An almost-luxurious oppression

Nobody tell the Merovingian.

(Mawata de kubi wo shimeru;
“A gun on a dark night”)


Pressure or harm that comes at someone gradually or indirectly, rather than as an overt attack or dramatic event.


We begin with the noun 真綿 (mawata), literally “true cotton” but in this case referring to silk “floss” – see below for greater detail. This noun is marked by the particle で (de) as the means by which the verb is performed; in this case the verb in question is 絞める (shimeru), “to constrict,” “to strangle,” which appears in conclusive (or prenominal) form. The object of this verb, 首 (kubi), “neck,” is marked as the direct object of this verb by the particle を (wo).


真綿 may be a bit tricky. It’s translated as “silk floss,” and in the world of textiles “floss” apparently means strands of untwisted, or only lightly twisted, fibers that make for an especially soft wadding or thread and are often used for embroidery. In this case, the term refers to silk from the discarded cocoons of moths that were allowed to hatch, instead of being boiled with the pupa still inside, as seems to be standard practice. 真綿 appears in this saying because it is softer than regular silk thread.

真綿 may occasionally be replaced with synonym 粘綿 (nebawata), “sticky cotton.” 首 may be replaced with 喉 (nodo), “throat.” It is also considered acceptable to replace 絞める with the more generic homophone 締める (“to tighten”), although the more-precise former character is generally preferred.

This phrase is attributed to a 1711 Ukiyo-zoushi work titled 『傾城禁短気』 (Keiseikintanki).

Example sentence:


(“Ano jimusho de wa, kore da to ieru ijime wa issai nakatta. Da ga shikashi, mainichi komakai koto wo chikuchiku tsukarete mawata de kubi wo shimerareteiru you na kibun ni natta kara, chissoku shinai uchi ni tenshoku shita nda.”)

[“There wasn’t anything at that office that you could point to and call bullying. That said, I was poked and needled about minor details every day until it felt like I was slowly being strangled, so I changed jobs before it could suffocate me completely.”]

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Lose the I, keep the cat


Literally: follow – sky – leave – private / I

Alternately: Giving up one’s egotism and selfish desires, and living in accordance with the natural order.

Notes: This phrase is attributed to Natsume Soseki, who in his later years apparently came to see it as an ideal frame of mind to approach life and/or literature.

Replacing 則 with homophone 即 is an error. The phrase may also be given a kunyomi (Japanese-style reading) as 天に則り私を去る (ten ni nottori watakushi wo saru).

I'm just kind of done, for the day at least. Sheesh.

The name of this model for glasses frames, by a company called Less Than Human.

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Only a failure to see

–Malcolm Muggeridge

(Yamiyo ni teppou;
“A gun on a dark night”)


Doing things at random without any clear plans or information. Taking shots in the dark without even a target, much less the ability to see and aim at one. Arbitrary, generally ineffectual activity. By extension, this phrase can also refer to a lucky hit; a fluke success where none could reasonably have been expected.


We begin with the noun 闇夜 (yamiyo), “dark night,” especially a moonless night, marked by the particle に (ni) as the location (or rather, the time) of an action. The verb itself is elided, but the action itself is suggested by the following noun, 鉄砲 (teppou), “gun.”


This is the や (ya) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. Variants include the contracted に鉄砲 (yami ni teppou) – which is the ya entry in the Osaka set – and 闇夜鉄砲 (yamiyo no teppou), which makes the saying into a noun phrase rather than an implied sentence. Other variants replace the gun with 礫 (tsubute), a [thrown] rock, along with several different ways to express “darkness.” Replacing 闇夜 with 暗がり (kuragari), “darkness,” is considered an error.

Some uses follow this phrase with the elided verb, ~を撃つ (wo utsu), “to shoot [a gun].”

Compare and contrast the more-forgiving 下手な鉄砲も数撃てば当たる.

Example sentence:


(“Ichiou, hitobanjuu yamiyo ni teppou wo utsu you na puroguramingu wo shita kara sofuto wa ugoiteiru keredo, kongo no debaggu wa hitsuyou fukaketsu da.”)

[“For what it’s worth, I spent the night coding without really knowing what I was doing and now the software runs, but it’s definitely going to need debugging later on.”]

