Not looking for a catspaw, but…

Any hand in a storm.

(Neko no te mo karitai; “Wanting to borrow even a cat’s hand”)


Being so extremely busy that one is willing to accept help from anyone at all. So busy that any helping hand is welcome, regardless of whose it is – even if the one lending a hand is a mere cat. Cats were apparently thought to be useless aside from keeping vermin in check, but sometimes even a near-useless helper is better than none at all.


This saying is technically a full sentence, although an explicit copula would make it more of one. The primary noun is 手 (te), “hand,” marked by the associative particle の (no) as belonging to a 猫 (neko), “cat.” The particle marking the whole noun phrase is も (mo), commonly translated as “also” but in this case closer to “even.” And we end with the verb 借りる (kariru), “to borrow,” in conjunctive form with the suffix たい (tai), which expresses a desire to perform the associated verb.


This evocative turn of phrase apparently comes to us from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s  final play, 『関八州繋馬』 (Kanhasshuu Tsunagiuma) about Taira no Masakado, who led a brief rebellion during the Heian era.

Example sentence:


(“Tsugi kara tsugi e to kyaku no chuumon ga haitte kite, Kyouko-san wa ureshikatta ga, tsui ni isogashisa no amari ni, neko no te mo karitaku naru kibun wo oboeta.”)

[“With orders coming in one after another Kyouko was happy, but in the end things got so busy that she found herself feeling that she wanted any help she could get.”]

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Doing all the things

(But in high heels and backwards?)


Literally: invigorated – encourage – diligence – power

Alternately: To work as hard as you can. To exert maximum possible effort on something. To go all-in on elbow grease.

Notes: On its own, 奮励 refers to drumming up one’s energy or willpower, and 努力 is whole-hearted effort or hard work. This yojijukugo falls into the category of compounds created by combining two two-character words of similar meaning for extra emphasis.


The hardest part of modeling, of course, is making it look like it’s not work. (Meanwhile, you might be surprised by how many of the image search results were unusably unclad.)

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Magic Monday – Campaign Concept – The Fire From Down Below

This post was brought to you by the very fun “You’re Welcome” song from Moana.

I’ve talked before about an “unlocking” campaign, in which the main draw is to explore and plan, negotiate and fight, and acquire new tools that allow further exploration. In this case, though, I’m imagining a campaign centered around one specific quest: stealing the fire of the gods from the underworld.

The logical fit in terms of setting would be a megadungeon of some sort, and a society with a bare-bones minimum technological level. Imagine a human society without fire: tools and supplies would be limited to stone, bone, wood, and a few plant and animal products.

With no armor and with weapons limited to clubs, pointed sticks and rocks, there’d be a lot less combat than in most fantasy gaming. I’m thinking there’d be a relatively high proportion of tricks, traps, and puzzles. Monsters would generally be powerful enough that they couldn’t be taken down in a fight, and the players would need to discover their rules: the things they like, which can be offered in return for help or at least mercy; their taboos, which can be turned against them; their friends and enemies, who can be manipulated into getting them out of the way. There’d be a lot of planning, a lot of in-game talking, and a lot of stealth.

Magic would be available – and without much in terms of tools, a vital resource – but instead of the “spells” used by most RPGs it would be more mysterious, limited, and transactional. I’m thinking of something based on religious rites: the pre-fire humans worship myriad gods who are able to bestow gifts in return for promises or special taboos. Sacrifice your greatest treasure in return for invulnerability against a specific foe. Sacrifice a live creature of a specific type and gain the ability to breathe underwater for a day and a night. Take a vow of silence and gain the ability to see in the dark for as long as it lasts. Give something up to get what you need to continue.

Beyond this, perhaps some “natural” magic: players would learn that blue stones keep away the spirits of the angry dead, or that painting certain patterns on their bodies render them invisible to dragons, or that the scent of certain berries when crushed allows them to pass safely by the Flower of Death.

The “dungeon” itself would be different from the usual fare, too. It might begin with man-made diggings, but would soon transition to natural caverns descending into the earth. Eventually you might come to something closer to the familiar world of worked stone, doors, and artificial lighting, but this would be in the lowest levels when the player characters encounter the people of the fire-invested underworld. Imagine the characters’ shock (and the players’ excitement) when they start encountering fire and its products such as worked metal, cooked food, heat, and light.

Not that it would do to just grab any old ember and carry it back to the surface. The theft of fire itself would have to be a symbolic act (and it wouldn’t have to be a theft, for that matter! The players might want to negotiate, gamble, fight, or compete to get it). There’d be one specific fire, belonging to a god. This ur-flame would probably be magical enough to pass through all the obstacles back to the surface without being snuffed, and bringing it back would also bring humanity the secret of fire – the ability to start new fires at will instead of fetching more from their neighbors a mile below.

This would probably be a campaign of indeterminate length, but with a defined start and end: the group is told that they need to fetch fire (whatever that is) from the cave, and their quest is over when they’ve accomplished that. I know there are people out there who feel that a concrete, final goal along those lines doesn’t fit well with exploration-based megadungeon play, but I feel that (in this case at least) those people would be wrong: when your overarching goal in play is to act out a primal myth, you need an end-point and closure.

