Given that my wife gave birth to a healthy boy four days ago, it might seem a little surprising that I’m able to post this. The secret, in this case, is that the post was essentially completely written a week ago; I’m just stealing ten minutes to clean it up and post it now. Next week is an altogether different story….
Please take a couple minutes to watch this video. It is the cutest presentation of a kotowaza you will ever see in any language.
急がば回れ (Isogaba maware; “If in a hurry, go around.”)
If you’re in a hurry, don’t try to take shortcuts that you normally would not; they’ll only end up putting you in danger or wasting your time. It’s faster to travel by a known route, even if it is longer and seems like it will take more time. Similar to the English “Haste makes waste,” although it approaches the concept from an opposite angle. While – as the video linked above demonstrates – the term is also used as the Japanese translation of the song title “Walk Don’t Run,” the latter is not a good English translation for the Japanese phrase outside of that specific musical context.
Here we have a very pithy phrase, arguably comprising nothing but two verbs. 急ぐ (isogu) is “to hurry, to rush” (although note that the adverbial form 急に, kyuu ni, simply means “suddenly” rather than “hurriedly”). The ba here is a hypothetical marker, not the conditional ending some students of Japanese might first expect. 回る (mawaru) commonly refers to rotation, but can also mean “to go around (to several places).” Here we find it in imperative (command) form.
回れ can also be written 廻れ; as usual with this kind of thing, the alternate is simply an older/rarer character.
Supposedly the saying comes from Karahashi Bridge over the Seta River in Shiga prefecture, one of Japan’s “Three Famous Bridges” of yore. While it was possible to make a trip from the harbor at Yabase up to Ootsu by boat, and this was potentially faster than walking, winds could slow the boat trip and throw one’s travel plans into confusion. Therefore, walking (by way of Karahashi Bridge) was the more reliable option.
This origin story is accompanied by a fuller version of the phrase, 武士のやばせの舟は早くとも急がば廻れ瀬田の長橋 – Mononofu no Yabase no fune wa hayaku tomo isogaba maware Seta no Nagahashi – “Although the warriors’ boat from Yabase is fast, if you’re in a hurry, go around [by] the Long Bridge of Seta.”
(Ikura chikamichi da to itte mo, kono michi wa omotta yori juutai shiteiru ne. Isogaba maware de, kokudou de ikou.)
[No matter how much of a short-cut it’s supposed to be, this road is more congested than I thought. In the spirit of “more haste, less speed,” let’s take the highway.]