Hearing is dreaming, seeing is believing?

Speech is silver, experience is lead

(Kiite gokuraku mite jigoku; “Hearing is heaven, seeing is hell”)


When you only hear about something second-hand it may sound amazing, but experiencing it personally is another matter. Use this saying in cases where “other matter” means “much worse.” Hearsay and experience tell different tales. Expectations don’t always match reality. Don’t trust nostalgia, or the impressions you get about people’s lives from social media, ha ha ha.


We begin with the verb 聞く (kiku), “to hear” or “to listen,” in conjunctive form, followed by the noun 極楽 (gokuraku). Above I translated this word as “heaven,” but more specifically it refers to the Buddhist “Western Paradise,” or Sukhavati, a “celestial abode” inhabited by the Amida buddha.

Next we have the verb 見る (miru), “to see” or “to look,” again in conjunctive form. This is followed by the noun 地獄 (jigoku). Again, for the sake of pith I went with “hell” above, but more specifically the term refers to Naraka (Naraku in Japanese), a realm of suffering that souls with bad karma may be born into.


Careful observers will note that everything but a pair of verbs and a pair of nouns is absent, so the precise grammar at work is somewhat open to interpretation. Rather than being a contracted form of something longer or a translation from Chinese, the phrase seems to have sprung into existence in its current form in the 18th century CE, first attested in 1797 in an Edo-era dictionary named 諺苑 (Gen’en), literally “garden of kotowaza.”

Let me just reiterate that while “heaven” and “hell” are convenient Western analogues for the general concepts indicated by 極楽 and 地獄, it would be a mistake to think that these terms represent anything like Christian thought. Remember especially that the Buddhist 地獄 is probably closer in concept to purgatory than to hell, as a temporary residence resulting from the weight of karma.

This is the ki entry of the Edo iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:


(“Daitouryou to iu no wa susamajii kenryoku wo furuete, jinsei ga raku ni naru to omoete shimau ga, jitsu wa sono you na koto wa nai. Shigoto ga ooku, tsuraku, kurushiku, sabishikute, shikamo tsune ni koushuu no chuumoku ya hihan wo abisareru no de, kekkyoku no tokoro kiite gokuraku mite jigoku no omotai sekinin ni suginai no da to sugu satotte shimatta no de aru.”)

[“A president wields terrifying power, so you’d think that life would be easy, but it tuns out that that’s not the case. There’s a lot of work; it’s tough and trying and lonely; and what’s more you’re always in the glare of public attention and criticism, so in the end he realized that the reality doesn’t match the expectation – it’s nothing more than a heavy responsibility.”]

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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