This week’s kotowaza was recommended by a friend. If any of my readers have further suggestions or requests for specific sayings, please feel free to contact me!
(Nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu; “The skilled hawk hides its claws.”)
The wise keep something in reserve. It can be useful to be underestimated. Those who know the most say the least. Don’t try to show off. A good saying for brash and insolent youths, intermediate learners eager to show off their skills to beginners, and anyone trying a little too hard. Also useful in an oppositional situation, as a warning against revealing all your resources to the other side too soon, since doing so would reduce your tactical and strategic options and increase theirs.
能 is skill, talent, or the function of something (or by extension of the first meaning, Noh drama). The verb ある in this case indicates possession; modern grammar would admit an additional particle such as が (ga) or の (no) between the noun and verb in order to make the function explicit. These words together, then, become an adjectival phrase modifying 鷹 (taka), the Japanese falcon or hawk: it is a skill-having hawk. は is as usual the topic-marker particle; as with last week, context can lend a contrastive note to its use.
爪 (tsume) is a claw, talon, fingernail, hoof, or equivalent. By extension it can also refer to a hook, clasp, pick, or plectrum. 爪先 (tsumasaki – note the vowel change) refers to the tips of the toes in general. を is our good old object marker for the final verb 隠す (kakusu), to hide or conceal.
The saying comes from how supposedly, a hawk’s talons are concealed from its prey until it attacks, allowing it to catch them off guard more effectively. While this doesn’t seem to be entirely true out in nature (it’s easy to find images of hawks with feet clearly visible), the image and its applicability to a martial human society are clear enough.
You may at times see 能 replaced by 脳. The latter character means “brain” and so the saying still seems to make a certain amount of sense (“The smart hawk hides its claws”), but this is a kanji error. It is not an accepted alternative.
More legitimately, the kanji 鷹 may be replaced with katakana タカ, as this is relatively common practice with animal names. The entire phrase 能ある鷹 may also be condensed to 能鷹 (nouyou), a compound noun essentially meaning “skillhawk.” There are a number of more extensive variations on the basic saying, replacing the hawk with a cat, or with a dog that doesn’t bark and scare away its prey.
(“Zenzen ibaranai kare na no ni, sonna ni jouzu datta ka. Nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu mon da ne.”)
[“So even though that guy doesn’t talk himself up at all, he’s that good? It’s that ‘the skilled hawk hides its claws‘ thing, I guess.”]