Hefty fluff

重箱の隅を突く
(Juubako no sumi wo tsutsuku;
To poke at the corners of a juubako”)

Definition:

To fuss over trivial details; to nitpick; to carp endlessly about fine points that don’t actually make a difference. The image is of someone who has essentially finished their meal, but uses a toothpick to pick tiny bits of food out of the corners of the tray. The phrase has a negative nuance and is commonly invoked to criticize someone’s behavior or attitude.

Breakdown:

We begin at the end with the verb 突く (tsutsuku), “to poke,” in conclusive form. The particle を (wo) marks the noun 隅 (sumi), “corner,” “recess,” as the object of the verb. Meanwhile, the associative particle の (no) associates 隅 with, and allows it to be modified by, the noun 重箱 (juubako), a “multi-tiered food box.”

Notes:

Bear in mind that while the English “corner” can refer to a convex or a concave angle, 隅 is only concave; it refers to the “inside” part of a corner. The “outside” (convex) part is a 角 (kado), as seen in terms like 三角 (sankaku), “triangle.” Naturally, replacing 隅 with 角 is an error.

That said, this saying does allow for quite a few variations. Tsutsuku may be written in kana as つつく. It may be replaced by ほじくる (hojikuru), “to dig out,” “to pick [one’s nose, teeth, etc.].” The specificity of の隅 may be elided, or specificity may be added by saying that the picking is done 楊枝で (youji de), “with a toothpick”; this may be added at the beginning of the sentence, or just before the verb.

重箱 is a fascinating word. It’s a rare example of a compound in which one character uses the Chinese-origin on reading while the other uses the Japanese-origin kun reading (in this case, respectively juu for 重 and hako for 箱). In fact, juubako is the ur-example of an on/kun combination, while the kun/on equivalent is 湯桶 (yutou), a “container for hot liquids” that might be used to serve drinks, or for washing in a traditional bath or onsen. Beyond this, while 重 is commonly translated as “heavy,” here we see it refer to something that is “piled up” or “layered”; cf. 二重 (futae), “twofold.”

Taro!

A decorated juubako, from Wikimedia Commons

Example sentence:

「お兄ちゃんが塾に通い始めてから、何でもかんでも重箱の隅を突くような言い方をするようになった。なんでだろう、ちょっと嫌な気分」

(“Oniichan ga juku ni kayoi hajimete kara, nandemo kandemo juubaku no sumi wo tsutsuku you na iikata wo suru you ni natta. Nande darou, chotto iya na kibun.”)

[“Ever since my big brother started going to cram school, he’s been nitpicking every little thing, no matter what we’re talking about. I wonder why; it’s kind of gross.”]

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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