A red thread binds them all?
(En wa i na mono aji na mono;
“A relationship is a strange thing, a wondrous thing”)
The ties that bind two people together are mysterious, inexplicable, and often pleasantly weird. This phrase may especially be brought out to comment on a romantic relationship that people wouldn’t have anticipated.
Much of the literature assumes that the relationship in question is a romantic one between a man and a woman, and some sources even goes out of their way to stress that this saying is mistaken when applied to same-sex friendships (assumed to be platonic). But modern usage has broadened and this saying may now be used to describe romantic same-sex matches.
We begin with the particle は (wa) marking the topic of discussion: the noun 縁 (en). In some cases this character can refer to an edge, such as the “veranda” running around a traditional estate house (as seen in 縁の下の舞). By extension, it can also refer to a relationship, including the individual’s relationship with the Buddha himself. But in this case, it refers to a relationship born of fate, or destiny, that binds two people, especially in marriage – or to the “chance meeting” that happened to bring them together.
What follows, to comment on the topic of this “fated link,” is a doubled noun phrase. Each phrase begins with a noun and ends in もの (mono), “thing,” joined by the particle な (na) to show that the initial noun is acting as an adjective, describing the “thing” that 縁 is. The first such noun is 異 (i, pronounced to rhyme with “fee”), often “different” but in this case meaning “strange”; the second is 味 (aji), often “flavor” but in this case meaning “strange” again, with a nuance of being appealing in some way.
This is the ゑ (defunct character ye) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. Apparently it comes from a 1707 joururi play titled 『丹波与作待夜の小室節』 (Tannobayo sakumatsuyo no komurobushi) by famed dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松門左衛門), whom we’ve met before.
Condensed versions of the saying may eliminate the repetition: simply 縁は異なもの or 縁は味なもの, perhaps depending on which aspect you want to emphasize. And 縁 may be read enishi without any change in meaning. But replacing 異 with 奇 (ki, “strange”), despite its somewhat similar pronunciation and meaning, is considered an error.
(“Kuso-majime na chesu saakuru no buchou no kanojo to, taiko puro ni naritagatteiru kare ga masaka tsukiau nante dare mo omoi mo shinakatta kedo, maa, en wa i na mono da yo ne.”)
[“She’s painfully straightlaced, and captain of the chess club, and he wants to be a professional taiko player. Nobody would have ever thought that they’d end up going out but, well, the ties that bind are mysterious things.”]