And the leaves that are green

…seem to be green again the next year… but we are not leaves.

年年歳歳
nen.nen.sai.sai

Literally: year – year – year/age – year/age

Alternately: Every single year. Year in and year out.

Notes: As always, the second instance of each character may be replaced with the kanji doubling mark 々. Also, somewhat less commonly, the order of the elements may be flipped to give 歳歳年年 (with or without doubling marks), sai sai nen nen.

This compound comes to us from a poem by Liu Xiyi (劉希夷, Japanese Ryuu Ki’i) a mid-600s CE Chinese poet. The piece, known as 「代悲白頭翁」(Japanese pronunciation “Daihi hakutouou”), laments that 年年歳歳, the flowers bloom as always – but 歳歳年年, the people who come to see them bloom are different, because old age comes for us all.

NenNenManga

Here quoted in 『応天の門』(Outen no mon), an obscure manga about early-Heian court politics

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Fly me home, country winds

越鳥南枝に巣くい、胡馬北風に嘶く
(Ecchou nanshi ni sukui, koba hokufuu ni inanaku;
“The bird from Yue builds its nest in southern branches;
the horse from Hu neighs at the northern wind”)

Definition:

An expression of homesickness or nostalgia. A southern bird living in the north will (supposedly) build its nest in the southern branches of a tree; a horse from the northern steppes will recognize the northern winds and give voice; so too will a human respond to things that remind them of their hometown or childhood.

Breakdown:

This saying is composed of two parallel independent clauses. The first begins with proper noun 越 (Yue, Japanese Etsu), a state that existed in the southeast of what is now China, over 2300 years ago. This proper noun compounds with and modifies the noun 鳥 (here chou), “bird.” This compound noun is not followed by any particles, but acts as the subject of the clause. Next we find the location particle に (ni) marking a compound comprising direction noun 南 (here nan), “south,” and 枝 (here shi), “branch.” The verb performed in this location is 巣くう (sukuu), “to build a nest,” appearing in conjunctive form in order to attach to the latter half of the phrase.

Following the same pattern, the second clause begins with the proper noun 胡 (Hu, Japanese Ko), a generic term for people living to the north and northwest, including various Mongolian and Turkic peoples and the Xiongnu. Little wonder, then, that the noun compounded with and modified by 胡 is 馬 (here ba), “horse.” This time, the following compound noun comprises direction 北 (here hoku), “north” and noun 風 (fuu), “wind.” The final verb is 嘶く (inanaku), “to neigh,” in conclusive form, and this time I’m parsing the particle に (ni) as a sort of directional marker; the north wind is something that the horse neighs in response to. (One could also read it as a marker for time; “when the north wind [blows].”)

Notes:

This imagery comes to us from a poem in the Wen Xuan (in Japanese『文選』= Monzen), a Chinese literary anthology from the third decade of the 6th century CE; its origins in Chinese antiquity explain why so much of the phrase itself uses Chinese-style readings.

Note that the phrase may be shortened by dropping the bird and only using the horse part; it may be further compacted into either of a pair of four-character compounds: 越鳥南枝 (ecchou nanshi) or 胡馬北風 (koba hokufuu).

Example sentence:

胡馬が北風に嘶くように、僕も実家を出てから故郷、いや、州ですら懐かしくなってきました」

(“Koba ga hokufuu ni inanaku you ni, boku mo jikka wo dete kara furusato, iya, shuu de sura natsukashiku natte kimashita.”)

[“Like the northern horse that neighs at northern winds, since leaving my parents’ home I too have started thinking fondly of my hometown – no, of the entire state.”]

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‘Tis the season

…and the age.

私利私欲
shi.ri.shi.yoku

Literally: me/private – benefit/profit – me/private – desire/greed

Alternately: One’s own profit; one’s own greed. The self-centered attitude or behavior of someone who is motivated by avarice over all else.

Notes: 欲 may also be written in its alternate form of 慾 (note that the former is just the latter with 心 removed) without any change in meaning or pronunciation; in another variant, the initial 私 may be replaced with 我 (ga, also “me”).

There’s a Buddhist tale about a man who visited a hell and a paradise, and at each he observed a table set with a mouth-watering feast… and meter-long chopsticks.

In the hell (地獄), the near-skeletal denizens who sat at the table fell prey to their selfishness and greed, desperately trying and failing to grab the best food and eat it with a tool that made doing so impossible. Eventually the meal broke down entirely in bickering and everyone remained hungry.

In the paradise (極楽), everyone who sat at the table simply fed the people across from themselves, and were fed by those people in turn. The meal ended with everyone satisfied and happy in a warm glow of camaraderie.

ShiRiShiYokuGaKi

A picture of that story, from this Buddhist dictionary.