One final possible twist: What if the player characters are just pawns in a game played by the gods? We’ve already looked at how they’d interact with surface (and/or cthonic) deities on their way down in order to avoid harm or receive aid, but what if the quest was given to them by a sky-god? What if the sky-god’s goal is to create lightning, or place stars in the sky? Perhaps at the end of their quest the characters would have to decide how much of the fire they took: taking more would mean greater reward back at the surface, but carry greater consequences, like being burned by the flames, causing the underworld people to suffer, or drawing the attention and anger of powerful monsters. And even at the surface, perhaps they’d have to decide whether and how much to surrender the fire to the sky-god, and how much to keep for themselves.

Clearly as outlined this would be a huge project, but I really like the idea of this fire-dungeon. It would be a pretty novel variation on how most people do their fantasy gaming, and it would give the ability to tinker and engage with all sorts of powerful mythic ideas. Clearly something to keep in mind if I ever try to make a living designing gaming products.

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In which a biographer is like a taxidermist

Maybe an Uberdermist, these days.

(Tora wa shi shite kawa wo todome hito wa shi shite na wo nokosu;
“A tiger dies and leaves a skin, a person dies and leaves a name”)


Live well. Live so that your memory is honored by those who knew you; live so that the story of your deeds makes the world a better place. When a tiger dies it leaves behind a beautiful and valued pelt… and people should live in such a way that what they leave behind – their names – are similarly beautiful and valued.


Yet another parallel structure! We begin with the noun 虎 (tora), “tiger.” The particle は (wa) marks it as a topic of discussion and sets up a contrast with the second half of the saying. What does the tiger do? Well, first it 死す (shi su) “dies” (in conjunctive form, because we’re chaining verb phrases) and then it 留む (todomu), “leave behind” (in conjunctive form, so that the first and second halves of the sentence connect). The direct-object particle を (wo) tells us that what is left is 皮 (kawa), its skin.

In the second half, 虎 is replaced with 人 (hito), “person”; 皮 with 名 (na), “name”; and 留む with 残す (nokosu), which seems to essentially be a perfect synonym in this context.


Some variants (including the original!) use 残す in place of 留む for the tiger’s pelt. Others use 留む for the human name. Some even change the tiger out for a 豹 (hyou), “leopard.” However, replacing 皮 with homophone 革 is an error: while both are related to skins, the former can refer to fur, while the latter implies leather.

This saying comes to us from a Kamakura-era setsuwa collection called the 十訓抄 (Jikkinshou or Jikkunshou), literally the “ten explanation excerpts.”

Example sentence:


(“Segare yo, tora wa shi shite kawa wo todome hito wa shi shite na wo nokosu. Tachibana-ke no meiyo wo kaifuku sase!”)

[“My son! When a tiger ties he leaves his pelt, but when a man dies what he he leaves is his name. Restore the honor of the Tachibana clan!”]

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What are you, chicken?

They’re known for their careful scheming.


Literally: female – prostrate – male – fly

Alternately: Following someone else while waiting for a chance to strike out on one’s own. Keeping a low profile while preparing for your time to shine. Playing second fiddle… for now.

Notes: While it’s easy to tie the use of 雌 and 雄 characters to traditional sexist attitudes in East Asia – and while this view isn’t exactly unwarranted – the allusion at work here is a little more subtle. Apparently the images invoked are from the lives of birds, perhaps a specific species, where the nesting female lays low (雌伏) and the males flap their wings and take dramatically to the air (雄飛).

This compound comes to us from the Book of the Later Han (後漢書), in the biography of Zhao Dian (趙典) given in volume 27.


A couple of the image search results suggest the relevant bird is chickens. Behold the glory of the male in flight!

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An all-new take on the ant and the grasshopper

(Dai no mushi wo ikashite shou no mushi wo korosu;
“Let the large bug live, and kill the small”)


Sacrificing small considerations so that the large may survive. Cutting off a part so that the whole may live, as in amputations. A gambit. Triage.


We have another pair of parallel phrases. The first begins with the noun 大 (dai), “large.” (Yes, it’s functioning as a noun. We know this because:) This is connected by the associative particle の (no) to the noun 虫 (mushi), a generic term for creepy-crawlies most closely associated with insects. This noun phrase is made into the object of a verb by the particle を (wo); the verb is 生かす (ikasu), a transitive verb meaning “to keep something alive” or “to let something live.” The verb is in conjunctive form, allowing it to connect to the second half of the saying. The latter follows the same pattern except that it replaces 大 with 小 (shou), “small,” and 生かす with 殺す (korosu), “to kill,” in sentence-final form.


A close variant switches the order and “saves” the large insect rather than merely letting it live: 小の虫を殺して大の虫を助ける (Shou no mushi wo koroshite dai no mushi wo tasukeru).

Example sentence:


(“Hikkoshi nante iya da naa. Nidzukuri no tame ni mono wo suteru no wa shushasentaku to iu yori, dai no mushi wo ikashite shou no mushi wo korosu koto ga kurikaesu bakaritte kanji.”)

[“Man, I really hate moving. Throwing things away before packing feels less like ‘sorting’ and more like just ‘letting some die so that others may live’ over and over again.”]

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Like being two-faced, but more compact



Literally: one – mouth – both – tongues

Alternately: Saying one thing and then saying something incompatible later on. Equivocating or, more often, outright lying depending on what’s convenient to say at the time. Speaking with two tongues. Acting presidential, ha ha ha.

Notes: A variant of the compound bumps up the number of tongues to three: 一口三舌 (i-.kkou.san.zetsu).


I’ve decide I don’t want any more pictures of aging racists on my blog, so instead here’s one of the people who call out his 一口両舌 behavior.

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