And still the generations of the birds sing through our sighing

(Elizabeth Barret Browning, “Patience Taught by Nature”)

鳴くまで待とう時鳥
(Naku made matou hototogisu;
“We shall wait until it sings – The lovely cuckoo”)

Definition:

An expression of patience, of waiting for something good to happen or a good opportunity to arise. If the bird you want to hear isn’t singing, just wait until it does. Bide your time, then strike when the iron is hot.

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 鳴く (naku), a verb used for various (usually animal) calls and cries, in prenominal form, marked as the end-point of a span of time by particle まで (made), “until.” Next we have the verb 待つ (matsu), “to wait,” in volitional form as 待とう (matou), and finally the un-beparticled, somewhat disconnected noun 時鳥 (hototogisu), the “lesser cuckoo.”

Notes:

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that this phrase can be divided up into seven and five syllables, and it is in fact the latter two lines of a haiku-style poem.

The story is that several major leaders at the end of the sengoku period composed different endings to a poetic prompt that went 鳴かぬなら (nakanu nara), “If it doesn’t sing….” While the story appears to be apocryphal, each attribution reveals each would-be shogun’s personality: Oda Nobunaga’s poem killed the cuckoo; Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forced it to sing; but Tokugawa Ieyasu’s poem advised simply waiting, thus demonstrating his calculated patience and explaining his eventual victory.

Example sentence:

「要らない家具を早く売ってしまいたいけど、やっぱり新年度で学生が数万人引っ越して来る時が一番儲けられそう。鳴くまで待とう時鳥っていうし、もうちょっと待ってみるよ」

(“Iranai kagu wo hayaku utte shimaitai kedo, yappari shinnendo de gakusei ga suumannin hikkoshite kuru toki ga ichiban moukeraresou. Naku made matou hototogisu tte iu shi, mou chotto matte miru yo.”)

[“I want to sell off the unneeded furniture, but it seems like the best time to turn a profit is at the start of a new school year, when tens of thousands of students come to town. I’m going to try waiting a little longer for the bird to sing, so to speak.”]

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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