Or oars

(Fune wa ho de motsu ho wa fune de motsu;
“A ship works because of its sail; a sail works because of its ship”)


A ship is useful because it has a sail; a sail is useful because it’s on a ship. By analogy, people can only achieve things and do good in the world when they help and support each other. Different people have different tasks and functions, and these need to be combined for work to be done effectively.


This set of parallel verb phrases begins with the noun 船 (fune), “ship,” “boat,” marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic begins with the noun 帆 (ho), “sail,” marked as the means by which an action is performed by the particle で (de). In this case, the “action” in question is the verb 持つ (motsu), in conclusive form. We may need to be a bit careful about its meaning, though. Usually translated as “have,” in this case 持つ can be thought of as standing in for compound verb 受け持つ (ukemotsu), “to take on [a task],” “to do a job.”

The second half of the phrase is identical, but with 船 and 帆 switched. Some versions separate the two parts with a comma, but this is not necessary.


The origins of this phrase are unclear, although one of my sources connects it with Buddhist ideas of “direct and indirect causes” (hetu and pratyaya, in Japanese 因縁 = in’nen).

Example sentence:


(“Machi no bunka kyoukai wa ichinenjuu, hotondo kenka bakari de tsumaranai mono da kedo, matsuri no junbi no toki dake wa mina ga fune wa ho de motsu ho wa fune motsu koto wo totsuzen omoidashita ka no you ni, otagai sasaeatte ganbaru suushuukan ga tsudzuku.”)

[“For almost the entire year, the city cultural association is a useless mess of bickering. It’s only for a few weeks during the runup to a festival that everyone suddenly starts supporting each other and working together, as if they’d suddenly remembered that each part of a whole only functions because of the other parts.”]

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Hot and cold with the same breath

It turns out that it’s a highly-adapted survival mechanism


Literally: heat – request – chill – truth / give up

Alternately: Wishing ardently for something, then rigorously investigating it or dispassionately facing its reality, especially the reality that what one wanted cannot actually be achieved. By extension, wishing ardently for something and then completely giving up on it.

Notes: In Buddhist texts, 諦 is used in contexts such as the Four Noble Truths (Japanese 四諦 = shitai). Despite the possible religious connotations of this phrase, though, its origins are unclear; the most I can find is that it seems to be a native Japanese construction.

Aesthetics sure have changed

An important thing to keep in mind

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Geckos famously sell insurance

Gekkos famously commit fraud

(Geko no tateta kura wa nai;
“There are no storehouses built by non-drinkers”)


One might expect teetotallers to become richer due to not wasting money on drink, and once rich they might spend that extra cash on building some storage and filling it with supplies or goods… yet one doesn’t hear about that sort of thing having actually happened. A now-obscure phrase that was supposedly once used by people who drink alcohol to needle those who don’t or can’t, or perhaps especially as an excuse to assuage their own hurt feelings in response to criticisms of their drinking.


We begin with the noun 下戸 (geko), literally “below the door” but in this case meaning a non-drinker (of alcohol). Next comes the particle の (no) in the subject-marker role filled by が (ga) in more modern usage. The predicate to this subject is the verb 建てる (tateru), “to build [a building],” in past tense and acting as a modifier to the noun 蔵 (kura), a “storehouse,” especially one in a particular style of construction with a rectangular foundation and high walls of wattle-and-daub supported by a wooden frame. This entire noun phrase is marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa), and the comment on this topic is simply the adjective 無い (nai), “not,” in conclusive form.


This phrase comes to us from a 1623 collection of humorous anecdotes called 『醒睡笑』 (Seisuishou, literally “wake sleep laugh,” as in “humor that wakes you up”), and is preserved as the け (ke) entry of the Osaka iroha karuta set. The Seisuishou was written by a priest known as 安楽庵策伝 (Anrakuan Sakuden), who is less famous for alcoholism than for tea ceremony and for being a founder of rakugo storytelling.

A variant phrase declares that 酒蔵はあれども餅蔵なし (sakagura wa aredomo mochigura nashi), “there are storehouses for alcohol but not for mochi,” i.e. people who drink are willing and able to build storage spaces for their drink, but teetotalers can’t or don’t do the same for snacks. On the other hand, a non-drinker might respond to this week’s phrase with 上戸の潰した蔵はある (jougo no tsubushita kura wa aru), “there are storehouses that have been wrecked by drinkers.” This seems to refer to people who drink away all their savings, rather than to literal property damage.

