worse than a fart.
(Mizu kiyokereba uo sumazu; “If the water is pure fish don’t live there.”)
If you’re too serious and straitlaced, then instead of loving you and wanting to be close to you, people will keep you at a (respectful) distance, and you’ll end up relatively lonely. Being too upright or ideologically pure creates distance between yourself and others. If you’re going to be a goody two-shoes then be ready for the social consequences. Being too proper is a barrier to intimacy.
We begin with the noun 水 (mizu), “water.” As is often the case, no particle marks it and instead we immediately get an adjective describing the water – 清い (kiyoi) in conditional form. The main clause then begins with the noun 魚 (uo), “fish,” (after another elided particle), and finally a verb: 棲む (sumu), “to reside,” in imperfective form with the negative suffix ず in sentence-final form.
Experienced hikers can tell you that if a water source in nature is sparkling pure, then you probably shouldn’t drink from it… if nothing lives there, maybe that’s because it’s poisonous. This saying seems to take an opposite approach, suggesting that too-clear water doesn’t support fish because there’s nothing for them to eat and nowhere for them to hide from predators.
For sumu, the character 棲 may be replaced by the now more common 住 without any change in meaning or pronunciation. However, reading 魚 as the far more common sakana rather than uo is considered an error.
(“Mizu kiyokereba uo sumazu to iu mono de, buchou wa goji ikou buka no reigi ni urusaku naku natta.”)
[“Since standing on formality drives people away, the department manager stopped being a stickler for manners after 5pm.”]