A kotowaza for students in the new semester:
(Amadare ishi wo ugatsu; “Raindrops drill through stone”)
Mere drips of rainwater, falling from the eaves of a house, again and again in the same spot, will wear a hole in a stone below, no matter how hard the stone is. Even a tiny amount of power, applied steadily over enough time, can have a huge effect. Great power lies in perseverance. “Slow and steady wins the race.” “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Note that while there is a related theme of small things adding up to have big impacts, this isn’t about the power of group action: the connotation is temporal.
雨垂れ (amadare) is a noun compounded from 雨, “rain,” and 垂れ, a nominal form of the verb 垂れる (tareru, “to droop,” “to hang down,” “to drip”). As expected, when put together the words mean “raindrops” or “drops of rainwater.” The subject-marker particle が is presumably elided here. Next we get the noun 石 (ishi, “stone”), marked as an object by the particle を. The verb acting on the stone is 穿つ (ugatsu, “to drill,” “to pierce”). “Rain drops pierce stone” wouldn’t be an entirely inapt translation, although somewhat misleading.
This idea is key to understanding the Japanese approach to a lot of activities: the persistent application of what in the West we might think of as “brute force” approaches. The writing system is learned by writing each character dozens or hundreds of times for practice – and there are thousands of characters. In school, kids doing club sports practice almost every day, including weekends and holidays, and it’s expected that you will stick with the same club throughout the whole year (as opposed to the schools I attended while growing up in the US, which offered different club activities depending on the season), and they’re expected to stick with the same club for all three years at a given school.
After graduating high school, a common response to failing university entrance exams is to become a “rōnin” for a year, study, support themselves with part-time work, and re-take the exams. A similar approach is taken to failed job applications. Work itself often demands long hours, and it’s simple enough to find elements of culture – stories, movies, and so on – in which the application of hard work over time really is the key to solving a given problem. (There are plenty of exceptions, of course; people looking for quick fixes or magic bullets. Despite what some people would have you believe, Japan is hardly a monoculture.)
(“Amadare ishi wo ugatsu de, ichinenjuu mainichi renshuu shite kara, youyaku ensoukai de soro ga dekita.”)
[“Like raindrops wearing away a stone, I practiced every day, all year long, until finally I was able to perform a solo in concert.”]
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