If the cattle are horny, you shouldn’t care if they’re straight

角を矯めて牛を殺す
(Tsuno wo tamete ushi wo korosu; “Straightening the horns, killing the cow”)

Definition:

A situation where trying to fix a small problem ruins the whole thing. The cure being worse than the disease. Hammering and pulling on a cow’s curved horns in an attempt to straighten them is only going to be bad for the beast itself.

Breakdown:

This saying comprises conjoined verb phrases. The first begins with noun 角 (tsuno), “horn(s),” marked by particle を (wo) as the object of verb 矯める (tameru), “to straighten,” “to correct,” which appears in conjunctive form. The second phrase uses を to take as its object the noun 牛 (ushi), “cow,” and the verb being done to the cow is 殺す (korosu), “to kill,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

Replacing 矯める with homophone 溜める, “to amass,” is of course an error. Replacing it with 直す (naosu, “to fix”), however, is perfectly fine.

This saying has a surprising number of synonymous phrases. My favorite are the ones declaring that trying to repair or polish a Buddha statue, or a Jizou statue, will break off its nose.

Example sentence:

角を矯めて牛を殺したように、ソフトにちょっとだけ手を加えてみたら、途中でパソコンが不意にブルースクリーンになってしまった」

(Tsuno wo tamete ushi wo koroshita you ni, sofuto ni chotto dake te wo kuwaete mitara, tochuu de pasokon ga fui ni buruu sukuriin ni natte shimatta.”)

[“As if I’d killed the cow by straightening its horns, when I tried tweaking the software just a bit, all of a sudden my computer went BSOD.”]

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Like yourself; like Mt. Tai

泰然自若
tai.zen.ji.jaku

Literally: calm – “sort of thing” – self – (young) / similar

Alternately: Unflappable. Calm and self-controlled.

Notes: This is another compound of synonymous compounds; 泰然 means “composed; unmoved,” while 自若 means “self-possessed.”

This yojijukugo has a number of both synonyms, including 余裕綽々, and antonyms, including 小心翼翼 (“fearful”) and 右往左往 (“disordered”).

TaiZenJiJakuGeri

From this “note” account. The bird is saying “Flying kick!”

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The audacity of crime

盗人猛猛しい
(Nusubito takedakeshii; “An impudent thief”)

Definition:

Remaining calm and self-assured even when doing something wrong. Alternately, when you get caught doing something wrong, acting defiant or even becoming aggressive toward the person who caught you, instead of being properly embarrassed or contrite. Brazening out your own crimes and wrongdoings. Evil chutzpah. Currently, acting presidential.

Breakdown:

This simple subject-predicate phrase begins with compound noun 盗人 (nusubito, although see below), “thief” or “robber.” We can imagine an elided topic marker here, but what we actually get is a comment in the form of adjective 猛猛しい (takedakeshii), “shameless,” “bold,” “ferocious,” in modern conclusive form but with any sort of copula elided.

Notes:

盗人 can also be read as nusutto. The adjective may alternately be written using the kanji doubling mark, as 猛々しい, and/or with an old-fashioned conclusive form by leaving off the final い. Replacing takedakeshii with hanahadashii is an error.

Multiple sources translate this into English as “He bites the ear yet seems to cry for fear,” which I have never heard in my life. Some research indicates that in this case “bite” is slang for “caress,” as seen in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act II scene IV), but that doesn’t make the meaning any clearer or explain why someone thought it the best translation for what boils down to “brazen wrongdoing.”

Example sentence:

「ネコってさ、本質は盗人猛猛しいけど、家のペロちゃんは違うんだよ」

(“Neko tte sa, honshitsu wa nusubito takedakeshii kedo, uchi no Pero-chan wa chigau nda yo.”)

[“You know, by their very nature cats are bald-faced criminals, but our little Pero is different.”]

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Pull your sheep, a good life to keep

牽羊悔亡
ken.you.kai.bou

Literally: pull / lead – sheep – regret – perish

Alternately: You’ll be unhappy unless you take an active part in shaping things. If you see something through properly instead of just letting it run its natural course, you will have no regrets. A flock of sheep left to their own devices will wander, lock horns, and otherwise run into trouble, so human guidance is necessary – and so it is in other facets of life as well.

Notes: This comes to us from the I Ching (易経, Japanese Ekikyou). Interestingly, the compound can be read, kanbun-style, as 羊を牽けば悔い亡びん (Hitsuji wo hikeba kui horobin).

Keep in mind that 悔亡 doesn’t mean “suffer and die”; it means “suffering will disappear.”

KenYouKaiBouEma

What looks like an ema (prayer plaque) at a shrine.

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The ease of TITO

上げ膳据え膳
(Agezen suezen; “Table-clearing; table-setting”)

Definition:

Not doing anything; having everything done for one. Can be positive, as when describing the service at a luxury resort, or negative, as when describing a friend or family member who isn’t pulling their weight.

