Juggling for a rainy day

芸は身を助く
(Gei wa mi wo tasuku; “An art saves the body”)

Definition:

Take the time to learn a skill or develop a talent, because the time may come when you’ll need it to make a living. Even hobbies can be useful in practical terms.

Breakdown:

We have another full sentence! The verb this time is 助く (tasuku), “to help” or “to save,” in sentence-final form. This usage is archaic, though: modern Japanese uses either transitive 助ける (tasukeru) or intransitive/passive 助かる (tasukaru). The verb is attached by object-marker (wo) to noun (mi), “body,” and by extension “person” or even “one’s station in life.”

Notes:

One of my sources asserts that it can be rude to say this to a person! This is supported by another saying, 芸が身を助けるほどの不仕合せ (Gei ga mi wo tasukeru hodo no fushiawase), “Unhappiness equal to that of needing to live off your hobbies.” The implication is that making money from an artistic skill that would otherwise simply be a hobby offers lower income and a lower standard of living than a “normal” job (or caste role, perhaps), and that to be reduced to such straits one must have already suffered some great misfortune.

It’s worth noting that there are other sayings considered antonymical to this one, which say that pursuing an art is harmful to your . I suspect that this is a warning against obsessive pursuit of a given skill, meaning that both ideas can be correct and a happy medium, as usual, is probably best.

The final verb may also be given in its modern transitive form 助ける, and the particle may be replaced with subject-marker (ga), without any significant change in meaning.

This saying is the ke entry in the Edo iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:

「不況だからこそ木彫り教室に行きたいんだよ。芸が身を助ける日が来る恐れもあるし」

(“Fukyou dakara koso kibori kyoushitsu ni ikitain da yo. Gei ga mi wo tasukeru hi ga kuru osore mo aru shi.”)

[“It’s exactly because we’re in a recession that I want to go to wood-carving classes. There might come a day when we have to live off of our hobbies.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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