[What can change the nature of a kid?]
(Mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made; “A child’s soul at three, until 100.”)
Your character as a small child is set and does not change even if you live to be one hundred years old. People tend not to change in their fundamental character.
三つ (often mittsu, with a double-consonant T, but here mitsu) is the number three in the old native-Japanese counting system. We find it prefixed to 子, “child” (ko, in this case pronounced go due to the compounding). While mittsu is often a cardinal (counting) number, this mitsu identifies the child’s age: three years old. Next we get the associative particle の (no), here in its possessive function, and the noun 魂 (tamashii), “soul.”
Next comes a break where, in normal rather than aphoristic prose, a particle might be found. No particle here, only the number 百 (hyaku), “(one) hundred.” To this is attached the particle まで (made, pronounced like ma-day), equivalent to English preposition “until.” Rendered literally, the whole saying might become “Until 100, child-of-three’s soul.”
Editorial comment: Keep in mind that I don’t necessarily agree with all of the assertions these kotowaza make; I merely present them to you as little slices of Japanese language and culture.
This saying refers to inherent characteristics, not experiences or learned traits or skills. Also, while it specifies the age of three, this is not meant to be taken literally; rather, it simply refers to early youth – and is, perhaps not coincidentally, the first of the ages honored in the shichi-go-san festival [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shichi-Go-San].
There are quite a few alternate versions. Some substitute 八十, 七十, or even 六十 (hachijuu = 80, shichijuu = 70, or rokujuu = 60) for 百. Others substitute 心 (kokoro, “heart/mind”), 根性 (konjou, “nature/temper”), or 知恵 (chie, “sense/wisdom”) for 魂. A number of synonymous or near-synonymous separate sayings also exist; I’m planning on highlighting one of these next week.
(“Tarou, akachan no koro kara ganko datta yo na. Hontou ni mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made da naa.”)
[“Tarou, you’ve been stubborn ever since you were a baby. I guess people really don’t change.”]