They do toil, and they do spin

Humans aren’t plants, it turns out; we just raise ‘em.


Literally: grain* / drop – grain* / drop – spicy / unpleasant – bitter / suffer

Alternately: Hard, steady work. To carry on with plain, painstaking, long-term labor. Elbows greased and noses to the grindstone. The image is of the farmers’ work that goes into producing each individual grain of rice that goes on to become someone’s food.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from the poetry of Tang-era politician-poet Li Shen (Japanese 李紳, Ri Shin). It is apparently a contraction (a yojijukugoification?) of the poetic line 粒粒辛苦. (The 皆 is probably pronounced mina in Japanese in this case.)

As usual, the doubled character 粒粒 may be replaced with the doubling mark, 粒々.

* In this case, “grain” refers to “a small piece of something,” e.g. a grain of sand or grain of rice, rather than cereals or legumes.

You worked hard for that rice; why not drink it?

I’m starting to sense a pattern. If you’re at a loss for a name for your sake company, just use a 四字熟語.

Posted in Japanese, Yojijukugo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The sleeve’s edge; another life

(Sode suriau mo tashou no en;
“Even a brushing of the sleeves is a connection from a past life.”)


Every relationship you have in your entire life – including not just the big important ones, but the people you merely brush past anonymously on the street – carries the karmic weight of some connection from another life, (in the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation). Every person you encounter was destined to meet you based on a past life. There are no coincidences; only fate.

This isn’t just a random bit of Buddhist doctrine, though! The implication is that even the most trivial chance meeting should be treated as important, even precious. This is not just in consideration of whatever connection past-you and past-them may have had (although this aspect seems to be emphasized in most usage), but because the actions you take in this life will have karmic repercussions in future lives as well.


We begin with the noun 袖 (sode), “sleeve.” With any particles elided, next comes a verb phrase comprising the verb 擦る (suru), “to rub,” “to scrape [against something],” in conjunctive form, and the verb 合う (au), “to meet,” or less plainly but more on-point, “[two or more things mutually do an action to each other].” This is followed by an implied nominalizer, and the resulting phantom noun phrase is marked by the emphatic particle も (mo), “even.”

This も may be seen as overriding and hiding the topic-marker は (wa); the comment on this topic is the noun phrase that begins with the compound noun 他生 (tashou), “other life,” attached by the associative particle の (no), in its possessive function, to the noun 縁 (en). As we’ve discussed previously, the word can have any of a variety of meanings, but here it refers to a karmic or fated relationship. We may imagine an elided copula at the end.


This one has a lot of variations! First, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the saying itself is presented using すり, while my breakdown specifies the kanji as 擦り. Both options are valid! The kana version seems to be standard, which is why I used it at the top, but in the breakdown I wanted to stress that it’s different from the verb する that means “to do.”

Other variants replace すり entirely with 振り (furi); while 振る on its own means “to swing,” 振り合う refers to two things touching each other; this is almost certainly using the image of the sleeve (a thing that swings as your arm moves) to play on homophone 触り合う, since 触る actually does mean “to touch” – although note that in modern Japanese the fu reading tends to take the form 触れる (fureru), while 触る is commonly read as sawaru. In that vein, it is also acceptable (albeit apparently rare) to replace すり or 振り with 触 (fure), with identical grammar and meaning.

Versions that replace すり with 振り usually also replace 他生 with homophone 多生 (“many lives”). Note, however, that using 多少 (also tashou, but meaning “to some degree,” “a little”) is an error.

A number of synonymous phrases find similar karmic echoes in various phenomena, from the flowing water of a river to a stone that you’ve tripped over. Also, compare and contrast the four-character compound 一期一会.

The attributions on this kotowaza are conflicting; it is attributed in my sources to both a book-bound text called 『蛤の草紙』 (Hamaguri no soushi), and to a late Edo-era Kabuki play titled 『名歌徳三舛玉垣』 (Meika no toku mimasu no tamagaki).

