A lance where your chin should be

枕戈待旦
chin.ka.tai.tan

Literally: pillow – “spear”* – wait – sunrise

Alternately: Always ready to give battle. Never dropping your guard or slacking off from necessary preparations. “Sleeping with a weapon as your pillow, awaiting the break of dawn.”

Notes: This phrase comes to us from the Book of Jin (Japanese 『晋書』 = Shinjo), a Tang-era history that looked back at the Jin Dynasty over two hundred years prior. (Note that this is a different work from the History of Jin, which covers a different dynasty that rose and fell a thousand years later!) Apparently an official named Liu Kun (劉琨, Japanese Ryuu Kon) learned that his friend had been promoted ahead of him, and wrote a letter complaining about this and extolling his own virtue as a warrior so utterly prepared for action that he bedded down on top of his weapons.

As is often the case with Chinese-origin phrases, this may be expanded into a full sentence, 戈を枕にして旦を待つ (Hoko wo makura ni shite ashita wo matsu). Contrast 枕を高くして寝る.

* As a rule, 戈 is translated through “localization” using a Western weapon name: lance; spear; pike, halberd. The actual original design is something closer to a long-hafted pick: the pointy bit is mounted and braced on the haft so that it projects out perpendicularly, although later designs seem to have added a spear-like vertical spike as well. Wiktionary has a pretty good chart showing how the character evolved from a pure pictogram depicting this shape into its current form.

Ge, ge, ge ge ge no ge!

The site I got this from is in Chinese, but I think it shows pretty clearly how the Chinese ge was different from a “spear.”

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By plop or by poit

天から降ったか地から湧いたか
(Ten kara futta ka chi kara waita ka;
“Fallen from the sky, or sprung from the earth”)

Definition:

A completely out-of-the-blue occurrence, or something or someone appearing suddenly as if out of nowhere. The image is of something being unexpectedly present as if it had just dropped out of the sky or popped up out of the ground.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 天 (ten), “the sky,” followed by directional particle から (kara). The nature of what happens “from” is described by the verb 降る (furu), “to fall,” often used for rain. This verb appears in past tense, conclusive form, and is followed by interrogative particle か (ka). Next we get a parallel phrase beginning with the noun 地 (chi), “ground,” “earth,” similarly marked by the particle から. And again we have a verb, 湧く (waku), “to come forth,” generally referring to an outflow or welling-up of water. This verb also appears in past tense, conclusive form, and again is followed by the interrogative particle. In cases like this the paired kas serve a more rhetorical function: they don’t so much ask “A? Or B?” as they declare “whether A or B.”

Notes:

It seems that this phrase has been translated into English in the past, somewhat dramatically, using phrases like “vision” or “apparition” to emphasize its mysterious aspect. Contrast the physicality of the water imagery with, for example, the more explicitly supernatural 神出鬼没.

Example sentence:

「研究で困る度に、行き詰まったと認めた瞬間、足音も立てずにあの図書員が天から降ったか地から湧いたか、そばに現れて手伝ってくれる

(“Kenkyuu de komaru tabi ni, ikidzumatta no mitometa shunkan, ashioto mo tatezu ni ano toshoin ga ten kara futta ka chi kara waita ka, soba ni arawarete tetsudatte kureru.”)

[“Whenever I’m having trouble with my research, at exactly the moment when I admit to myself that I’m stuck, that librarian appears at my side as if out of thin air, without even the sound of a footstep, and helps me out.”]

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Make sure you get your ball back afterwards

一球入魂
i-.kkyuu.nyuu.kon

Literally: one – sphere – enter / insert – soul

Alternately: This phrase from the world of baseball refers to putting your full energy and focus into each action; specifically, putting everything you can into each throw of the ball.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. 一球 is a simple number-noun phrase, of course, but 入魂 is more interesting; pronounced jukon (or jikkon or jukkon), it means “intimacy,” “familiarity.” Even as a term for “putting a soul into something,” it can refer to an act that ensouls a physical object, cf. 画竜点睛 and 仏作って魂入れず.

Closing credits over banner

Cycling anime Yowamushi Pedal plays on this by replacing kyuu with rhyming 蹴 (shuu), “kick.”

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May it be a light to you in dark places

…when all other lights go out – JRRT, FotR

長者の万灯より貧者の一灯
(Chouja no mantou yori hinja no ittou;
“A pauper’s single light is greater than a rich man’s ten thousand.”)

Definition:

There is greater honor in a poor person sincerely giving what they can, than a wealthy person’s extravagant show of philanthropy. A single lamp that actually means something to the person who paid to have it lit is worth more than ten thousand lamps whose motivation is just conspicuous consumption.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 長者 (chouja), literally “long person,” by extension a “leader” or simply a “wealthy person.” The associative particle の (no) marks this as the possessor of number-noun 万灯 (mantou), “ten-thousand lights. A little further on we find a parallel phrase that begins with 貧者 (hinja), “poor person,” marked by another の (no) as the possessor of number-noun 一灯 (ittou), “one light.” The two phrases are joined by the particle より (yori), which marks the latter as “rather than” or “more than” the former.

