Fair of skin, unfair of… other things

色の白いは七難隠す
(Iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu; “White skin hides many flaws.”)

Definition:

There’s all sorts of baggage here! This kotowaza is literally saying that if a woman’s skin is sufficiently pale, then that alone makes her so beautiful that even a variety of physical flaws can’t detract from her looks. I believe that this comes from the value ascribed to a secluded, indoors aristocratic lifestyle rather than imported European norms, but it’s still kind of iffy by today’s standards.

Breakdown:

We begin at the end with the verb 隠す (kakusu), “to conceal [something],” in conclusive form. Although the expected object-marker particle is elided, this verb takes as its object the number-noun 七難 (shichinan), “seven difficulties” – that is, “a variety of faults.” It turns out that this mini-sentence is itself a comment on a topic marked by the particle は (wa). The topic itself is a noun phrase centered on the noun 色 (iro), “color,” linked by the associative particle の (no) to adjective 白い (shiroi), which appears in… conclusive form?

This one is a little odd. The most likely explanation is that the adjective is actually in prenominal form, and what it modifies is an elided こと (koto), “[abstract] thing.” So 色の白い essentially becomes “whiteness.”

Notes:

Keep in mind that for some other phrases, 難 becomes shorthand for more severe problems, including natural disasters, so the saying does not assert that white skin can cover for natural disasters or the like… somewhat ironically, in retrospect and from half a world away.

One variant saying replaces whiteness of skin with length of hair (髪の長い, kami no nagai) as the positive quality that drowns out lesser flaws. Another related saying doubles down on the color: 米の飯と女は白いほど良い (kome no meshi to onna wa shiroi hodo yoi), “cooked rice and women are as good as they are white” – apparently a saying from before people realized that a white-rice diet leads to thiamin deficiency.

Example sentence:

色の白いは七難隠すというけれども、この娘がしゃべり始めると隠すことのできない性格の悪さが露わになる」

(Iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu to iu keredomo, kono musume ga shaberi hajimeru to kakusu koto no dekinai seikaku no warusa ga arawa ni naru.”)

[“It’s said that white skin conceals a multitude of flaws, but when this girl starts talking it reveals a flaw in her character that can’t be hidden.”]

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Inception, but with normal gravity

自己暗示
ji.ko.an.ji

Literally: self – self – dark – show

Alternately: Self-suggestion. Working to convince yourself that something is true, or implant an idea, perception, or similar mental construct in one’s own head. This can range from self-hypnosis, to daily affirmations, to someone with crippling delusions trying to scream reality into the shape he wants. (The latter is not recommended.)

Notes: This is another compound of compounds; 自己 is “oneself,” while 暗示 is “to show or convey something indirectly,” “to hint.”

As always, replacing 己 with similar-looking characters such as 巳 (mi, the Chinese-zodiac sign for “snake”) or 已 (i, “stop,” “already”) is an error.

For the more positive kind, check out this relentlessly dorky video:

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At the foot of a difficult wave

難波の葦は伊勢の浜荻
(Naniwa no ashi wa Ise no hamaogi;
“What they call ashi in Naniwa is hamaogi in Ise”)

Definition:

Different places are different – they have different manners, different customs, and even different words for the same things, so be aware. Don’t expect everything to be the same everywhere.

Breakdown:

We begin with place name 難波 (Naniwa), an area in Osaka whose name is now read as Nanba, followed by the noun 葦 (ashi), a kind of reed. The associative particle の (no) shows that the ashi “belongs to” Naniwa.

Similarly, the following phrase begins with place name 伊勢 (Ise), a place in Mie prefecture known for the Ise Jingu shrine; the particle の again associates with this place the noun 浜荻 (hamaogi)… which can mean multiple things, including a form of seaside grass, but which in this case refers to the exact same plant as 葦.

These two noun phrases are joined by the particle は (wa), in this case acting as a topic marker and implying that one half of the phrase matches the other.

Notes:

It’s only natural that this kind of saying would have a number of variations! These range from the very general 所変われば品変わる (tokoro kawareba shina kawaru), “when the place changes, the [physical] things also change,” to the very specific 品川海苔は伊豆の磯餅 (Shinagawa nori wa Izu no isomochi), which seems to be comparing regional specialty foods – in this case, sheets of dried seaweed versus a style of pounded-rice cake.

Example sentence:

「ニューヨーク市に引っ越して、ヒーローってメシを食べてみようと思って行ってみたら、ただのサブマリン・サンドイッチだったんだ。アメリカも難波の葦は伊勢の浜荻で食べ物の名前に地方差があるみたい」

(“Nyuuyooku-shi ni hikkoshite, hiiroo tte meshi wo tabete miyou to omotte itte mitara, tada no sabumarin sandoicchi datta nda. Amerika mo Naniwa no ashi wa Ise no hamaogi de tabemono no namae ni chihousa ga aru mitai.”)

[“After moving to New York I thought I’d go try this food called a “hero,” but it was just a sub sandwich! It looks like American food has its own regional naming variations, just like Naniwa’s ashi and Ise’s hamaogi.”]

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Crane your neck to look at the clouds

閑雲野鶴
kan.un.ya.kaku

Literally: leisure – cloud – field – crane (bird)

Alternately: A relaxed, hermit-like lifestyle in a natural setting, far from worldly cares and social intrigues. The pleasant side of isolation.

Notes: This is another compound of compounds. 閑雲 is exactly what it sounds like: a carefree cloud floating in the sky. And 野鶴 is a crane playing in a field.