Example sentence:


(Roujin wa hoka no joukyaku no tsumetai shisen wo kanjiteinai furi wo shita. Demo, sakekusai kuchi de ‘geko no taketa kura wa nai darou ga’ to butsubutsu iinagara suwatta.)

[The old man acted like he didn’t sense the glares of the other passengers. But he did sit down, muttering under his alcohol-reeking breath that “Staying sober never made anybody rich.”]

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Learning from the past about learning from the past

But how often does the lesson actually “take”?


Literally: pain – determine – think – pain

Alternately: Remembering pain after one has recovered from it. By extension, looking back on something negative in the past (including e.g. one’s mistakes and failures) and taking it as a warning about what to do, or not do, in the future.

Notes: This is another gift from our friend, the Tang-era Chinese scholar Han Yu (韓愈, Japanese Kan Yu), and is a compound of compounds. While 痛定 is not used in contemporary Japanese, in Mr. Han’s usage it meant recovery from disease, and in the same way 思痛 meant remembering that disease.


By a Chinese singer, I’m afraid

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An almost-luxurious oppression

Nobody tell the Merovingian.

(Mawata de kubi wo shimeru;
“To strangle with silk floss”)


Pressure or harm that comes at someone gradually or indirectly, rather than as an overt attack or dramatic event.


We begin with the noun 真綿 (mawata), literally “true cotton” but in this case referring to silk “floss” – see below for greater detail. This noun is marked by the particle で (de) as the means by which the verb is performed; in this case the verb in question is 絞める (shimeru), “to constrict,” “to strangle,” which appears in conclusive (or prenominal) form. The object of this verb, 首 (kubi), “neck,” is marked as the direct object of this verb by the particle を (wo).


真綿 may be a bit tricky. It’s translated as “silk floss,” and in the world of textiles “floss” apparently means strands of untwisted, or only lightly twisted, fibers that make for an especially soft wadding or thread and are often used for embroidery. In this case, the term refers to silk from the discarded cocoons of moths that were allowed to hatch, instead of being boiled with the pupa still inside, as seems to be standard practice. 真綿 appears in this saying because it is softer than regular silk thread.

真綿 may occasionally be replaced with synonym 粘綿 (nebawata), “sticky cotton.” 首 may be replaced with 喉 (nodo), “throat.” It is also considered acceptable to replace 絞める with the more generic homophone 締める (“to tighten”), although the more-precise former character is generally preferred.

This phrase is attributed to a 1711 Ukiyo-zoushi work titled 『傾城禁短気』 (Keiseikintanki).

Example sentence:


(“Ano jimusho de wa, kore da to ieru ijime wa issai nakatta. Da ga shikashi, mainichi komakai koto wo chikuchiku tsukarete mawata de kubi wo shimerareteiru you na kibun ni natta kara, chissoku shinai uchi ni tenshoku shita nda.”)

[“There wasn’t anything at that office that you could point to and call bullying. That said, I was poked and needled about minor details every day until it felt like I was slowly being strangled, so I changed jobs before it could suffocate me completely.”]

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Lose the I, keep the cat


Literally: follow – sky – leave – private / I

Alternately: Giving up one’s egotism and selfish desires, and living in accordance with the natural order.

Notes: This phrase is attributed to Natsume Soseki, who in his later years apparently came to see it as an ideal frame of mind to approach life and/or literature.

Replacing 則 with homophone 即 is an error. The phrase may also be given a kunyomi (Japanese-style reading) as 天に則り私を去る (ten ni nottori watakushi wo saru).

I'm just kind of done, for the day at least. Sheesh.

The name of this model for glasses frames, by a company called Less Than Human.

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Only a failure to see

–Malcolm Muggeridge

(Yamiyo ni teppou;
“A gun on a dark night”)


Doing things at random without any clear plans or information. Taking shots in the dark without even a target, much less the ability to see and aim at one. Arbitrary, generally ineffectual activity. By extension, this phrase can also refer to a lucky hit; a fluke success where none could reasonably have been expected.


We begin with the noun 闇夜 (yamiyo), “dark night,” especially a moonless night, marked by the particle に (ni) as the location (or rather, the time) of an action. The verb itself is elided, but the action itself is suggested by the following noun, 鉄砲 (teppou), “gun.”


This is the や (ya) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. Variants include the contracted に鉄砲 (yami ni teppou) – which is the ya entry in the Osaka set – and 闇夜鉄砲 (yamiyo no teppou), which makes the saying into a noun phrase rather than an implied sentence. Other variants replace the gun with 礫 (tsubute), a [thrown] rock, along with several different ways to express “darkness.” Replacing 闇夜 with 暗がり (kuragari), “darkness,” is considered an error.