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Four steps or you stumble

It all boils down to the need for as many people as possible to agree to be good dancing partners for everyone else


Literally: ceremony – leisure – punishment – government **but see below!

Alternately: The four pillars necessary to maintain good social order. This is essentially an acronym: the four characters represent 礼節 (reisetsu, “decorum”), 音楽 (ongaku, “music”), 刑罰 (keibatsu, “punishment [for crimes]”), and 政令 (seirei, “government ordinance”). In modern terms, perhaps this translates into civility, the arts, a justice system, and regulations.


This phrase comes from our friend, the classical Confucian text the Book of Rites (Japanese 『礼記』 = Raiki). One of my sources aligns 礼 with 礼 (reigi), “politeness,” although I don’t want to read too much into any nuance here given the necessary blurriness that comes from multiple steps of translation and centuries of temporal separation.

The most interesting part to me is the inclusion of music: the chapter in the Book of Rites that this phrase comes from is even 楽記 (gakuki), a treatise on music theory. My personal assumption is that this is not just because song and dance are a universal social-bonding activity across human cultures, but specifically because of its use in religious and court rituals, echoes of which we see preserved in modern Shinto practices in Japan.

The most frightening part to me is that while today’s Republican party in the US would certainly appreciate Confucian (patriarchal, hierarchical) ideas about social structure, in terms of these four pillars of social order they’re actively opposing and working to undermine every single one..

The Chinese influence really shines through, IMO

Japanese imperial gagaku; image from the UNESCO page on the art as an “intangible cultural heritage”

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Actually, don’t put a lid on it

Keep your mouth open and face the music

(Kusai mono ni futa wo suru;
“To put a lid on something stinky”)


Stopgap measures to hide misdeeds, scandal, or other inconvenient realities. The tactic is temporary, but that doesn’t stop some, especially the rich and powerful, from using it repeatedly to postpone a reckoning.


We begin with the adjective 臭い (kusai), “stinky,” which precedes and modifies the noun 物 (mono), “thing,” which is marked as the target of an action by the directional particle に (ni), in the context of the final word, which is the verb する (suru), “to do,” in conclusive form. The direct-object marker particle を (wo) applies this verb to the noun 蓋 (futa), “lid,” which becomes the thing being “done” to the stinky thing.


This is the く (ku) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. It is attributed (by exactly one of my sources) to a 1749 joururi play titled 『双蝶蝶曲輪日記』 (Futatsu chouchou kuruwa nikki).

Sometimes the verb is elided, and the phrase is shortened to 臭い物に蓋. Occasionally mono may be written in kana as もの, although this seems uncommon.

Example sentence:


(“Hannin wa hisshi ni kusai mono ni futa wo suru you na shudan wo tsugitsugi to totta kedo, kekkyoku keisatsu ni taiho sareta.”)

[“The criminal desperately tried one move after another to throw them off the scent, but eventually the police caught and arrested him.”]

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Now with more star power

As in literally not just the north star, but six other stars


Literally: Tai – mountain – north – dipper

Alternately: A leading and respected figure in a given field; someone of immense personal authority by whose standard others chart their courses and measure their progress. The human equivalent of a famous mountain or constellation.

Notes: Cartographical in feel, this is a compound of proper nouns: 泰山 is simply the name of a famous mountain, Mount Tai (a.k.a. Tai Shan), while 北斗 is the Big Dipper constellation.

This phrase comes to us from the New Book of Tang, or Xīn Tángshū, (Japanese 『新唐書』 = Shintoujo), essentially a heavily-revised replacement for the history text that we retrospectively call the Old Book of Tang, which we’ve met before. It seems to be describing Han Yu (韓愈, Japanese Kan Yu), whom we have definitely met before.

One of the grandmasters of modern fiction, and by all accounts a decent guy

One of the earliest and greatest luminaries in my personal constellation of heroes

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Too hot for a cold reading

“Philosophers / must ultimately find / their true perfection // in knowing all / the follies of mankind / -by introspection.” – Piet Hein, Grooks, “The Ultimate Wisdom.”

(On’youji mi no ue shirazu;
“The diviner knows not their own fate”)


Everybody is their own worst blind spot: it’s easy to notice quirks and tendencies in the people around you while remaining ignorant of your own. Fortune-tellers can’t tell their own fortunes.