Notes:

This Buddhist phrase comes from a story in a text called the 『阿闍世王受決経』 (Ajase ou juketsu kyou), something like the “King Ajatashatru Receive-Decision Sutra.” The story goes that Ajatashatru (a conqueror of multiple smaller states) decided to become a follower of the Buddha, and invited him to visit. When the Buddha was returning home in the evening, the king caused ten thousand lights to be lit along his road. And old woman saw this and gathered up her savings to add a single light to the row – and even after the king’s lights had burned out, the woman’s miraculously burned throughout the night.

The term 長者 has a particular connection to the leader of a “post town” (宿場, shukuba), Edo-era waystations on major routes connecting to the capital city that were established to provide food, shelter, and other functions for travelers, especially government officials. However, in this kotowaza we should simply read it as “an especially rich person.”

This phrase may be contracted to simply 貧者の一灯, either as shorthand for the whole, or simply to express “a person of little means who is giving everything they can.” One variant specifies the poor person as 貧女 (hinjo or hinnyo, “a poor woman”); another reduces the rich person’s count to just 千灯 (sentou, “one thousand lights”).

Example sentence:

「今年の誕生日でもらったプレゼントの中で、一番感動したのは妹がクレヨンで描いた絵だった。一日中頑張って描いて、私の好きなものもたくさん描いてくれたから、どんなに下手な絵でも貧者の一灯なので大切にするつもりだ」

(“Kotoshi no tanjoubi de moratta purezento no naka de, ichiban kandou shita no wa imouto ga kureyon de kaita e datta. Ichinichijuu ganbatte kaite, watashi no suki na mono mo takusan egaite kureta kara, donna ni heta na e de mo hinja no ittou na no de taisetsu ni suru tsumori da.”)

[“Out of all the birthday presents I got this year, the one that moved me the most was a crayon drawing from my little sister. She worked hard on it all day, and she drew a lot of the things I like; it may not be much, but it’s everything she had to give, so I’m going to treasure it.”]

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Why that two-faced rat

Well, he looks that way sometimes

首鼠両端
shu.so.ryou.tan

Literally: neck – mouse / rat – both – edge

Alternately: Caught in indecision, often between two choices. Vacillating; sitting on the fence. By extension, the phrase can also refer to someone who is gauging a situation before deciding what to do or which side to throw in with. The image is of a rodent sticking its head out of a hole and looking around as if unsure which way to go.

Notes: This is another extract from our old friend, the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki). It is considered a synonym of “last week’s” 遅疑逡巡.

Fruits Basket. It's a long story.

Protip: Do NOT use an iron to make your final decision

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Double rhyme; wastin’ time

(Imagine my horror when I realized that after a year of pushing through Pandemic Doldrums, I finally managed to completely blank out and miss last week’s yojijukugo. In “honor” of that unwonted error, I’ve chosen a compound containing the character 遅, for “lateness,” and you’ll get another one in between now and next Wednesday to make up for the one I missed.)

遅疑逡巡
chi.gi.shun.jun

Literally: slow / late – doubt / distrust – go back – go around

Alternately: Hesitation; lingering; an inability to decide.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 遅疑 is indecisiveness, while 逡巡 is hesitation.

A variant compound may replace 巡 with homophone 循, “follow.”

ChiGiShunJunKun

I dunno, man.

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We’ll cross that non-bridge the instant we come to it

You can’t a ford to wait!

川越して宿とれ
(Kawa koshite yado tore;
“Cross a river; take lodgings”)

Definition:

A warning to think ahead and make arrangements just in case. Alternately, an admonition to take care of difficult or annoying tasks quickly instead of putting them off. Act sooner rather than later; don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today.

Breakdown:

This phrase begins with the noun 川 (kawa), “river,” with particles elided but acting as the direct object of the verb 越す (kosu), “to cross over,” which appears in conjunctive form. This in turn points to the verb とる (toru), “to take,” in imperative form, in turn taking as its object (with particles elided) the noun 宿 (yado), “inn,” “lodgings.”

Notes:

Some versions of this saying will explicitly use at least the second elided を (wo) to mark the noun in question as the object of its following verb.

In the past, bridges were rare, and one normally crossed a river by ford or ferry. This meant that rain or wind could delay a river crossing, sometimes for days. Therefore, if you wanted to stop and rest for a while, it was recommended that you do so after crossing any relevant rivers, rather than using the stay as an excuse to put off the bother and danger of the crossing, because there was always the chance that bad weather would roll in and disrupt your plans if you waited.

Example sentence:

「祭りの晩にご馳走をすると分かっていたから、今回は数週間前から材料を揃え始めたんだ。前は失敗して、川越して宿をとれっていうのをよく勉強したからね」

(“Matsuri no ban ni gochisou wo suru to wakatteita kara, konkai wa suushuukanmae kara zairyou wo soroehajimeta nda. Mae wa shippai shite, kawa koshite yado wo tore tte iu no wo yoku benkyou shita kara ne.”)