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When True Seeing exfoliates

化けの皮が剥がれる
(Bake no kawa ga hagareru; “The changeling skin is stripped away”)

Definition:

Someone’s wrongdoings, flaws, or malicious true nature come to light. A previously-hidden, negative truth is revealed. Someone (or everyone) realizes how bad a situation actually is after a time during which the reality of it was obscured.

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 化ける (bakeru), “to change shape,” especially in the sense of various spirits and creatures that are said to be able to take the form of a human being. This appears in conjunctive form and acts as a noun, which allows the associative particle の (no) to connect it with, and thus modify, the noun 皮 (kawa), “skin,” which in turn is marked by the particle が (ga) as the subject. The predicate this subject takes consists entirely of the verb 剥がれる (hagareru), “to come off (of something).”

Notes:

Supposedly this comes to us from the 『太平記』(Taiheiki), a 600-some-year-old historical epic.

Japanese mythology is full of shapeshifters, most famously tanuki and foxes from the natural world, to the point where 化け物 (bakemono, literally “thing that transforms”) is used in almost exactly the same way that we use “monster” in contemporary English. Several of the myths even include a special pelt or garment that must be worn or taken off to effect the change.

In keeping with the prominence of animal bakemono, there are synonymous sayings such as 尻尾を出す (shippo wo dasu, “sticking out one’s tail”) that refer to tails – supposedly the one part of the body that a tanuki or fox couldn’t transform, which would expose their true nature if discovered.

Example sentence:

「自分の化けの皮がいつか剥がれてしまうんじゃないかって悩んでうるさかった後輩が試合で完敗してしまってサークルを辞めたんだよね。本当に偽物だったのか、インポスター症候群にやられたのかは不明」

(“Jibun no bake no kawa ga itsuka hagarete shimau nja nai ka tte nayande urusakatta kouhai ga shiai de kanpai shite shimatte saakuru wo yameta nda yo ne. Hontou ni nisemono datta no ka, inposutaa shoukougun ni yarareta no ka wa fumei.”)

[“Yeah, the junior member who had been loudly worrying that sooner or later the awful truth about them would be revealed? They were annihilated at the competition, and quit the club. But it’s not clear whether they were really a fake, or whether they were done in by imposter syndrome.”]

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A stitch in time of crisis

一罰百戒
ichi.batsu.hya-.kkai

Literally: one – punishment – hundred – warnings

Alternately: Making an example of someone. Meting out a punishment not just so one wrongdoer faces consequences, but also so that anyone else considering the same crime is forced to reconsider.

Notes: This phrase is not meant to imply an actual hundred-to-one ratio; 百 is simply standing in for “a large number.”

IchiBatsuHyaKkai

But is it a finishing move? We’ll have to see.

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The hobbit of peppers

山椒は小粒でもぴりりと辛い
(Sanshou wa kotsubu de mo piriri to karai;
“Japanese peppers are small but painfully spicy”)

Definition:

This saying metaphorically describes someone who is physically small, but still formidable due to well-honed talents and a fierce spirit, surprising strength, or other exceptional qualities. Don’t underestimate someone just because they’re small.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 山椒 (sanshou), a close relative of the more famous Sichuan pepper, marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic begins with the noun 粒 (tsubu), “grain,” “particle,” compounded the prefix-noun 小 (ko), “small.” This is followed by conjunction でも (demo), “but,” “although.” The phrase that follows begins with onomatopoetic adverb ぴりり (piriri), “tingling,” “stinging.” This is followed by the particle と (to) in its function of marking the adverbial use of onomatopoeia. Finally, we have the adjective 辛い (karai), spicy,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

山椒 may also be read with a short final vowel, as sansho, although in my sources this appears to be the less-common rendition.

A related saying points out that while a needle is small, it’s not something you can just swallow. Yikes. That said, the peppercorn version describes a level of ability that’s not to be sneezed at; it would be an error to use it to describe something harmful or dangerous despite its small size.

Example sentence:

「あの子だったら、大臣や偉人さえ説得できるらしい。山椒は小粒でもぴりりと辛いもんね」

(“Ano ko dattara, daijin ya ijin sae settoku dekiru rashii. Sanshou wa kotsubu demo piriri to karai mon ne.”)

[“They say that she can even turn the great and the powerful to her cause. ‘Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,’ eh?”]

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What about Stitch Seizen?

理路整然
ri.ro.sei.zen

Literally: logic/truth – road – organize – “in that way”

Alternately: Of someone’s thoughts or speech: coherent, cogent, rational; following a coherent thread or throughline from premise to conclusion. The nuance in modern usage seems to be of someone presenting a case that is clear and minimizes the barriers to getting agreement from others, especially in a business context.

Notes: This is another compound of compounds; 理路 refers to a line of reasoning, and 整然 refers to something being in proper order.

Replacing 然 with homophone 全 (“whole,” “all”) is an error.

This compound is considered an antonym of 支離滅裂.

RiRoFlowchart

The big picture is easy; the hard part is deciding what real-world considerations belong in which step of the flowchart

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