(Naku ko to jitou ni wa katenu;
“You can’t win against a crying child or the lord of a manor”)
You can’t win (an argument) against someone who doesn’t listen to reason, such as a crying child or a feudal estate steward. There are some battles you can’t win, so it’s useless to try to take them head-on. Infants don’t have the capacity for rational thought, and the powerful ignore reason in favor of their own whims, which makes them similarly implacable opponents.
We begin with the verb 泣く (naku), “to cry,” in prenominal form. This allows it to attach to and modify the noun 子 (ko), “child.” This is followed by the particle と (to), essentially “and,” connecting it to the noun 地頭 (jitou). This archaic term denotes a kind of government official placed in charge of managing an estate and collecting taxes – back in those barbaric, dark days when the super-rich idled around in sprawling private estates and shut-off enclaves and ignored the plight of the masses. (Specifically, we’re talking about the Heian and Kamakura eras.) The particles following these nouns are に (ni), a directional particle probably best translated here as “against,” and は (wa), which marks the entire preceding phrase (nouns and に) as the topic of discussion. Finally, as a comment on this topic, we have the verb 勝つ (katsu), “to win,” “to defeat,” in negative potential form (i.e. “can’t”).
This saying’s ending may be found with modern grammar (勝てない, katenai, instead of 勝てぬ) or as 勝たれぬ (katarenu). But replacing 地頭 with 地蔵 (jizou), the name of a bodhisattva whose stone likeness is found all over Japan, is considered an error.
(“Naku ko to jitou ni wa katenu to iu no de ano hito to ronsou wo sezu ni, seikou shisou na sakusen wo kangaedasou to ganbarimashou.”)
[“They say that there’s no winning against crying children and strongmen, so instead of arguing with that guy, let’s work on coming up with a strategy that seems likely to succeed”]