[“I knew we’d be having a festive meal on the night of the festival, so this time I started laying in supplies several weeks in advance. Previously I’d messed up, and it drove home the lesson that you should cross the river before you rest.”]

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But what age group are riders of the storm?

No age, silly; they’re ghosts!

子供は風の子
(Kodomo wa kaze no ko;
“Children are children of the wind”)

Definition:

Children sometimes seem impervious to the cold, and will happily run around and play outdoors in weather and temperatures that tend to drive adults indoors for shelter. By extension, this becomes an assertion that children should play outside even when it’s cold and/or windy instead of being kept cooped up inside.

Breakdown:

This simple phrase begins with the noun 子供 (kodomo), “child[ren],” marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic has been whittled down to a single noun phrase, comprising the nouns 風 (kaze), “wind,” and 子 (ko), “child,” joined by the associative particle の (no). One may imagine a sentence-final structure here, although it has been elided.

Notes:

This phrase comes to us from an Edo-era collection of comic tales by priest and tea-ceremony master 安楽庵策伝 (Anrakuan Sakuden), the 『醒睡笑』 (Seisuishou), considered the progenitor of the rakugo storytelling art.

The saying is sometimes followed by parallel phrase 大人は火の子 (otona wa hi no ko), “adults are children of fire,” i.e. when it gets cold outside, adults will gather around sources of heat such as fireplaces.

Example sentence:

「どんなに子供は風の子と言っても、コートも無しで、ただの洋服に帽子と手袋だけで雪の中で遊ばせるのはさすがにちょっとやりすぎじゃないですか?」

(“Donna ni kodomo wa kaze no ko to itte mo, kooto mo nashi de, tada no youfuku ni boushi to tebukuro dake de yuki no naka de asobaseru no wa sasuga ni chotto yarisugi ja nai desu ka?”)

[“No matter how much they say that children don’t feel the cold, isn’t it really too much to let them play in the snow in just clothes plus hat and gloves, without a coat?”]

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For I am the ruler of all that I spoon

杓子定規
shaku.shi.jou.gi

Literally: scoop – child – determine – measure

Alternately: Assessing everything based on the same criteria, regardless of whether this is appropriate or not. Inflexible; clinging to a single set of rules no matter what. Like trying to measure all sizes and distances by comparing them to the handle of a ladle.

Notes:

In contrast to Sunday’s kotowaza, the 杓子 in this case apparently refers specifically to a “dipper” called a 柄杓 (hishaku), which takes the form of a sort of cup at the end of a stick. While an image search suggests that modern hishaku have straight, dowel-like handles, my sources say that historical ones had bent handles, making them almost useless as measuring-sticks.

This compound may also be expanded into a normal phrase as 杓子を定規にする (shakushi wo jougi ni suru), “to make a measuring-stick out of a ladle.” 四角四面 is considered a synonym.

This phrase apparently comes to us from the writing of Tokugawa-era scholar 三浦梅園 (Miura Baien).

手桶

Nobody panic, but these guys all have different handle lengths. (I think the bucket is just for scale.) (Source.)

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Pets, utensils, and maybe even people!

猫も杓子も
(Neko mo shakushi mo;
“Even cats and serving-spoons”)

Definition:

Everyone and everything. “All that and the kitchen sink.” “Everyone and their brother.” Everything at hand, thrown together in a jumble without distinction. I get the impression that this phrase is primarily used to refer to large groups of people who share in a behavior or quality.

Breakdown:

This simple phrase consists of a pair of nouns, each followed by the emphatic particle も (mo). The first noun is 猫 (neko), “cat,” and the second is 杓子 (shakushi), a traditional serving spoon.

Notes:

杓子 is often translated as “ladle” (including by me, in a previous post) but this is a bit misleading. The original bamboo spoon appears to be more flat and paddle-like, although there’s also a design that amounts to a tiny cylindrical cup at the end of a long stick, and modern usage has expanded to include Western-style ladles as well.

The origins of this phrase are unclear. Theories have been advanced suggesting that the terms are corruptions of phonetically similar words, that both cats and serving-spoons are common and accessible in many households, that shakushi are shaped similarly to cats’ paws, or that it comes from a collection of anecdotes about the famous Zen monk Ikkyū, appropriately titled 『一休咄』 (Ikkyuu-banashi, “Tales of Ikkyū”).

Example sentence:

「ピクニックに友達を数人だけ誘ったはずなのに、いつの間にか猫も杓子も集まった賑やかなパーティーになってしまった

(“Pikunikku ni tomodachi wo suunin dake sasotta hazu na no ni, itsu no ma ni ka neko mo shakushi mo atsumatta nigiyaka na paatii ni natte shimatta.”)

[“I’m pretty sure I only invited a handful of friends to the picnic, but at some point absolutely everyone showed up and it turned into a noisy party.”]

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