The すり version of this phrase is the so entry for both the Kyoto and the Osaka iroha karuta sets.

Example sentence:


(Sode suriau mo tashou no en to iu you ni, kyou toshokan de tamatama shiriatta atarashii tomodachi mo taisetsu ni shitai.”)

[“They say that even a brief touch in passing is the touch of fate, so I want to value the new friend I made by chance at the library today.”]

Posted in Japanese, Kotowaza | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leaving the ivory tower

What is the tower of practical applications made out of? Tungsten?


Literally: know – act – join – one

Alternately: One’s knowledge and deeds are in accordance. One’s actions must be guided by one’s knowledge, and knowledge only has meaning if it is demonstrated through action.

Notes: Reading 行 as gyou is considered an error in this compound, but 合一  may be replaced with 一致 (icchi, “union,” “agreement”) without any change in meaning.

This phrase comes to us from the work of Confucian thinker Wang Yangming in a text called the Zhuanxilu (Japanese 『伝習録』 = Denshuuroku).

Isn't this just the end of the Ghostbusters movie?

This is a thing that happened.

Posted in Japanese, Yojijukugo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better to be thought a fool

…than to be shot down.

(Reiri naru atama ni wa tojitaru kuchi ari;
“In the clever head, a closed mouth.”)


A wise person doesn’t speak any more than necessary, and thus doesn’t say foolish, boring, or pointless things. “Silence at the proper season is wisdom.”


We begin this complete sentence with the compound noun 怜悧 (reiri), “cleverness,” “wisdom.” This is followed by the copular particle なり (nari) in prenominal form as なる, allowing it to attach to and modify the noun 頭 (atama), “head.” Next we get the locational particle に (ni), doubled up with the topic marker particle は (wa); that is to say, the topic of this phrase is “as for in-the-head-that-is-wise.”

The comment on this topic centers on the noun 口 (kuchi), “mouth.” It is preceded by the intransitive verb 閉づ (todzu), “to close,” in conjunctive form and taking the auxiliary verb たり (tari), which indicates that the verb it modifies is in a conclusive or continuative state; also in prenominal form so that it may prefix the noun. And following kuchi is the copular verb あり (“to be”), in conclusive form.


This obscure saying is attributed to an admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Yamamoto Isoroku; perhaps it’s appropriate then that he died thanks to a broken code allowing his plane to be targeted by the US Air Force.

Example sentence:


(“Gakusei jidai wa shakai fuan no sei de amari kuchi wo kikanakatta ga, sono sei de reiri naru atama ni wa tojitaru kuchi ari de hikaeteiru no da to omowarete, kurasumeito ni wa kakkou ii to bunfusouou na shousan wo uketeita.”)

[“When I was a student I almost never spoke out of social anxiety. But people thought that I was holding back because of how the wise speak only when necessary, and my classmates showered me with undeserved praise about how cool I was.”]

Posted in Japanese, Kotowaza | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not a problem if you’re Solo?

(Yes, that’s a source text / Star Wars joke.)


Literally: faction – same – strike / punish – different

Alternately: Blind partisanship. Supporting one’s associates and attacking one’s rivals without any regard for what is actually correct or proper.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from our friend, the Book of the Later Han (Japanese 『後漢書』 = Gokanjo). It also has a more Japanese-style reading based on kanbun rules, 同じきに党がり異なるを伐つ (Onajiki ni muragari kotonaru wo utsu). Its parts may also be rearranged to give 党同伐異 (toudou ibatsu) or 伐異党同 (batsui toudou).

It's scary how some people idolize Sparta, which was an authoritarian slave state in which the rich elites literally had license to murder the peasantry at will.

When a threat is felt, impartiality often takes a back seat compared to closing ranks and bristling up.

Posted in Japanese, Yojijukugo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wonder is the seed of knowledge

(France is bacon)

(Taigi wa taigo no motoi;
“Great doubts are the foundation of great enlightenment”)


Great doubt is the first step toward great realizations. Doubt leads to asking questions, which leads to seeking answers, which – in theory at least – eventually leads to finding answers that leave you with a broader and deeper understanding.