Breakdown:

This compact phrase comprises paired noun phrases, each centered on the noun 膳 (zen). These are, traditionally, low lacquered tables used in “high-class” eating situations, small enough to be loaded with food and carried into and out of a room like trays.

In the first half of the phrase, this noun is modified by the verb 上げる (ageru), “to raise,” or in this case “to pick up [and clear away],” in conjunctive form, which allows it to function as a noun – that is, 上げ・膳 is grammatically a compound noun. The same happens in the second half with 据える (sueru), “to place [something in position].”

Notes:

It is acceptable to insert particle に (ni), in the sense of “(adding A) to (B),” in between the two halves. Replacing 据える with 下げる (sageru, opposite of 上げる) is considered an error.

Keep in mind that traditionally, moneyed people sat on thin cushions on tatami flooring and lived in houses where many of the rooms were multi-purpose. Servants would bring out, or put away, implements such as standing screens, futons, writing tables, and 食膳 (shokuzen) – “eating tables.” In a modern context, without ubiquitous paid or roomed-and-boarded household staff, the nuance associated with having one’s place set out and cleared away seems to have changed from “exactly what you’d expect” to “luxury” or even “being lazy.”

Incidentally, you will still see zen in contemporary Japan; in keeping with their aristocratic origin, they tend to be limited to expensive, nostalgia-invoking venues like formal parties or ryokan inns. Miniature versions may sometimes be used with household shrines.

Example sentence:

「旦那さんに家事をさせないで上げ膳据え膳の生活を許してしまったら、何も出来ない状態で年老いちゃうから、夫婦の将来をダメにするんじゃありませんか。今の時代、夫婦で家事をするのがデフォルトですよ、部長。」

(“Danna-san ni kaji wo sasenaide agezen suezen no seikatsu wo yurushite shimattara, nanimo dekinai joutai de toshioichau kara, fuufu no shourai wo dame ni suru nja arimasen ka. Ima no jidai, fuufu de kaji wo suru no ga deforuto desu yo, buchou.”)

[“If you always allow your husband to sit idly by without having him do any chores, he just gets old without learning to actually do anything. And won’t that be harmful to the couple later on? Chief, in this day and age, the default is for husband and wife to do the housework together.”]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A room full of zen for a fancy dinner party.

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On catching oneself red-handed

赤手空拳
seki.shu.kuu.ken

Literally: red – hand – empty – fist

Alternately: Doing something on one’s own, without receiving (and often without asking for) help from anybody. Alternately, facing an enemy without any weapons but one’s fists.

Notes: This is a repetition-type yojijukugo, in which 赤手 (in contrast to the English-language idiom) refers to a bare or empty hand, and 空拳 means that you’ve got nothing in your hand, just making a fist. One variant replaces the 赤 with another 空, while another replaces it with 徒 (to), which can also be used to mean “empty.” The latter variant seems to specifically emphasize a lack of capital when starting a business venture.

This phrase comes from the famous Journey to the West (西遊記, Japanese Saiyuuki), part II. I’m a little surprised to find that this is the first time we’ve had something on the site from that source, given its widespread influence: the closest we’ve come is, essentially, its nonfictional counterpart.

Donnie Yen with Fist

A lot of karate and kung fu in the image search results. Pictured: Donnie Yen in Ip Man 3.

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Save perhaps Eärendil at the Door of Night

送る月日に関守なし
(Okuru tsukihi ni sekimori nashi; “Time has no gatekeeper”)

Definition:

Time passes quickly. There is no guard blocking the paths of months and days, and they cannot be stopped. “Time and tide wait for no one.”

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 送る (okuru), “to send,” “to say farewell (to),” “to spend (time),” in prenominal form. This allows it to attach to, and modify, compound noun 月日 (tsukihi), literally “months and days,” more metaphorically “time.” Locational particle に (ni) marks this passing time as the (notional) site or possessor of 関守 (sekimori), “gatekeeper.” But at the end, describing the gatekeeper, we have adjective なし (nashi), “not,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

Some versions do without the modifying 送る, beginning with 月日.

Note that in Japan, 関守 denotes a guard at one of the 関所 (sekisho), gates blocking off major roadways so that government officials could question travelers, apprehend criminals, and collect taxes. They were used as far back as the Asuka period (6th century CE) and were only discontinued in the second year of the Meiji era (1869)!

Example sentence:

「あっと言う間に夏が終わって秋になっちゃったね。本当に、送る月日に関守なしよねぇ」「そうね…え、ちょっと待って。夏休みの宿題は?した?」

(“A- to iu ma ni natsu ga owatte aki ni nacchatta ne. Hontou ni, okuru tsukihi ni sekimori nashi yo nee.” “Sou ne… e, chotto matte. Natsuyasumi no shukudai wa? Shita?”)

[“Summer’s over in the blink of an eye and it’s already fall. Time really does have no gatekeeper, eh?” “Indeed… hang on. How about your summer-vacation homework? Did you do it?”]

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