Lucy in the pie

…with a 3D rendering of diamonds

(E ni kaita mochi; “A rice cake drawn in a picture”)


Something appealing that doesn’t actually do any good. Pie in the sky, to substitute a Western food. No matter how well-drawn and delicious-looking a mochi cake in a picture may be, you can’t actually derive any sustenance from it. Alternately, something that exists only as an idea or plan rather than in reality.


This idiomatic expression comprises a single noun phrase. At the end we find the primary noun, 餅 (mochi), a category of sticky sweet cakes made of white rice that’s been pounded into a single glutinous mass. The noun is modified by the verb 描く (kaku, although in other contexts it can be read egaku), “to draw a picture,” in plain past tense form. The particle に (ni) places the drawing of the mochi in the noun 絵 (e), “picture.”


The “picture” (絵) may be expressed with the character 画 instead, without any change in meaning or pronunciation. In turn, this allows the whole phrase to be condensed down to the two-character compound 画餅 (gabei). Another variant specifies the rice cake as 牡丹餅 (botamochi), in which the rice ball is surrounded in sweet red bean paste.

This saying apparently originates in the 通俗編 (Tōng sú biān, or Tsuuzokuhen in Japanese), which we’ve seen before.

Example sentence:


(“Osore irimasu ga, ani ni okane wo kasanaide kudasai. Warugi wa nai ndesu ga, ano keikaku wa mina e ni kaita mochi ni suginai mono bakari desu yo.”)

[“I’m really sorry, but please don’t lend my brother money. His intentions aren’t bad, but his plans never amount to more than pretty ideas without any substance.”]

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Desperate odds and awful evens


Literally: bad – battle – bitter – fight

Alternately: A do-or-die battle against a fearsome foe or a terrible disadvantage. Struggling with all your might.


Thesis writing.

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Even this old man comes rolling home

(Kareki mo yama no nigiwai; “Even a dead tree adds life to a mountain”)


Even something boring or drab is better than nothing at all. Even dead, withered trees give more “life” to a mountainside than if it were bare. This is most commonly used as a self-deprecating expression by someone relatively old joining a group of younger, more energetic people for some activity.


We begin with the verb 枯れる (kareru), “to wither,” “to die,” in prenominal form, attached to and modifying the noun 木 (ki), “tree.” This is followed by the particle も (mo), commonly “also” but in this case “even.” Next comes the noun 山 (yama), “mountain,” and finally the verb 賑わう (nigiwau), “to be bustling,” “to flourish.” It appears in conjunctive form, which allows it to act as a noun, and the particle の (no) shows that this noun is associated with or possessed by the mountain.


Variations on this phrase may replace “withered” with “bent” (歪み, yugami), the mountain with a forest (森, mori), or the liveliness with decoration (飾り, kazari).

Example sentence:


(“Ano ojiisan ga uchi no saakuru ni haitta toki ha, kare, kareki mo yama no nigiwai nante iiteta kedo, bikkuri suru hodo umaku utaeru ne.”)

[“When that old man joined our club he was saying stuff like ‘Even an old fart like me might brighten things up a bit,’ but it turns out he can sing surprisingly well.”]

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A yojijukugo for college students

Or new parents. Or night shift workers. Or…


Literally: half – wake – half – asleep

Alternately: Not fully conscious. Half awake and half asleep. Bleary.

Notes: The order of the halves may be reversed in some cases (半睡半醒), or 醒 may be replaced with the more-common 覚 (kaku), which can similarly mean “to wake up.”


I’m awake. No, wait, I’m asleep.

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Warm, but not a good oven

(Secchin de manjuu; “A bun in the outhouse”)


Hiding away in order to enjoy something all by oneself, like squirreling oneself away in the toilet to have a snack (or go online with a smartphone, these days). Other, less common uses point to being so hungry that you don’t care where you eat, or being unable to choose where you eat (and therefore unable to enjoy the food).


This is just two nouns connected by a particle. We begin with 雪隠 (secchin), an outhouse, marked as the place of action by the particle で (de). Next comes the noun 饅頭 (manjuu), a steamed yeast bun still popular as a snack or dessert in Japan. The actual verb is elided, but we can assume that the action is eating.


Looking at the characters used to write 雪隠, one might expect it to be pronounced setsuin – and originally it was, but over time the pronunciation shifted to secchin. Further drift has also produced senchi as an accepted pronunciation. The term’s origins are unclear, other than that it comes from China, but generally involve the outhouse belonging to a Buddhist temple.

Example sentence:


(Otouto ni katta koto wo shirareru mae ni, ani wa uraniwa de kossori to secchin de manjuu wo kuu you ni manga wo yonda.)

[Before his younger brother realized that he had bought it, the boy stealthily read the manga in the back yard as if secretly enjoying a treat.]

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Like when you’re arguing despite agreeing


Literally: same – construction – different – melody

Alternately: The technique or methodology used in making two things is the same, but the style is different. Things appearing markedly different despite being born of fundamentally the same character or craftsmanship. This phrase is especially used to describe artistic works such as poetry or music.

Notes: Some people occasionally replace 工 with homophones 巧 or 口 (perhaps mistakenly taken from compounds such as 異口同音), but this is considered an error.

This phrase originally comes from the writing of Tang-era neo-Confucian writer Han Yu.


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A tail full of sound, and furry

(Told by an idiot)

(Taizan meidou shite nezumi ippiki; “The mountain trembles; a single mouse.”)


Terrible harbingers and portents without follow-through. Much ado, after which, nothing. Especially used in reference to empty threats. Like a large mountain rumbling and shaking as if about to erupt, only for it to turn out that all the noise was echoes raised by a lone mouse.


We begin with compound noun 大山 (taizan), “large mountain.” Any particle marking this noun is elided, but it’s followed by noun 鳴動 (meidou), “rumbling,” made into a verb by the addition of する (suru), “to do.” The verb is in conjunctive form, and is followed by noun-number-counter 鼠一匹 (nezumi ippiki), “one mouse.”


Taizan may be written with as 太山 without any change in meaning or pronunciation. It’s also sometimes mistaken for 泰山 – China’s famous Mount Tai, and this writing is actually so common and established that it’s considered acceptable. However, the point of entry into Japanese is apparently from the writings of the Roman poet Horace, as “Parturiunt montes, nascitur ridiculus mus.” (“The mountain was pregnant, and birthed a ridiculous mouse.”) And Horace himself was drawing on earlier traditions, perhaps back to Aesop’s Fables.

Example sentence:


(“Ano kyoutou sensei? Itsumo donari tsukete kuru kara yappari kowaku mieru kedo, donari tsukeru igai wa issai koudou shinai yo. Taizan meidou shite nezumi ippiki tte koto sa.”)

[“The vice-principal? He always yells at people, so yeah, he looks scary, but other than yelling he does absolutely nothing. He’s all bark and no bite.”]

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