This time we’re going to start close to the end with the noun 身 (mi) and the noun 上 (ue), joined by the associative particle の (no). While in literal terms 身 is “body” and 上 is “above,” the phrase 身の上 in this case refers to someone’s fate. This core noun phrase is preceded, without particles, by the noun 陰陽師 (here on’youji, but see below), a diviner/magician/exorcist (etc.) in the 陰陽五行説. And it is followed, also without particles (but we may imagine an object-marker), by the verb 知る (shiru) “to (come to) know [something],” in imperfective form and taking the negative suffix ず (zu) in conclusive form.


This is the お (o) entry of the Osaka iroha karuta set. However, most of my sources replace the yin-yang practitioner 陰陽師 with the more generic 易者 (ekisha), “fortune-teller.”

The word 陰陽師 is probably most commonly pronounced onmyouji, but it can also be read as in’youshi, omyouji, on’nyoushi, or on’youji. The final one is considered correct for this saying.

Example sentence:


(On’youji mi no ue shirazu to iu you ni, itsumo ano hito no chuugen ni wa sukuwareteiru nda kedo, honnin mo jibun no itta koto wo jissen subeki da to omocchau toki mo aru nda yo ne.”)

[“Just as the diviner can’t see their own destiny, their advice always helps me out, but there are times when I can’t help but think that they need to be putting their own words into actual practice.”]

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You and I, wacky together

Armpit noises???


Literally: (to) use – harmony – do – valued

Alternately: A statement that the most important thing is good relations between people. One should cherish positive interpersonal relations in all of society.

Notes: This one is in the “Seventeen-Article Constitution” (Japanese 十七条憲法, Juushichijou kenpou), a 1400-year-old treatise on good governance based on Buddhist and Confucian thinking. Some of my sources suggest that it was borrowed from the foundational Confucian text, the Book of Rites (Japanese 『礼記』 = Raiki).

This phrase can also be rendered in native-Japanese style as 和を用って貴しと為す (wa wo motte toutoshi to nasu).

Interesting choices in the color palette

The guy who wrote the one thing, Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子 Shoutoku taishi)

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The hammer of kindness

(Nomi to ieba tsuchi;
“When [asked for] a chisel, [one also brings a] mallet”)


To be intelligent and thoughtful in all things – as a description, or as an imperative. If someone asks you to bring them a chisel, having enough consideration and foresight to also bring a mallet, since they’re used together.


We begin with the noun 鑿 (nomi), “chisel,” marked with the particle と (to). The particle here acts as speech marker, as demonstrated by the following verb 言う (iu), “to say,” here in perfective form and taking the conditional suffix ば (ba), “when.” Without further particles or verbs, the result of the condition is reduced to simply the noun 槌 (tsuchi), “mallet.”


This is the の (no) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set.

There are several variants on the phrase, including one that specifies a 才槌 (saidzuchi), a small mallet. Compare and contrast 一を聞いて十を知る, which includes the same powers of insight but leaves out the implications of consideration for others.

Example sentence:


(“Gendai shakai de wa hotondo no koyoushu ga nomi to ieba tsuchi to iu kidzukai ga dekiru hatarakite wo sagashiteiru ga, sono hatarakiburi ni fusawashii kyuuryou wo haratteiru ka wa betsu no hanashi da.”)

[“Most employers in our contemporary society are looking for workers who take that extra step. Whether they’re offering wages commensurate with that level of diligence is another story.”]

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From sea to shining sea to another sea to yet another sea

Earning an A+, though, not a C


Literally: ocean – inside – not – pair

Alternately: Top-ranked in the nation, or in the world. Without peer.

Notes: This compound comes from our friend, the ancient poetic anthology Wen Xuan (Japanese 『文選』, Monzen). And it’s important to keep in mind that 内 here is not given its more-common reading of nai here; only the Tang-style reading dai is correct. (Cf. 境内 keidai). Compare and contrast the temporal, rather than spatial, span of 古今無双.

This is a compound of compounds. 海内 refers to “within the four seas,” e.g. throughout the entire land, or by extension, in the whole world. 無双 refers to something that is “without compare.”

Sushi mandala

Apparently this arrangement is a 四海巻き, a “four seas roll.”

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