Some uses follow this phrase with the elided verb, ~を撃つ (wo utsu), “to shoot [a gun].”

Compare and contrast the more-forgiving 下手な鉄砲も数撃てば当たる.

Example sentence:


(“Ichiou, hitobanjuu yamiyo ni teppou wo utsu you na puroguramingu wo shita kara sofuto wa ugoiteiru keredo, kongo no debaggu wa hitsuyou fukaketsu da.”)

[“For what it’s worth, I spent the night coding without really knowing what I was doing and now the software runs, but it’s definitely going to need debugging later on.”]

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Four steps or you stumble

It all boils down to the need for as many people as possible to agree to be good dancing partners for everyone else


Literally: ceremony – leisure – punishment – government **but see below!

Alternately: The four pillars necessary to maintain good social order. This is essentially an acronym: the four characters represent 礼節 (reisetsu, “decorum”), 音楽 (ongaku, “music”), 刑罰 (keibatsu, “punishment [for crimes]”), and 政令 (seirei, “government ordinance”). In modern terms, perhaps this translates into civility, the arts, a justice system, and regulations.


This phrase comes from our friend, the classical Confucian text the Book of Rites (Japanese 『礼記』 = Raiki). One of my sources aligns 礼 with 礼 (reigi), “politeness,” although I don’t want to read too much into any nuance here given the necessary blurriness that comes from multiple steps of translation and centuries of temporal separation.

The most interesting part to me is the inclusion of music: the chapter in the Book of Rites that this phrase comes from is even 楽記 (gakuki), a treatise on music theory. My personal assumption is that this is not just because song and dance are a universal social-bonding activity across human cultures, but specifically because of its use in religious and court rituals, echoes of which we see preserved in modern Shinto practices in Japan.

The most frightening part to me is that while today’s Republican party in the US would certainly appreciate Confucian (patriarchal, hierarchical) ideas about social structure, in terms of these four pillars of social order they’re actively opposing and working to undermine every single one..

The Chinese influence really shines through, IMO

Japanese imperial gagaku; image from the UNESCO page on the art as an “intangible cultural heritage”

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Actually, don’t put a lid on it

Keep your mouth open and face the music

(Kusai mono ni futa wo suru;
“To put a lid on something stinky”)


Stopgap measures to hide misdeeds, scandal, or other inconvenient realities. The tactic is temporary, but that doesn’t stop some, especially the rich and powerful, from using it repeatedly to postpone a reckoning.


We begin with the adjective 臭い (kusai), “stinky,” which precedes and modifies the noun 物 (mono), “thing,” which is marked as the target of an action by the directional particle に (ni), in the context of the final word, which is the verb する (suru), “to do,” in conclusive form. The direct-object marker particle を (wo) applies this verb to the noun 蓋 (futa), “lid,” which becomes the thing being “done” to the stinky thing.


This is the く (ku) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. It is attributed (by exactly one of my sources) to a 1749 joururi play titled 『双蝶蝶曲輪日記』 (Futatsu chouchou kuruwa nikki).

Sometimes the verb is elided, and the phrase is shortened to 臭い物に蓋. Occasionally mono may be written in kana as もの, although this seems uncommon.

Example sentence:


(“Hannin wa hisshi ni kusai mono ni futa wo suru you na shudan wo tsugitsugi to totta kedo, kekkyoku keisatsu ni taiho sareta.”)

[“The criminal desperately tried one move after another to throw them off the scent, but eventually the police caught and arrested him.”]

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Now with more star power

As in literally not just the north star, but six other stars


Literally: Tai – mountain – north – dipper

Alternately: A leading and respected figure in a given field; someone of immense personal authority by whose standard others chart their courses and measure their progress. The human equivalent of a famous mountain or constellation.

Notes: Cartographical in feel, this is a compound of proper nouns: 泰山 is simply the name of a famous mountain, Mount Tai (a.k.a. Tai Shan), while 北斗 is the Big Dipper constellation.

This phrase comes to us from the New Book of Tang, or Xīn Tángshū, (Japanese 『新唐書』 = Shintoujo), essentially a heavily-revised replacement for the history text that we retrospectively call the Old Book of Tang, which we’ve met before. It seems to be describing Han Yu (韓愈, Japanese Kan Yu), whom we have definitely met before.

One of the grandmasters of modern fiction, and by all accounts a decent guy

One of the earliest and greatest luminaries in my personal constellation of heroes

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