(Sanshou wa kotsubu de mo piriri to karai;
“Japanese peppers are small but painfully spicy”)
This saying metaphorically describes someone who is physically small, but still formidable due to well-honed talents and a fierce spirit, surprising strength, or other exceptional qualities. Don’t underestimate someone just because they’re small.
We begin with the noun 山椒 (sanshou), a close relative of the more famous Sichuan pepper, marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic begins with the noun 粒 (tsubu), “grain,” “particle,” compounded the prefix-noun 小 (ko), “small.” This is followed by conjunction でも (demo), “but,” “although.” The phrase that follows begins with onomatopoetic adverb ぴりり (piriri), “tingling,” “stinging.” This is followed by the particle と (to) in its function of marking the adverbial use of onomatopoeia. Finally, we have the adjective 辛い (karai), spicy,” in conclusive form.
山椒 may also be read with a short final vowel, as sansho, although in my sources this appears to be the less-common rendition.
A related saying points out that while a needle is small, it’s not something you can just swallow. Yikes. That said, the peppercorn version describes a level of ability that’s not to be sneezed at; it would be an error to use it to describe something harmful or dangerous despite its small size.
(“Ano ko dattara, daijin ya ijin sae settoku dekiru rashii. Sanshou wa kotsubu demo piriri to karai mon ne.”)
[“They say that she can even turn the great and the powerful to her cause. ‘Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,’ eh?”]