Written on the 4th of July

(I searched for phrases using 独 because of the 独立記念日.)


Literally: only – self – alone – precious

Alternately: Thinking that oneself is the best in the world. Being so self-assured that you don’t listen to anyone else. Conceit. Vainglory. Arrogance.

Notes: This compound may be paired with 天上天下 (which I thought I’d written a post on, but apparently not yet!), and apparently both come to us from the Dīrgha Āgama (長阿含経, Jou agonkyou in Japanese). It’s written that the Buddha (Shakyamuni) emerged suddenly from his mother’s side, took seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions, pointed to the earth and sky, and declared 天上天下唯我独尊. I suppose if you’re a newborn baby and yet already capable of walking and talking on your own, that level of self-importance may be a bit justified, but the rest of us should probably practice a bit of modesty. And despite this exalted origin, the phrase tends to be used to criticize someone’s unwarranted yet overweening pride.


High or low, east or west, talking babies are the best!

[Image by ASUKAEN (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

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Nor trying at plying

All the songless birds can fly, though

(Nakazu tobazu; “Nor crying nor flying”)


Quietly waiting one’s chance. Doing nothing for a long time, but with the specific intention of taking action as soon as the opportunity finally comes.


This simple phrase comprises two verbs, in forms that look identical but are technically different grammatically. The first verb is 鳴く (naku), a catch-all verb for animals making noise and thus translatable as “chirp,” “call,” “cry,” “bark,” etc. It appears in imperfective form with negative suffix ず (zu) in conjunctive form. The next verb is 飛ぶ (tobu), “to fly,” also in imperfective form and followed by negative suffix ず… but in this case the zu can be seen as appearing in either conjunctive or sentence-final form.


This saying comes to us from the 史記 (Shiki), the Records of the Grand Historian. Its original Japanese form apparently prefaced the verbs by specifying that the waiting took 三年 (sannen, “three years”), and some versions flip the order of the verbs.

The story goes that in the Warring States Period, king Zhuang of Chu paid no attention to affairs of state for a full three years after taking the throne, and in fact threatened to have anyone who tried to get him to change his ways killed. Wu Ju – who was acting as regent – came to him with a riddle, asking “What kind of bird is it that doesn’t call and doesn’t fly for three years?” The king got the point, dismissed the regent, and set about doing his job.

From this we get the meaning of “doing nothing,” while the part about biding one’s time seems to have been a later addition or extension.

Example sentence:


(“Edo-kun wa daigaku sotsugyou kara sannen tobazu nakazu kedo, kikai wo matteiru no ka, hikikomori seikatsu ni ochiitteiru no ka wakaranakute, chotto shinpai da.”)

[“Ed hasn’t really done anything for three years since graduating college. I can’t tell whether he’s waiting for his chance or just falling into a shut-in lifestyle, so I’m kind of worried.”]

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Reverse the order for Biblical time

Something birds, something stones?


Literally: one – morning – one – evening

Alternately: A single day. By extension, a brief and fleeting span of time. Often used in a negative structure to express that something can’t be done in (such) a small amount of time.

Notes: This compound comes to us from the I Ching (易経, in Japanese Ekikyou).

In a variant, the character 朝 is replaced with 旦 (tan), “daybreak.” Meanwhile, while 夕 can often be read as yuu, doing so in either variant of this compound is considered an error.


From this site, which tries to be cute by saying that the commonality between diets and asset management is that they both can’t be done in 一朝一夕.

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Waft your way to a win?

(Mi wo sutete koso ukabu se mo are;
“There are rivers that you cross by throwing away your body”)


Sometimes facing danger head-on is the only way to escape it. There are times when you need to be willing to take a risk in order to deal with a situation. Similar to “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” but the goal is often survival or avoiding some bad result rather than pure profit. A drowning person’s struggles may only make their situation worse; the image is of floating to the surface and escaping by relaxing and entrusting one’s body to the water instead of by fighting it.


We begin with the noun 身 (mi), “body,” marked as the object of a verb by the particle を (wo). The verb is 捨つ (sutsu), “to throw away,” in conjunctive form, with the perfective suffix つ (tsu), also in conjunctive form. This verb phrase is in turn followed by emphatic particle こそ (koso). The following clause begins with the verb 浮かぶ (ukabu), “to float,” in prenominal form, attached to and modifying the noun 瀬 (se), often used to refer to the “shallows” of a river (the part where you ford it), but in this case possibly referring to the “rapids.” In either case, se is marked by the particle も (mo), here serving to emphasis that “this kind of river-part does also exist.” And finally we get the verb あり (ari), “to be,” in perfective form.

Why is the final verb in perfective form instead of sentence-final form? Well, it turns out that in classical grammar, this was just kind of how you did it following koso, in effect using an unusual form at the end of the sentence to remind the reader/listener of the emphasis and focus from earlier.


If you watch enough semi-realistic anime fights, you’ll probably notice this trope in action: rushing into the opponent’s space without hesitating is a dangerous move, but when used properly it can give an advantage or at least lessen the strength of the opponent’s attack where holding back (i.e. failing to “throw away the body”) would have resulted in being struck down.

There’s another saying that references fords, 立つ瀬がない (tatsu se ga nai), meaning that someone has lost face or is in a troublesome situation. Naturally, mixing these up and saying 身を捨ててこそ立つ瀬もあれ is an error.

This saying is descended from a 1632 kanazoushi called 尤双紙 (Mottomo no soushi).

Example sentence:


(“Karate wa mi wo mamoru tame no undou da to itte mo, uchiwaza wo ukeru kokorogamae ga nakereba benkyou ni naran. Tsumari, mi wo sutete koso ukabu se mo are to iu koto da.”)

[“You can call karate a kind of exercise that protects your body, but if you’re not prepared to take a blow then you won’t be able to learn. In other words, it’s only by passing through danger that you reach safety.”]

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Cosmic triage


Literally: evil – person – correct – loom / machine

Alternately: No matter how evil a person is, the Buddha’s wish is for them to be saved. Or perhaps, the worse a person is, the more important it is for them to be saved. It is better to take evil and turn it toward good instead of simply fighting or condemning it. A Buddhist teaching that salvation is better than destruction. (Maybe Christians should consider adopting it.)

Notes: The term 正機 is a bit of Buddhist jargon that refers to the conditions and qualities necessary to achieve enlightenment, or at least to receive the Buddha’s aid and teachings and become a good person. According to the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism, the people with heavy loads of karmic sin are those for whom the Buddha’s teachings are most appropriate.

This compound comes to us from the third chapter of the Lamentations of Divergences, (歎異抄, Tannishou) a record of conversations between the Pure Land sect’s founder and one of his disciples, somewhat reminiscent of Socrates and Plato.

Reading 正 as sei or writing the ki as 気 are both considered errors.


It’s interesting to think that this is a system where being reborn is the bad option.

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Not just hermits

Buddhist tzaddikim?

(Hotoke sennin kami sennin; “A thousand Buddhas, a thousand gods”)


The world may be full of bad people, but there are also many good people as well, including people good enough to be compared to bodhisattvas or benevolent deities.


This simple noun phrases comprises a doubled use of the number-noun 千人 (sennin), “one thousand people.” The first use follows the noun 仏 (hotoke), “Buddha,” or a kind and enlightened person with the Buddha-spirit; the second follows 神 (kami), “god.”


Compare and contrast with a similarly optimistic oni-focused saying from a while back.

My sources say that 千人 is used to suggest “a large number of people,” but it’s worth noting that there also seems to be a concept of 千仏 (senbutsu, “one thousand Buddhas,”) according to which there were / are / will be a thousand Buddhas over the course of the three past, present, and future kalpas of cosmic time. Let me stress that this isn’t a definite causal connection, but rather an interesting correspondence. Those interested in investigating further can check the source, a late 18th-century CE sharebon called the 太平楽巻物 (Taihei raku no makimono), by Morishima Churyo.

Some versions may include a comma between the two halves.

Example sentence:


(“Saikin no nyuusu wa oni no you na akunin-tachi no akuji bakkari de, ochikonjaisou. Kono yo wa hotoke sennin kami sennin mo iru no wo wasurenai you ni ganbaranakucha.”)

[“The recent news has been a parade of evil deeds by demonically evil people, and I feel like I’m going to fall into a depression. I have to make sure to not forget that there are also plenty of saints.”]

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A day for lying in


Literally: empty – birth / arbitrary – delusion – explanation

Alternately: Groundless remarks. False statements. Talking nonsense; making irresponsible comments; shooting off at the mouth.

Notes: This is another two-two-character-compound-compound: 虚誕 refers to not just falsehoods but exaggerated falsehoods, while 妄説 refers to unsupported assertions or false claims. The latter term can be pronounced bousetsu when used on its own, but not in this four-character compound.

This usage of 誕 is a bit of a revelation to me, actually – it’s almost only ever used in modern Japanese as part of the term 誕生 (tanjou), “birth.” Apparently the combination of 言, “word,” and 延, “extend” originally meant “words that extend beyond reality” – i.e. a falsehood. It can also mean “(speaking of) things as one wants them to be (rather than how they really are),” and at this point we have to be careful because the folk etymologies bridging the gap to “birth” practically jump at you… but assuming them to be true without in-depth research would just be another case of 虚誕妄説!


Apparently also the name of a (fake) game whose (fake) development was announced on April Fool’s Day one year.

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