(Sode suriau mo tashou no en;
“Even a brushing of the sleeves is a connection from a past life.”)
Every relationship you have in your entire life – including not just the big important ones, but the people you merely brush past anonymously on the street – carries the karmic weight of some connection from another life, (in the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation). Every person you encounter was destined to meet you based on a past life. There are no coincidences; only fate.
This isn’t just a random bit of Buddhist doctrine, though! The implication is that even the most trivial chance meeting should be treated as important, even precious. This is not just in consideration of whatever connection past-you and past-them may have had (although this aspect seems to be emphasized in most usage), but because the actions you take in this life will have karmic repercussions in future lives as well.
We begin with the noun 袖 (sode), “sleeve.” With any particles elided, next comes a verb phrase comprising the verb 擦る (suru), “to rub,” “to scrape [against something],” in conjunctive form, and the verb 合う (au), “to meet,” or less plainly but more on-point, “[two or more things mutually do an action to each other].” This is followed by an implied nominalizer, and the resulting phantom noun phrase is marked by the emphatic particle も (mo), “even.”
This も may be seen as overriding and hiding the topic-marker は (wa); the comment on this topic is the noun phrase that begins with the compound noun 他生 (tashou), “other life,” attached by the associative particle の (no), in its possessive function, to the noun 縁 (en). As we’ve discussed previously, the word can have any of a variety of meanings, but here it refers to a karmic or fated relationship. We may imagine an elided copula at the end.
This one has a lot of variations! First, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the saying itself is presented using すり, while my breakdown specifies the kanji as 擦り. Both options are valid! The kana version seems to be standard, which is why I used it at the top, but in the breakdown I wanted to stress that it’s different from the verb する that means “to do.”
Other variants replace すり entirely with 振り (furi); while 振る on its own means “to swing,” 振り合う refers to two things touching each other; this is almost certainly using the image of the sleeve (a thing that swings as your arm moves) to play on homophone 触り合う, since 触る actually does mean “to touch” – although note that in modern Japanese the fu reading tends to take the form 触れる (fureru), while 触る is commonly read as sawaru. In that vein, it is also acceptable (albeit apparently rare) to replace すり or 振り with 触れ (fure), with identical grammar and meaning.
Versions that replace すり with 振り usually also replace 他生 with homophone 多生 (“many lives”). Note, however, that using 多少 (also tashou, but meaning “to some degree,” “a little”) is an error.
A number of synonymous phrases find similar karmic echoes in various phenomena, from the flowing water of a river to a stone that you’ve tripped over. Also, compare and contrast the four-character compound 一期一会.
The attributions on this kotowaza are conflicting; it is attributed in my sources to both a book-bound text called 『蛤の草紙』 (Hamaguri no soushi), and to a late Edo-era Kabuki play titled 『名歌徳三舛玉垣』 (Meika no toku mimasu no tamagaki).
The すり version of this phrase is the so entry for both the Kyoto and the Osaka iroha karuta sets.
(“Sode suriau mo tashou no en to iu you ni, kyou toshokan de tamatama shiriatta atarashii tomodachi mo taisetsu ni shitai.”)
[“They say that even a brief touch in passing is the touch of fate, so I want to value the new friend I made by chance at the library today.”]