For better or for worse… or for just vaguely smelly
(Iwashi no atama mo shinjin kara;
“Even a sardine’s head, from faith”)
Faith works in mysterious ways; faith is kind of weird if you stop to think about it. Even a simple, unexceptional thing like a sardine head on a stick can become important or celebrated through (religious) belief. The objects of faith hold very different significance for a believer and for an outside observer. This phrase may be used as a neutral observation, to warn people about the dangers of irrational beliefs, or to make fun of someone whose stubborn (blind) faith in something seems to have carried them away from common sense.
We begin at the end with the particle から (kara), “from.” It marks the noun 信心 (shinjin), “belief,” especially referring to religious faith in the Buddhist teachings. Jumping back to the start of the phrase we find the noun 鰯 (iwashi), the sardine or “pilchard.” The associative particle の (no), in its possessive function, gives the fish its 頭 (atama), “head,” and the resulting noun phrase is marked with the emphatic particle も (mo), “even.”
The Japanese 節分 (Setsubun) holiday is most well-known for a little household ritual in which children symbolically drive out evil spirits by throwing beans, but apparently there’s also a (less common) custom in which sardine heads are stuck on twigs of 柊 (hiiragi), “false holly,” and used to decorate the household’s gate so that their smell can keep the evil spirits out.
This phrase has several close variants. The sardine heads may be replaced with 白紙 (hakushi), “white paper,” presumably in reference to 紙垂 (shide; rhymes with “bidet”), the white folded-paper decorations often found at Shinto shrines. 信心 may be replaced with 信仰 (shinkou), which refers to (faith in) a religious creed. から may be replaced with 次第 (shidai), a suffix indicating that one thing depends on, or follows from, another. 頭 may also be read as kashira without any change in meaning.
This is the ゐ ([w]i) entry in the Kyoto iroha karuta set, and is attested in our friend, the poetry treatise 『毛吹草』 (Kefukigusa).
(“Koukou no toki no doukyuusei wa iwashi no atama mo shinjin kara de tesuto zenjitsu no yoru ni, dentaku yara jisho yara benkyoudougu wo makura no shita ni irete nereba, tsugi no hi no tesuto wa kanarazu umaku iku to shinjiteita rashii. Hen na yatsu tte omotteita kedo, maa, motomoto majime datta okage ka, itsumo kyuuwari ijou totteta nda.”)
[“There was a kid in the same grade as me who supposedly believed – really believed, this didn’t seem weird to them – that if they slept with a calculator or a dictionary or some kind of study aid under their pillow on the night before a test, that the test would go well for them. I thought they were kind of a weirdo, but well, maybe it’s just because they were serious about their grades, but they did always get over 90%.”]