Even super-firm

(Toufu ni kasugai;
“A wood-clamp in tofu”)


Attempting something that’s guaranteed to produce no meaningful response or results. An utterly ineffectual action, like using a construction-strength fastener on an ultra-soft material like tofu. Like talking to a brick wall, or emptying the ocean with a thimble.


This very simple phrase begins with the noun 豆腐 (toufu), “tofu” – more literally “decayed beans,” or “fermented beans” – followed by the direction marker に (ni). “in(to).” And finally we get the noun 鎹 (kasugai), a metal fastener shaped like a large, shallow staple and used in carpentry.


A close synonym is 糠に釘 (nuka ni kugi), “a nail into rice bran.” Just make sure not to get your wires crossed; putting the nail into tofu or the kasugai into rice bran is considered an error. Similarly, you can compare and contrast this phrase with 暖簾に腕押し, which highlights the lack of response without making the same explicit judgment about whether the result is worthwhile. Just keep in mind not to arm-wrestle the tofu!

This is the to entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. It comes to us from an Edo-era Ninjoubon work titled 『仮名文章娘節用』 (Kana majiri musume setsuyou).

Example sentence:


(“Ima no sakusen no mama ja donna ni doryoku shite mo toufu ni kasugai da yo. Shudan wo kaenai kagiri, kimi wa hitoshiai mo katenai mama da yo.”)

[“As long as you keep using this strategy, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it; it’s like nailing jello to a tree. You’re not going to a win a single match as long as you don’t change your methods.”]

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From Abe no Seimei to Naruto

And everything in between


Literally: shadow / yin – sunlight / yang – five – go

Alternately: The dual principles of yin and yang, and the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), that supposedly form and regulate the world we live in. The building blocks of East Asian cosmology.

Notes: Reportedly imported from China some time in the 6th century CE, this concept – also known as 陰陽五行説, where 説 (setsu) is something like “theory” – flourished in the Heian court and continues to exert influence in Japanese culture even to the present day, when it has been officially declared a mere superstition.

The 陰陽 in this phrase may also be pronounced on’you or onmyou without any change in meaning. However, pronouncing 行 as kou or gou is considered an error


This is a relatively simple chart that, for example, barely hints at the ten-sign calendar cycle known as the Heavenly Stems (十干 = jikkan) or the way it was combined with the twelve zodiac signs to create a generation-defining 60-year cycle.

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Je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte

Pascal, not Twain

(Heta no nagadangi;
“The long discourse of the unskilled”)


A rambling talk or story characteristic of people who aren’t very good at clear and organized speaking. To drone on in a poorly-paced, unengaging way, especially in a sermon or lecture.


This simple noun phrase is centered on the compound noun 談義 (dangi), “discourse,” “discussion,” “lecture,” compounded with and modified by the prefix 長 (naga-), “long.” The associative particle の (no) connects the result with the noun 下手 (heta), “unskilled,” “awkward.”


This phrase is attributed to a Kyōgen play titled 『無布施経』 (Fusenai kyou). It is the へ (he, sounds like “heh”) entry of the Kyoto and Osaka iroha karuta sets.

談義 may be replaced with 話 (~banashi) or 口上 (koujou) without any significant change in meaning. But replacing の with な (na), which follows nouns to give them an adjectival function, is an error. Not all long speeches are necessarily that way because they’re poorly constructed, and this phrase points out those which are.

Example sentence:


(“Yoku hakuchuumu wo miru kara, heta no nagadangi de shirareteiru kyouju no jugyou wa boku datte dekiru dake saketai to omotteita kedo, sotsugyou youken wo mitasu tame ni wa toranai to ikenai.”)

[“I daydream a lot, so I wanted to avoid as much as possible the classes of any professors known to ramble on, but I have to take this one to fulfill my graduation requirements.”]

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Horizon-spanning hostility

A puffer-fish, going out of business?


Literally: non – together – “be crowned with” / “live under” – sky

Alternately: A hated enemy; deep and abiding antipathy toward someone. Someone you despise so much that you can’t bear to live under the same sky as them.


This compound may also be read as a regular Japanese sentence, 「俱に天を戴かず」 (tomo ni ten wo itadakazu), “not putting the heavens overhead together.” The four-character version may also be followed by ~の間柄 (-no aidagara), “a relationship of (unquenchable hatred).”

