi.”)

[“If you really want to make a video game, shouldn’t you hurry up and start programming? Start with what’s at hand; you can look for a graphic designer later.”]

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We need to make our own light

Contact your representatives!


Literally: wide – evening – big – sunset

Alternately: This is a phrase used to express great sadness and lamentation after someone’s death.

Notes: Both 広宵 and 大暮 express the idea of night that stretches out forever in every direction. Combined them and you get an unbearable night-time that seems it will never end no matter how far you go or how long you wait.

Note that this compound apparently comes to us from the Wen Xuan (『文選』, in Japanese Monzen ), a 2500-year-old anthology of Chinese poetry and literature, and is not currently in common use.


Not a lot of results for 広宵大暮, but 大暮維人 (a.k.a. Oogure Ito, a.k.a. “Oh! great“, is a manga artist’s pen name)

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What would you do for your deer?

(Aki no shika wa fue ni yoru; “An autumn deer approaches a whistle”)


Destroying oneself for the sake of love. Alternately, being in danger or being used by others after having one’s weakness taken advantage of. From the practice of hunters, when the deer mating season rolls around in the fall, of using whistles that resemble the calls of female deer to lure in and capture the males.


We begin with a topic, marked by the particle は (wa); the topic in question is the noun phrase comprising primary noun 鹿 (shika), “deer,” and modifying noun 秋 (aki), “autumn,” connected by the associative particle の (no). This topic acts like a grammatical subject, and the verb it enacts is 寄る (yoru), “to approach, in sentence-final form. The particle に (ni) shows that this action is in the direction of the noun 笛 (fue), “whistle.”


Although the nuance is different, this phrase is often paired with 飛んで火に入る夏の虫 as another example of self-destructive behavior.

An alternate version of the saying replaces 秋の with 妻恋う (tsuma kou), literally “wife-loving”; also it seems that the verb phrase was originally 心を乱す (kokoro wo midasu), “to throw one’s heart into disarray.”

Both this saying and that of the summer insects come to us from a passage in the revenge epic 曾我物語 (Soga monogatari).

Example sentence:


(“Ano ojiisan wa wakai koro, ai shiteta onna no hito ni damasareta rashii yo. Sore kara zutto, aki no shika wa fue ni yoru kara to iihari, dokushin no seikatsu wo okutte kita no. Nan to mo ienai jinsei da yo ne.”)

[“They say that when that old man was young, he was led on by a woman he loved. And ever since, he’s always said that ‘love will lead you astray’ and stayed single. What a life that must have been.”]

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As in リストラ, not squirrel-tigers.


Literally: new – old – replace – apologize

Alternately: Replacing the old with the new. Originally this yojijikugo referred to living organisms expelling waste and taking in new resources; but by extension it has also come to mean renewal and reform in a society or organization… something we desperately need right now.

Notes: Despite the literal meanings of the characters, 代謝 as a compound means renewal; changing one thing out for another; regeneration; or even metabolism, of all things. As in, “basal metabolic rate” is 基礎代謝率 (kiso taisha ritsu).

代 is sometimes read as dai, but in the context of this compound, that’s considered an error.


I see your “women laughing with salad” and raise you a “woman grinning too widely with an armful of fruit”!

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(Shaka ni seppou; “Lecturing the Buddha”)


The foolishness of a person who knows just a little about a field trying to lecture an expert. Like delivering a sermon on Buddhism to the Buddha himself. “Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.” Yes, really.


This pithy idiom comprises only two nouns and a particle joining them. The first noun is 釈迦 (shaka), Shakyamuni, a.k.a. Gautama Buddha, a.k.a. the original Buddha, and the second is 説法 (seppou), a Buddhist sermon or lecture. The particle joining them is the directional particle に (ni), indicating that the second noun is being directed at the first.


A longer version emphasizes the point by adding 孔子に悟道 (Koushi ni godou), “[explaining] the way of enlightenment to Confucius.” Similar phrases point out the foolishness of teaching swimming to a kappa, tree-climbing to a monkey, and so on.

Keep in mind that while a 釈迦に説法 act is silly and unnecessary, it does at least imply that the explanation being given is correct. The now-common act of overriding an expert in order to deliberately lie about a subject is outside the scope of this phrase – it’s something significantly worse.

Apparently this phrase was first attested in the 『俚言集覧』 (Rigenshuuran), an Edo-era dictionary produced at the very tail end of the 18th century.

Example sentence:


(“Chieko-chan wa chuugakusei to wa ie, suugaku wa daigaku nami ni dekiru nda. Omae ga kanojo ni daisuugaku no setsumei wa Shaka ni seppou da, yose yose.”)

[“Chieko may be a junior-high student, but she can do college-level math. You explaining algebra to her is like preaching to the Buddha. Cut it out.”]

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