Intro: A kotowaza from old Buddhist Japan, as relevant as ever in postmodern America.
(Jigoku no sata mo kane shidai;
“Even your sentence in hell depends on money”)
“Money is the best lawyer in hell.” “Money talks.” Everything in the (human) world responds to the power of money. Unless we guard carefully against corruption, money – like any other tool – is a dangerous thing. For example, it can be abused to pervert the justice system, or any other system that makes human society run. Whee.
We begin with the noun 地獄 (jigoku, but see below in “Notes”), literally “earth prison,” usually translated as “hell.” (Again, see below for details.) The next noun is 沙汰 (sata), a very old term (in use by the 8th century CE) referring to a number of concepts – in this case, judgment, or distinction between good and evil. These two nouns are joined into a single phrase with the associative particle の (no).
This noun phrase is followed by the particle も (mo), an intensifier commonly translated as “and,” but here better rendered as “even.” Finally, we have a particle-free pile of even more nouns to close off this non-sentence: 金 (kane), here in its more common meaning of “gold” or “money,” and 次第 (shidai), which expresses the idea of order, precedence, A depending on B. All together, “Even hell-judgment depends on gold.”
This saying is the entry for ち (chi) in the Kyoto and Osaka Iroha karuta sets. While modern kana orthography has shifted to using じ (ji) to represent the voiced reading of the kanji 地, it used to be written in voiced form as ぢ (also ji). This somewhat unusual phenomenon can also be found in 鼻血 (はなぢ = hanaji, “nosebleed”).
Keep in mind that unlike in Christian or Islamic cosmology, where Hell is a single place or spiritual state that lasts forever and ever, in Buddhism there are multiple “hells” or lower worlds that are, in a way, the same as the paradises or middling worlds that make up the greater reality – the main difference between them being the degree of suffering each world contains. Since suffering teaches us lessons that help us to detach ourselves from earthly desires, and a soul in any of the worlds will eventually die and be reborn in a new position dependent on its karma, “purgatory” would probably be a closer equivalent for most Western audiences. It’s not a perfect fit either, but them’s the breaks in translation. An equivalent term to 地獄 is 奈落 (Naraku), descended from Sanskrit.
In some versions of this phrase, 次第 may be elided. In others, 金 may be replaced with 銭, apparently without change in meaning or pronunciation. (銭 is usually pronounced zeni.)
(“Ippanjin ga seki wo nagete mise no mado wo watta tame ni taiho sareru no ni, okanemochi ga jibunra no rieki no tame ni sekai keizai wo kuzusasetemo nan no batsu mo ataerarenai kono yo no naka wa, masa ni jigoku no sata mo kane shidai to iu mono de wa nai ka.”)
[“An ordinary person can throw a stone, break a shop window, and get arrested for it, but the rich can crash the world economy for the sake of their own profit without any punishment at all. This truly is a world where money talks.”]