Switching the first two characters (俱不戴天, gu fu tai ten) is a rare but acceptable alternative, as is replacing 俱 with 同 (dou), “same.” But it would be an error to replace 俱 with its cousin and homophone 具, “tool,” or 戴 with lookalike 載 (sai, “ride”).

This phrase comes to us from our friend, the Book of Rites (Japanese 『礼記』 = Raiki). It comes from a section that seems to be describing the proper attitude toward the enemies of one’s friends and family; the specific nuance of this phrase is how you feel about your father’s enemy, where (e.g.) the enemy of one of your friends is merely not to be tolerated within the same country, rather than the same world.

That guy versus that other guy. Not an even matchup.

Actually, the fight we see here isn’t anything personal. It’s just from an episode of the Jujutsu Kaisen anime that plays on today’s phrase.

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A Scandanavian problem

(Horeta ga inga;
“The lover’s lot is karma”)


For someone who has fallen in love, suffering because of it is an unavoidable part of human existence. When one is in love, pain is an inevitable result – in part due to karmic consequences from previous incarnations. A statement of resignation to the fact that love is not always an entirely happy or pleasant experience.


We begin with the verb 惚れる (horeru), “to be charmed by,” “to fall in love with.” This appears in past tense and is functioning as a noun; one may imagine that it precedes the nominalizer こと (koto) but that this has been elided. The resulting noun phrase is marked as a grammatical subject by the particle が (ga) Its predicate is the noun 因果 (inga) – literally “cause and fruit,” metaphorically “cause and effect,” or by extension specifically the laws of karma.


This saying seems to have become somewhat obscure, but is nonetheless the ほ (ho, although note that it was likely pronounced more like oh or wo) entry in the Osaka iroha karuta set. Like another recent entry, this phrase comes from the joururi play 『神霊矢口渡』 (Shinrei yaguchi no watashi). This is likely not a coincidence.

Example sentence:


(Konkai no kenka wa sasai na gokai ga gen’in datta kara, ichinichi mo tatani uchi ni nakanaori dekita kedo, kenkajuu wa mune ga kurushikute, horeta ga inga wo iya to iu hodo omoishitta.)

[The argument was rooted in a simple misunderstanding, so they were able to make up in less than a day. But while it lasted it was like a physical ache, and I grudgingly had to acknowledge the painful fate of one in love.]

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Mooning over those who are absent


Literally: wind – moon – (mysterious) – (degree)

Alternately: Thinking of someone you haven’t seen in a long time; missing a good friend due to long separation. By extension, thinking about or even mourning the death of someone exceptional.


This is a bit of a special case; while 風月 is a standard phrase describing the beauty of nature (specifically a refreshing breeze and bright, beautiful moonlight), 玄度 is actually a person’s name!

This phrase reportedly comes from an early 5th century CE collection of anecdotes, A New Account of the Tales of the World, Chinese Shih-shuo hsin-yu (Japanese 『世説新語』 = Sesetsu shingo). The story is that Liu Yan, invited to a party held by Emperor Jianwen of Jin, commented that it was a shame that the person in question (Chinese pronunciation Xuan Du?) wasn’t present on such a splendid evening.



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Not applicable to Bāguázhǎng practitioners

(The “eight trigrams palm” art is 八卦掌, Japanese hakkeshou.)

(Nigireba kobushi hirakeba tenohira;
“When clenched, a fist; when opened, a palm”)


A given thing can change dramatically depending on the circumstances or even on how one thinks or feels. The same breath can blow hot or cold; the same hand can be closed into a fist and used to strike, or opened into a more welcoming shape and used to help or comfort.


We begin with the verb 握る (nigiru), “to grip,” in perfective form and taking the conditional suffix ば (ba). Without any mediating particles, this verb phrase points to the noun 拳 (kobushi), “fist.” This is followed by another verb, 開く (hiraku), “to open [something],” also in perfective form and taking the conditional suffix. And again the verb points to a noun, in this case 掌 (tenohira), “the palm of the hand.”


Some uses include a comma between the two parallel phrases, but this is not necessary. This saying doesn’t seem to have any significant variations or known origin.