We begin with the compound noun 大疑 (taigi), “big doubt,” marked by the particle は (wa) as the topic of discussion. The comment on this topic is another noun phrase; compound noun 大悟 (taigo), “big revelation,” marked by the associative particle の (no) as attaching to and possessing the noun 基 (motoi), “foundation.” One may imagine an elided copula to make the phrase into a complete sentence.


Keep in mind that 悟 isn’t just any random realization; it refers specifically to Buddhist enlightenment about the true nature of the universe.

基 may also be read as moto without any change in meaning; my sources seem evenly split on which is considered the “main” reading and which the alternate. Variant phrasings may make the same general point with a double negative, such as 疑わぬ者に悟りなし (utagawanu mono ni satori nashi), “for those who do not doubt, there is no satori.” Another variant takes this form but replaces 疑わぬ with 迷わぬ (mayowanu), i.e. “getting lost” instead of “doubting.”

One possibly-interesting footnote is that, since for my current いろは-ordered series I’ve been trying to use phrases from the major iroha karuta sets, my original plan was to do a write-up for a saying that goes 大食上戸の餅食らい (taijiki jouto no mochi-kurai). (This is the た entry in the Osaka/Nagoya set; I’ve already used the entries for the Edo and Kyoto sets.)

The thing is, there doesn’t seem to be much reliable information on this phrase online. None of my regular sources include it, and a further search only pointed me to a handful of rambling blog posts that give opinions without citing authoritative sources. There’s a chance that a trip to the East Asian collection at the local university library would provide something more solid (they have several books on kotowaza), but in the end it was simply more efficient to choose a better-documented phrase.

Example sentence:


(Taigi wa taigo no motoi da to senmonka no shuchou wo kawasu koto wa kesshite warui koto de wa nai kedo, jibun no kangae ni tai suru gimon mo motsu beki da.”)

[“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to say that ‘great doubt is the basis of great understanding’ to deflect what experts have declared, but it is necessary to entertain questions about your own thinking.”]

Posted in Japanese, Kotowaza | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gaijin, he zen


Literally: change – illusion – self – exist

Alternately: Able to change one’s form or appearance, or appear and disappear, at will. Shapeshifting; protean; phantasmal.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 変幻 refers to an illusion or vision that flickers into and back out of existence, while 自在 refers to being able to act freely at will.

A close synonym is 変幻出没 (hengen shutsubotsu), replacing the “at will” part with explicit “appearing and disappearing”; compare and contrast 神出鬼没. Another synonym emphasizes the changeable nature of the thing in question: 千変万化 (senpen banka), literally “one thousand changes, ten thousand transformations.”

A scaly rainbow zen boi

A lot of Japanese image sites seem to feel that the chameleon is the definitive poster child for this phrase

Posted in Japanese, Yojijukugo | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats

(Yome toome kasa no uchi;
“Seen at night; seen from afar; wearing a hat”)


This phrase asserts that women are most beautiful when seen in the dark, or from a distance, or when mostly obscured by something like a large hat. Like the horror-movie trope that a monster is always scarier when implied to be present but not actually shown so that your mind can fill in the gaps… except kind of sexist. The power of deliberate vagueness stimulating the human imagination.


We begin this series of noun phrases with compound noun 夜目 (yome), literally “night eye.” This can refer to either night-vision, or to “something seen in the dark”; this saying uses the latter meaning. Next comes compound noun 遠目 (toome, literally “far eye”), which can be long-distance vision, farsightedness, or in this case “something seen at a distance.” And finally we get the noun 内 (uchi), “inside,” with associative particle の (no) connecting it to, and modifying it with, the noun 笠 (kasa), a classic woven-straw peaked hat.


Variant phrases may place the woman under the hat (笠の下, kasa no shita) or put 遠目 in front and follow it with the even more distant 山越し (yamagoshi, “on the other side of a mountain”), among others. However, replacing 笠 with homophone 傘 (“umbrella”) is an error.