This comes to us from the early 18th century CE Chinese poetry anthology Quan Tangshi (Japanese 『全唐詩』 = Zen Toushi) – or from a collection of stories or essays based on the poems? – apparently discussing the lifestyle of someone who has retired from public life to take Buddhist vows.

kanunyakaku 560 days

From the website of a project of the same name to… photograph Nendoroid dolls enjoying nature?

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Arts and crafts for quarantine

門前雀羅を張る
(Monzen jakura wo haru; “To spread a sparrow-net at the gate”)

Definition:

For a place, especially a home, to feel desolate and deserted due to lack of visitors. When the entrance to your estate (because you are an aristocrat with a whole estate to manage, right?) sees so little traffic that you might as well use it to set up a net to catch sparrows in.

Breakdown:

This simple phrase ends, and is made into a sentence, with the verb 張る (haru), “to stick [something to something],” “to spread [something out],” etc., in conclusive form. The particle を (wo) tells us that the verb takes a direct object, which is the noun 雀羅 (jakura), “sparrow net.” This may be compounded with and modified by, or simply located in space by, the noun 門前 (monzen), “in front of the gate.”

Notes:

This comes to us from a story in our friend, the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki), in a comment about a court official whose supply of visitors and friends dried up after he was dismissed from his position. The specific choice of sparrows seems to be simply because they are often seen flocking and playing in an empty street.

It should come as no surprise that this saying can be expressed with the four-character compound 門前雀羅 (monzen jakura) on its own.

Example sentence:

ビデオチャットで友達や親戚に連絡が可能でも、子供がずっと一緒でも、やっぱり時々門前雀羅を張ったような事実の認識がジンと刺してくる。

(“Bideochatto de tomodachi ya shinseki ni renraku ga kanou de mo, kodomo ga zutto issho de mo, yappari tokidoki monzen jakura wo hatta you na jijitsu ga jin to sashite kuru.”)

[“Even being able to video-chat with friends and family, and despite being together with the kids all the time, it’s only natural that every now and then you’d be pierced through by an awareness of the reality that the gate stands empty, as it were.”]

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Row, row, row your bye

Gently down the WOLF CRYPTIDS?!?!

周章狼狽
shuu.shou.rou.bai

Literally: circumference – badge/writing – wolf – wolf

Alternately: Confusion and commotion; getting freaked out and not knowing what to do.

Notes: This is another compound of compounds; both 周章 and 狼狽 on their own mean “panic,” “consternation.” The latter two in particular are interesting; they form an uncommon but acceptable kanji rendition of the verb urotaeru (狼狽える), “to be flustered,” “to lose one’s presence of mind.”

But beyond that, they supposedly represent a pair of cryptids: the 狼 has very short hind legs, and the 狽 has very short front legs. When together they can support each other, but when separated each can barely walk on its own. Nevertheless, in contemporary Japanese, 狼 is almost always used to refer to a regular real-world wolf, while 狽 has fallen out of usage entirely.

Replacing 狽 with 敗 (hai, which in compounds can be voiced as bai), “failure,” is considered an error.

Previous entry 右往左往 is considered a synonym.

ShuuShouRouBaiPair

Source: “ochi clinic

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But supposing you brought the light inside

Just shine full-strength sunlight into every single cell of your body and you’ll never need to worry about viruses again.

馬鹿と暗闇おっかない
(Baka to kurayami okkanai; “Both idiots and darkness are scary”)

Definition:

The darkness is frightening because you don’t know who or what may be there or what may happen; you can’t see the dangers and therefore need to be especially on guard.

With an idiot, even if you have a good idea of their general modus operandi, motivations, and so on, there’s always a chance that they’ll latch on to some completely senseless idea without warning and cause unnecessary trouble. You can never quite know what they’ll do or say or what harm they may cause, and therefore need to be especially on guard. In other words, idiots are just as frightening as the darkness itself, and for similar reasons.

Breakdown:

We begin with noun 馬鹿 (baka), “fool,” “idiot,” and the noun 暗闇 (kurayami), “darkness,” joined by the particle と (to, like “toe”), here acting as “and.” Any further particles are elided, but we may assume that this noun phrase is a topic, and that the comment on this topic is おっかない (okkanai), a Tokyo-dialect colloquialism for “scary.”

Notes:

A related phrase replaces darkness with a bee/wasp nest (蜂の巣 = hachi no su, where hachi is a classification that combines both wasps and bees) and warns you not to touch it (手を出すな = te wo dasu na).

おっかない is an interesting term. Its etymology is not entirely clear, but it seems to have spread through eastern and northern Japan from the “Shitamachi” part of Edo (= Tokyo), and the leading theory is that it’s a slurred derivative of classical adjective おほけなし, “beyond one’s means,” “discourteous,” or even “awe-inspiring.” These days it seems not to be in common usage and has taken on a childish tone, perhaps by association with other verbal distortions found in Japanese baby talk.

Example sentence:

「まったく、げん君ってばさっきアルミホイルで包んだじゃが芋をチンするところだった、馬鹿と暗闇おっかないな」

(“Mattaku, Gen-kun tteba sakki arumihoiru de tsutsunda jagaimo wo chin suru tokoro datta, baka to kurayami okkanai na.”)

[“Sheesh, just now Gen was about to nuke a potato wrapped in aluminum foil. Idiots and darkness are full of dangerous unknowns.”]

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