Example sentence:


(Shinnen ni nattara, juuniban no basu no ruuto ga kawatta sei de, tsuukin de katamichi wo sanjuppun hodo mainichi arukanai to ikenakunatte shimatta. Saisho no nikagetsu wa ruuto no henkou wo niramigamashiku omou dake datta keredo, itsu no ma ni ka jibun no karada ga kenkou ni natteiru koto ni ki ga tsuki, kore mo nigireba kobushi, hirakeba tenohira to iu koto nan da to ukeirete, kimochi wo arata ni suru koto ga dekita.)

[After the new year, the Number 12 bus route changed, and as a result he ended up having to walk thirty minutes each way every day during his commute to work. For the first two months he simply resented this. But at some point he noticed that it was improving his health, and accepting that this too was a case in which the thing is what you make of it allowed him to adopt a fresh outlook.]

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Act now!

Supplies will likely last; we’d just like to skip the slow, grinding attrition phase.


Literally: quick – battle – instant – decide

Alternately: In war, striking right away at the enemy’s main force in an attempt to end things as soon as hostilities have begun. By extension, any attempt to deal with a given task or situation quickly. Taking action immediately. Blitz tactics.

Notes: A close synonym is 短期決戦 (tanki kessen), “short-term decisive battle.”

The "day" version literally has "Blitzkrieg!" written on the box in Latin characters.

A dietary supplement that claims to allow rapid weight loss. Sold, completely unregulated, on Amazon for about US$60 a box. I would NOT recommend trying it.

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Why the rich have a limited point of view

(Hari no ana kara ten wo nozoku;
“To peer at the heavens through the eye of a needle”)


Attempting to solve big, complicated problems or deal with issues requiring expertise, despite only having a small supply of knowledge. Trying to grasp something vast even though one’s point of view is extremely limited, like trying to see the entire span of the sky through the eye of a needle. It generally applies when someone tries to share their thoughts or take charge despite being out of their depth.


We begin with the noun 針 (hari), “needle,” followed by the associative particle の (no) in its possessive function. The thing possessed by the needle is the noun 穴 (ana), “hole.” This entire noun phrase is marked by the particle から (kara) as the source “from” which one performs the sentence-final verb 覗く (nozoku), “to peek at,” “to examine,” etc. This verb appears in conclusive form. And immediately preceding it, we find the object-marker particle を (wo) marking the noun 天 (ten), “the sky,” “the heavens.”


This phrase is considered to be synonymous with 葦の髄から天井を覗く; only the particulars and nuance are changed. There are quite a few other variations on the same theme, including 管を以て天を窺う (kuda wo motte ten wo ukagau, “to examine the heavens through a tube”) and 貝殻で海を量る (kaigara de umi wo hakaru), “to measure the ocean with a seashell.”

This is the は entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set.

(Trivia of the day: While writing the example sentence, I learned that certain proper nouns – including OS names – are commonly written with the alphabet instead of being transliterated into Japanese. The phonetic rendition of “Linux” is リナックス (rinakkusu), but simply inserting “Linux” into Japanese text as-is is considered correct, and easier to parse than sounding out and deciphering the katakana would be.)

Example sentence:


(“Pasokon no shoshinsha de mo Linux wo tsukau koto wa dekiru kedo, dakara to itte Linux wo insutoooru shite, settei henkou mo kantan da to omottara hari no ana kara ten wo nozoku you na mono da.”)

[“While even first-time PC users may be able to use Linux, thinking that therefore it would be easy to install it and adjust its settings reveals a deep lack of knowledge compared to the scope of the task.”]

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Belly full of sap, head full of sky

Brood X certainly has wings, and they fly like they’re drunk, but I wouldn’t call them immortal.


Literally: wing – change – climb – hermit

Alternately: Feeling as if one has grown wings and ascended into the skies… often as a result of alcohol. Tipsy, or buzzed, whether from some felicitous life event… or just drink.


This is a fanciful compound of compounds. 羽化 is literally the growing of wings, but can also refer to an insect molting into its (winged) adult form from a nymph or pupa. 登仙 is “ascending” to the status of a Taoist-style “immortal” or “hermit” – a holy person (human or non-) associated with certain spiritual practices and supernatural abilities.

This phrase comes to us from our friend Su Shi (蘇軾, Japanese So Shoku), again via the “Former Ode on the Red Cliffs” (前赤壁賦, Japanese Zen sekiheki no fu).

Look ma, no hands!

Brood X cicadas before, during, and after molting / 羽化

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