This saying apparently comes to us from a joururi play titled 『山城の国畜生塚』 (Yamashiro no kuni chikushoudzuka) by way of our friend, the Edo-era poetic-theory text 『毛吹草』 (Kefukigusa). It is the yo entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:


(Yome toome kasa no uchi to iu kedo, shoujiki ni iu to, kao wa kankei nai. Anna ni sugoi boushi wo kaburou to omotta hito to hanashite mitai nda.”)

[“There’s that saying about how women are prettier at night, or at a distance, or when they’re covered up, but to be honest this isn’t about her face. I just want to talk with whoever would think to wear such an amazing hat.”]

Posted in Japanese, Kotowaza | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sing as though no one can hear you

Why can’t they hear me? I’d better sing even more loudly.


Literally: release – song – high – recite / chant / sing

Alternately: Singing in a loud voice, without worrying about whether you may be bothering anybody else.


This is a compound of compounds, and its parts may be flipped to produce 高吟放歌; unlike many such compounds, the first halves of the parts may also be swapped, to produce 高歌放吟 (kouka hougin). Both of these variants seem to be significantly less common than the original order (presented above), though.

This phrase is surprisingly modern: it is attributed to a 1948 short story titled 「テニヤンの末日」 (Teniyan no matsujitsu), by 中山義秀 (Nakayama Gishuu).



Posted in Japanese, Yojijukugo | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Truffles before swine

Or just about anything at all before a goat

(Katsuobushi wo neko ni azukeru;
“Entrusting katsuo shavings to a cat”)


A dangerous situation where one can’t afford to let one’s guard down. Risking a loss by presenting someone with an overpowering temptation. Setting a fox to guard the henhouse. Like placing your katsuo shavings – a tasty delicacy – next to a cat, who is almost certain to immediately try to eat them.


We begin at the end with the verb 預ける (azukeru), to leave something in someone’s care; to entrust something to someone for safekeeping or proper use. This verb appears in conclusive form. Before it we find the directional particle に (ni), “to,” marking the indirect object of the verb. This object is the noun 猫 (neko), “cat.” And preceding this we find the indirect-object particle を (wo), marking the compound noun 鰹節 (katsuobushi). This refers to thin flakes or slices of dried meat from a skipjack tuna, a.k.a. the “arctic bonito,” which is closely related to – but not quite the same as – the “true” bonito genera, and commonly translated as “bonito.”


鰹節 may also be read as katsubushi (dropping the o), although this is nonstandard.

This phrase may be shortened and flipped to 猫に鰹節 (neko ni katsuobushi) without any change in meaning. This is just the first in a panoply of synonymous phrases: one may leave the cat in charge of dried skipjack (in chunk form), or just a fish; a fox in charge of adzuki-rice; a thief in charge of a key, or in charge of guarding the storehouse; or even a goldfish in charge of mosquito larvae (!).

Alert readers may remember phrases such as 猫に小判 and wonder if this phrase is an antonym. It doesn’t seem to be counted as one, though – and this makes sense. Despite the syntactic similarity, the meanings aren’t actually in opposition.

One of my sources attributes this saying to a work titled 『根無草』 (Nenashigusa), although further details are scant.

Example sentence:


(“Tsuma no tanjoubi keeki wo chabudai ni oite, rousoku wo tori ni ittara, musume ga tedzukami de keeki wo tabeteita. Zannen na koto ni keeki wa nisaiji no te no todoku ichi ni atta no da. Sasuga ni, sonna katsuobushi wo neko ni azuketa you na yudan wo shita no wa daishippai datta.”)

[“I put my wife’s birthday cake on the coffee table and went to get candles, and then our daughter was eating it by the handful. Unfortunately, the cake was in a place where a two-year-old could reach it. And yeah, dropping my guard and creating such a tempting target was a really big mistake on my part.”]

Posted in Japanese, Kotowaza | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment