Who Hunts a Deer

Hello! It’s time for another kotowaza:

鹿を追う者は山を見ず

(shika wo ou mono wa yama wo mizu; “one who chases a deer doesn’t see the mountain”)

Definition:

Describes a situation in which someone is so focused on one thing or goal, generally some hoped-for profit, that they lose sight of the larger picture, leading to mistakes or unreasonable behavior.

The expression is presented in some places as roughly equivalent to “can’t see the forest for the trees.” (Incidentally, that can also be found in the same book, directly translated as 木を見て森を見ない, but for this project I’ll probably avoid translations from English, since they offer nothing new to the English-speaking student of Japanese.) However, there are several differences that prevent them from being neatly interchangeable. The forest/trees expression is about realizing that the thing being focused on is part of a greater whole, while the deer/mountain expression is about realizing that there is a “big picture” beyond the scope of one’s currents pursuits. The hunter’s problem is that he has unthinkingly crossed the mountains during the chase, not that he is hunting the deer’s leg while forgetting its body.

Breakdown:

Our object nouns here (marked by the particle ) are 鹿 (shika, a Japanese deer) and (yama, mountain). 追う (o.u) indicates the act of following after something – the word can be used for hunting, as it is here, but it can also be used for “driving something away” or “following a trend” or even, passively, “to be pressed” (followed) by time itself. (mono) means “person,” and has a slightly more formal or archaic feel than the quotidian (hito). The final verb is 見る (miru, “to see / to look at,” plus many metaphorical uses). The indicates a negative, although again it is formal or archaic in tone where most modern usage uses ない.

Incidentally, this semester I learned how the form actually works: in classical Japanese grammar 見る is a 上一段 (kami ichidan) verb, and this class of verbs drops the ending in 未然形 (mizenkei, “imperfective”). is a negative helper verb (助動詞, jodoushi) in either its verb-connecting (conjunctive) or sentence-final (predicative) form. The latter means that even without any of the indicators used by modern Japanese, the phrase can function as a grammatically complete sentence.

Notes:

Amazingly, this saying seems to come from great antiquity in China. The online kotowaza dictionary I looked at claimed that the saying’s source is in the Huainanzi, a 2153-year-old collection of philosophical writings, specifically the 17th chapter, “Discourse on Forests” (説林訓). While I don’t read any significant amount of Chinese, the text does seem to contain the passage 逐獸者目不見太山. So perhaps the phrase was originally about one who hunts [animals] and misses the mountain Taishan specifically.

Beyond this are a couple variations possible in the form. In keeping with the Chinese source, 追う can also be written as 逐う, although in modern Japanese doing so would probably feel like a deliberate deviation from normal orthography. can also be replaced by the more straightforward 猟師 (ryoushi, “hunter”).

Example sentence:

「あ、ずっとレシピを調べてて、買い物するの忘れちゃった」 「気をつけて。鹿を追う者は山を見ずだな」

(“A, zutto reshipi wo shirabetete, kaimono suru no wasurechatta.” “Ki wo tsukete. Shika wo ou mono wa yama wo mizu da na.”)

[“Ah! I spent the whole time looking up recipes – I forgot to go shopping!” “Be careful! That’s chasing a deer and missing a mountain.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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