Weighed in the balance and found offering

論功行賞
ron.kou.kou.shou

Literally: discourse – achievement – conduct – reward

Alternately: Awarding honors, prizes, or praise based on someone’s work and achievements. The meritocratic ideal.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from the “Book of Wei” in the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Japanese 『三国志』 = Sangokushi), a massively influential history of, well, the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. The four-character compound can be expanded to (or simply read in kanbun style as) 功を論じ賞を行う (kou wo ronji shou wo okonau), which neatly illustrates the way in which it is a compound of compounds: 論功 is “discuss the merits,” and 行賞 is “carry out rewards / awards.”

Despite how intuitive this may seem, some people may trip up on the doubled sound and write the final koushou as 功賞; this is an error.

While a bit more focused, this phrase is considered synonymous with 信賞必罰.

 
Punk dude, preppie dude, glam dude

A scene (of an award ceremony, presumably) from the manga Kingdom

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All in one basket, no less

累卵の危うき
(Ruiran no ayauki;
“The peril of a pile of eggs”)

Definition:

An especially unstable and dangerous situation. Potential downfall and ruin.

Breakdown:

We begin with the compound noun 累卵 (ruiran), literally a “pile of eggs.” This is joined by the associative particle の (no) to the adjective 危うい (ayaui), in prenominal form and acting as a noun. And that’s it! This week we’ve got another short and simple noun phrase.

Notes:

An interesting bit of trivia is that while here 累 means “accumulation,” in other contexts it can also refer to “trouble.”

This phrase comes to us from the biography of Fan Sui (范雎, Japanese reading Han Sho) in our most excellent friend the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki). The original passage reads 秦王之国、危如累卵 (“the land of the king of Qin, danger like piled eggs.” This origin is reflected in the variant phrase 危うきこと累卵の如し (ayauki koto ruiran no gotoshi), “a dangerous thing, like a pile of eggs.”

And of course, there are many synonyms, from 薄氷を履むが如し to 一触即発.

Example sentence:

「誰が誰に何をして、今回の事件になったのかは俺にも分からないけど、取り合えずサークルの先輩たちがいつ殴り合っても可笑しくないという累卵の危うきにあるんだ」

(“Dare ga dare ni nani wo shite, konkai no jiken ni natta no ka wa ore ni mo wakaranai kedo, toriaezu saakuru no senpai-tachi ga itsu naguriatte mo okashikunai to iu ruiran no ayauki ni aru nda.”)

[“Even I don’t know who did what to who to start all this, but in any case we’re sitting on a live bomb and it wouldn’t be surprising if the club seniors actually got into a fistfight at any point.”]

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The best lover is one who breaks your spine

A book lover breaking your book’s spine, I mean.

葦編三絶
i.hen.san.zetsu

Literally: reed – braid – three – sever

Alternately: Reading the same book over and over again. Close, careful, and frequent reading of a text.

Notes: Think of a text written not on paper (which would become the dominant writing medium by the 5th century CE), but on long strips of bamboo. In Japanese, these are 竹簡 (chikukan). These might be bound with reed fibers (葦, also read as ashi, albeit not in this compound) or leather straps into a document, the 葦編. The image is of one of these documents being read so much that its binding has broken three times, apparently based on a story about Confucius reading and re-reading the I Ching.

This is yet another selection from our friend the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki), and may occasionally be read as ihen mitabi tatsu without any change in meaning. The story

Even a seemingly-specialized compound like this one has synonyms; in this case, the more explicit but less evocative 読書百遍 (doku sho hyappen), “read text hundred times.”

 
The scroll IS the tube, see. Sturdy!

This sort of thing

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The danger of lawn sprinklers

When getting your toes wet is off the deep end

濡れぬ先こそ露をも厭え
(Nurenu saki koso tsuyu wo mo itoe;
“Shun the dew before you get wet”)

Definition:

It’s best to avoid even a minor error, because surviving the experience leads to relative comfort or even familiarity, which can lead to both repeats of the first error, and a deepening spiral into worse and more destructive acts. This isn’t a perfectionist screed, though. The phrase carries implications that the “error” in question is moral or ethical in nature: a crime, or especially a romantic or sexual impropriety.

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 濡れる (nureru), “to get wet,” with negative suffix ず (zu) in prenominal form ぬ (nu). This attaches to the noun 先 (saki), “before.” We’ve seen this in another kotowaza already, but what follows is new: the emphatic particle こそ (koso), capping off a dependent clause. The following independent clause begins with the noun 露 (tsuyu), “dew.” This is marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of a verb, but also by the emphatic particle も (mo) as being a somewhat extreme or unexpected example of what is to be verbed. And finally, the verb in question is 厭う (itou), “to hate,” “to shun,” in imperative form.

Notes:

There are a number of related phrases; one states that 雨に濡れて露恐ろしからず (ame ni nurete tsuyu osoroshikarazu), “wet by the rain, the dew holds no fear.”

As perceptive readers may have guessed, right now I’m doing a “series” of kotowaza posts based on the traditional iroha ordering. However, the only actual iroha karuta phrase that I haven’t used yet is 糠に釘 (nuka ni kugi). The problem is that that’s a very short phrase which I already covered in passing, so devoting a whole post to it now didn’t feel appropriate. Instead, please enjoy this completely unrelated Japanese saying that starts with our site namesake, Nu.

Example sentence:

「子供の時、濡れぬ先こそ露をも厭えというから、麻薬は一生使わないと誓ったけど、今の俺はこんなに厄介な状況に陥った」 「いやいや、お前のカフェイン依存症はまだ軽いほうだと思うぞ」

(“Kodomo no toki, nurenu saki koso tsuyu wo mo itoe to iu kara, mayaku wa isshou tsukawanai to chikatta kedo, ima no ore wa konna ni yakkai na joukyou ni ochiitta.” “Iyaiya, omae no kafein izonshou wa mada karui hou da to omou zo.”)

[“They say that to stay dry you must loathe the dew, so when I was a kid, I swore that I would never do any drugs in my whole life. And yet, what a terrible state I’ve fallen to.”
“Dude, no. I’d say your dependence on caffeine is comparatively pretty mild.”]

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Orthogrothy

Giving heterodox doctrines a bit of what-for

破邪顕正
ha.ja.ken.shou

Literally: destroy – wicked / injustice – express / reveal – correct / justice

Alternately: The Buddhist concept of breaking down that which is wrong, bad, or untrue, and making the truth clear, or upholding that which is right. While I’m sure we can all think of cases where this is broadly needed in our secular lives, the phrase carries a connotation of defeating heresies and upholding the orthodox, “correct” ways of thinking and doing.

Notes:

As one might expect, this phrase comes to us from a (late 6th century CE) Buddhist text: the 『三論玄義』 (Japanese Sanron gengi), one of the works on which the “emptiness” school of Buddhist thought was based.

正 may also be pronounced sei, although this is less common.

 
This sort of boasting does not actually always go well in Japanese stories.

Pictured: a completely normal Heian-era Buddhist monk, preparing to engage in a lively philosophical debate. Original source unclear.

*(Post title spelling is correct, probably.)

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Work-life balance?

Once upon a time, there lived a lovely old couple whose start-of-stoy childlessness kind of flew in the face of this week’s saying.

律義者の子沢山
(Richigimono no kodakusan;
“The many children of the righteous”)

Definition:

An honest, sincere, hard-working person will get along well with their spouse, and thus will be blessed with many children. There seems to be an association with the idea that the person in question is specifically a poor man, who is being rewarded by the universe with a wealth of offspring.

Breakdown:

We begin with the compound noun 律義者 (richigimono), comprising the characters 律, “rhythm,” “regulation,” “law,” 義, “justice,” “loyalty,” and 者, “person.” The compound as a whole means an honest or conscientious person; someone who works hard to do what is right. The associative particle の (no) connects this to another compound noun, 子沢山 (kodakusan), “many children.”

Notes:

For gi it is perfectly acceptable to use 儀 (“ceremony,” “rule”) rather than 義; I can’t even call this a replacement because my sources are split on which they present as the main way to write the word, and which as the alternative.

The word 沢山 is ateji – that is, the common meaning and use of the characters has no bearing on the content of the word in question, but instead they are used in a somewhat arbitrary (often purely phonetic) function. In this case, the literal meaning of the word would be “swamp mountain.”

This is the ri entry of the Edo (Tokyo) iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:

律義者の子沢山と言うけれど、本当だったら先進国は少子化がどんどん進んでいるから、皮肉なものだ」

(Richigimono no kodakusan to iu keredo, hontou dattara senshinkoku wa shoushika ga dondon susundeiru kara, hiniku na mono da.”)

[“They say that the conscientious man is blessed with many children. But if that were true, then the continually declining birth rate in ‘advanced’ nations would be ironic.”]

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The Repairer of Reputations

名誉挽回
mei.yo.ban.kai

Literally: name – honor – grind – revolve

Alternately: Regaining trust, reputation, or fame that has been lost.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 名誉 is “prestige,” while 挽回 is “restoration.” As such, one can express the same idea by replacing 挽回 with the better-known phrase 回復 (kaifuku), “recovery,” “rehabilitation.” However, replacing 挽 with homophone 晩, “evening,” is an error.

 
BLAM!

When in doubt, restore your good name by destroying a target Permanent?

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One nugget at a time

A pollo, the god of wisdom?

