Not for those who refuse to hear!
(Mimi wo ooite kane wo nusumu; “To cover one’s ears and steal a bell”)
*See Notes for an important comment on pronunciation!
When you think you’ve hidden something – usually something bad that you did – but it nonetheless becomes quickly and widely known. Trying to hide your crimes in a laughably amateurish and ineffective way. In short, being presidential. This saying mocks the kind of idiot villain who thinks that hiding the truth from themselves, for example by stopping up their own ears to block out the sounds of the bell they’re stealing, or by firing everyone in their administration who is willing to tell the truth, will somehow fool the entire world.
Alternately, this saying can refer to a situation where something you want to do is wrong, and you know it’s wrong, but you try to ignore that knowledge because you really want to do the thing: you cover your ears to hide the sound of the bell so you don’t need to think about the fact that you’re stealing it. Or perhaps, when the leader of a political party has committed blatant crimes and yet the members of that party mumble hollow excuses to cover it up instead of simply allowing him to face the consequences of his actions, thus making themselves into criminal accomplices.
We begin with the noun 耳 (mimi), “ear(s),” marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 掩う (oou), “to cover.” This appears in conjunctive form with perfective suffix つ (tsu), also in conjunctive form as て (te), which allows what we’ve seen so far to connect to the following independent clause. This begins with the noun 鐘 (kane), “bell,” also marked by を (wo) as a direct object and acted upon by the verb 盗む (nusumu), “to steal,” here appearing in conclusive form.
Keep in mind that a 鐘 isn’t just any bell, certainly not a little jingly bell that you can muffle and stick up your sleeve. (Those are called 鈴, suzu.) No, it’s usually one of those big cast-bronze bells that you see in temples, the kind that a person can fit inside, the kind that gets rung with a whole log.
…That said, there is an alternate version of the saying which uses 鈴, if you really want to go with that. Alternately, the entire saying can be condensed down into a single yojijukugo as 掩耳盗鐘 (en ji tou shou).
Note that normally, 鐘 don’t have clappers and are not intrinsically noisy to move. Supposedly this saying comes from a tale in the Qin dynasty Chinese classical text known as the Lushi Chunqiu (Japanese 『呂氏春秋』= Roshi shunjuu) about a man who tried to steal a large bronze bell but found it too heavy, so he tried to break it up with a maul for easier transport, with exactly the results that you’d expect.
The weird thing about this one is that multiple sources give the first verb in the form 掩うて (ooute). The classical grammar that I’ve studied demands 掩いて, as above. Modern grammar would be 掩って (which emphasizes the following consonant and produces ootte). The most likely cause for this is ウ音便 (u-onbin), a “euphonic change” in which the original i sound was slurred into a u sound – note that the same thing seems to have happened to e.g. the word for “little sister,” 妹 (imouto, which used to be いもひと imohito / imopito / imoito).
Actually, it gets even weirder, but that’s probably a story for another day!
(“Mimi wo ooute kane wo nusumu you ni, uchi no booya ga yori ni yotte bokura no futon no naka de kukkii wo nusumigui shite kurete, toutei mushi dekinai hodo no kuzu wo nokoshita ndesu yo.”)
[“Like the man who covered his own ears to steal a bell, our boy snuck a bite of some cookies in our bedding of all places, and left an amount of crumbs that was absolutely impossible to ignore.”]