(Ja no michi wa hebi; “Snakes [know] the snakes’ road”)
People who belong to a certain group are the ones who know the most about the ways of that group. Specialists understand other specialists in their field better than anyone else could. “Set a thief to catch a thief.”
蛇 is “snake,” but here it’s pronounced two different ways. The first is ja, with the nuance of a large snake; the second is hebi, implying a small one. In between these two snakes is 道 (michi, “street,” “road,” “path,” “way,”), connected to the first with the associative particle の (no). は (wa) is the topic-marker particle. The result becomes roughly, “As for snake’s path, snake.” (But see below.)
The phrase can be completed by adding ～が知る (ga shiru), a subject marker plus a sentence final form of a verb approximate to the English “to know.” This longer form thus becomes “Snakes know the ways of snakes.”
As mentioned above, ja implies a large snake, while hebi is a smaller one. Supposedly the saying originally referred to the belief that smaller snakes would travel along the trails left by larger ones – meaning that the hebi would be well acquainted with the “ways” of the ja. If you want to know “the path of the ja,” then, you would do well to ask a hebi.
Keep this in mind, because while the common negative interpretation of “snake” fits well with the given English-language rendition of “Set a thief to catch a thief,” ja isn’t just a large snake: it can also be a dragon. (For example, the Nagasaki Okunchi festival features a Chinese-style “dragon-dance” called 蛇踊り – ja odori, “ja dance” – usually “dragon dance.”) It was believed that a snake that lived long enough would grow and develop into dragonhood, spending a thousand years in the sea and a thousand years in the mountains in the process. Think of how long and sinuous Eastern Dragons are. And maybe next time you meet a little green snake, show it a little more respect.
(“’Hitsuji-tach no chinmoku’ to iu eiga no zentei wa hitokoto ni ieba, ‘ja no michi wa hebi‘ rashii”)
[“Summing up the premise to the Silence of the Lambs movie in a single phrase, I’d say it’s ‘Set a thief to catch a thief.’”]
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Just found your website after looking for this phrase.
I wanted to ask you if it would be ok to interpret this phrase as:
“The (small) snakes know the path of the (big) snakes (also known as Dragons)
So in other words, every snake has the potential to become a Dragon.”
Does that make sense? I wanted to use this phrase for a creative project someday and interpret it like that haha, so yeah 🙂
All the best on your journey, thank you for your work!
Hi, Dan, thanks for the comment!
I’m afraid that you’re trying to pack more into the phrase than is really there. In your project, please feel free to expand on the kotowaza by having a character or the narratorial voice extrapolate and add the part about potential. But the saying itself makes no assertions about potential; it merely states that a member of group X knows the most about the ways of group X. If anything, the concept of 海千山千 (as discussed here) makes it clear that the path from snakehood to dragonhood is a long and difficult one, and most “potential” dragons won’t reach the end.
Sorry that the fit isn’t perfect for your project! But it still looks like you’ve settled on a good springboard for the concept you want to use, at least. 🙂
Thank you for replying!
I’ll keep this information in mind. Thanks 🙂