知恵は小出しにせよ
(Chie wa kodashi ni se yo;
“Portion out your wisdom”)

Definition:

Reveal your abilities a little at a time, as needed, rather than all at once. Always keep something in reserve in case of emergency.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 知恵 (chie), “wisdom,” “intelligence,” “insight,” marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic begins with a noun phrase comprising the nominal prefix 小 (ko), “small,” and the verb 出す (dasu), “to emit,” itself in prenominal form and acting like a noun meaning “doling out a little at a time.” This is marked by the particle に (ni) as being the object of a verb. And finally, we have the verb す (su), the progenitor of modern する (suru), “to do,” in imperative form as せよ (seyo).

Notes:

This saying may be compacted down to the noun phrase 知恵小出し (chie no kodashi).

Example sentence:

「駆け出しの作家はよく、短期間で色んな話の筋や、キャラクター、シーンなどを思いついて次々と繰り出して、その全てを一つの小説に詰め込んでしまうけど、そのせいで話が支離滅裂になって、読者が困惑して、場合によっては読むのをやめてしまうこともある。この仕事でも知恵は小出しにすることを心得ておいた方がいいよ」

(“Kakedashi no sakka wa yoku, tankikan de ironna hanashi no suji ya, kyarakutaa, shiin nado wo omoitsuite tsugitsugi to kuridashite, sono subete wo hitotsu no shousetsu ni tsumekonde shimau kedo, sono sei de hanashi ga shiri metsuretsu ni natte, dokusha ga konwaku shite, baai ni yotte wa yomu no wo yamete shimau koto mo aru. Kono shigoto de mo chie wa kodashi ni suru koto wo kokoroete oita hou ga ii yo.”)

[“Novice writers often come up with all sorts of ideas for plotlines, characters, and scenes in a short period of time, and try to cram them all into a single story. As a result, the story turns into an incoherent jumble, and the reader can get confused. Sometimes they quit reading the story altogether. This is another job where it’s better to keep something in reserve.”]

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Panta Rhei

流金鑠石
ryuu.kin.shaku.seki

Literally: flow – metal – melt* – stone

Alternately: Incredible heat. Hot enough to soften and melt metal, or even stone.

Notes: Bear in mind that there are multiple characters that can be rendered in English as “melt.” 鑠 specifically refers to heating up a metal-bearing ore into a molten state, as opposed to the more general 溶, or 熔, which refers to metal being heated to a liquid state.

A synonymous phrase replaces 鑠石 with 焦土 (shou do), “char – earth.”

This phrase comes from our friend the Songs of Chu (Japanese 『楚辞』 = So ji). It seems that the world once had ten separate suns, which appeared in the sky in turn. But one day they all came out at once, producing enormous heat and causing severe harm and damage on the earth below. The divine archer Hou Yi shot them down one by one, and only the last sun was spared in order to carry on normal sun-work.

Little did the heroes of old know that even just one sun would be quite enough to melt the earth’s stone and metal on its own… after humanity was betrayed by a group of robber-barons who poisoned the sky itself for the sake of their personal greed.

 
Expect more of this in the future. Fun!

Current events!

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Even super-firm

豆腐に鎹
(Toufu ni kasugai;
“A wood-clamp in tofu”)

Definition:

Attempting something that’s guaranteed to produce no meaningful response or results. An utterly ineffectual action, like using a construction-strength fastener on an ultra-soft material like tofu. Like talking to a brick wall, or emptying the ocean with a thimble.

Breakdown:

This very simple phrase begins with the noun 豆腐 (toufu), “tofu” – more literally “decayed beans,” or “fermented beans” – followed by the direction marker に (ni). “in(to).” And finally we get the noun 鎹 (kasugai), a metal fastener shaped like a large, shallow staple and used in carpentry.

Notes:

A close synonym is 糠に釘 (nuka ni kugi), “a nail into rice bran.” Just make sure not to get your wires crossed; putting the nail into tofu or the kasugai into rice bran is considered an error. Similarly, you can compare and contrast this phrase with 暖簾に腕押し, which highlights the lack of response without making the same explicit judgment about whether the result is worthwhile. Just keep in mind not to arm-wrestle the tofu!

This is the to entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. It comes to us from an Edo-era Ninjoubon work titled 『仮名文章娘節用』 (Kana majiri musume setsuyou).

Example sentence:

「今の作戦のままじゃどんなに努力しても豆腐に鎹だよ。手段を変えない限り、君は一戦合も勝てないままだよ」

(“Ima no sakusen no mama ja donna ni doryoku shite mo toufu ni kasugai da yo. Shudan wo kaenai kagiri, kimi wa hitoshiai mo katenai mama da yo.”)

[“As long as you keep using this strategy, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it; it’s like nailing jello to a tree. You’re not going to a win a single match as long as you don’t change your methods.”]

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