Some people just want things that don’t burn

沈香も焚かず屁もひらず
(Jinkou mo takazu he mo hirazu;
Neither burning agarwood incense nor loosing a fart”)

Definition:

A person (or lifestyle) without any particular good or bad points; someone who causes no harm but is exceedingly mediocre. Someone with, metaphorically speaking, neither the complex, pleasing fragrance of high-quality incense, nor the unpleasant odor of a fart. Middle of the road.

Breakdown:

This saying comprises paired parallel phrases. The first begins with the noun 沈香 (jinkou), “agarwood,” highly valued for its use in incense. Next comes the particle も (mo), which we’ll get back to later. The verb being applied to the agarwood is 焚く (taku), “to light (a fire),” in imperfective form and taking the negative suffix ず (zu), here likely in conjunctive form.

The second phrase begins similarly with the noun 屁 (he, sounds like “heh”). This is acted upon by the verb ひる (hiru), “to expel from the body,” also in imperfective form and taking the negative suffix ず (zu), this time in conclusive form.

The も particles actually work as a paired set here. Often the Aも…Bも construction will work as “both A and B.” In this case, with the negative suffixes, we should read it as “neither A nor B.”

Notes:

Some versions specify the incense as 伽羅 (kyara), which is just the same agarwood under a different name, although often translated with alternate term “aloeswood.” It is also possible to replace the agarwood entirely with 線香 (senkou), a more generic term for “stick incense.” And hiru may occasionally be written in kanji as 放る. On the other hand, reading 沈 as chin, or writing taku as homophone 炊く (“to boil [rice]”), is considered an error.

This saying comes to us from a mid-Ero-era work of satire titled – and I am not making this up – 『放屁論』 = Houhiron, or A Theory of Farting. As of this writing, you can get it on Kindle for less than a dollar, or free with Kindle Unlimited.

Example sentence:

優れたリーダーはたとえどんなに優れていても、何か失敗があったら、厳しい批判を受けざるを得ない。その一方で、人間失格の詐欺師がリーダーになってしまったら、沈香も焚かず屁もひらず、平々凡々な人ですらまだましだと思えてくる。

(Sugureta riidaa wa tatoe donna ni sugureteite mo, nanika shippai ga attara, kibishii hikan wo ukezaru wo enai. Sono ippou de, ningen shikkaku no sagishi ga riidaa ni natte shimattara, jinkou mo takazu he mo hirazu, heiheibonbon na hito de sura mada mashi da to omoete kuru.)

[No matter how much an excellent leader excels, they meet with harsh criticism as soon as they make a mistake. On the other hand, if a con artist and utter failure of a human being becomes a leader, one comes to realize that even an utterly average person, without a single whiff of vice or virtue, would be so much better.]

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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