Touch and touch and touch and touch and touch and touch and touch and touch and touch and go


Literally: nine – die – one – live

Alternately: To somehow survive a very seriously dangerous situation. To be alive after escaping a 90% chance of dying.

Notes: This comes to us from the Chu Ci, aka the Songs of Chu (Japanese 『楚辞』 = So ji), an extensive and influential poetic anthology attributed, at least in part, to the Warring States period.

This compound may be expanded into a whole phrase as 九死に一生を得る (kyuushi ni isshou wo eru), “to receive one life out of nine deaths.” There are also a surprising number of variants, such as 死一生 (juu shi isshou), which changes the chance of death from 9 to 10. Beyond that, though, we find 死一生 (ban shi isshou), replacing 9 with 10,000, or the quirky 生 (ban shi kyuu shou), respectively replacing 9 and 1 with 10,000 and… 9.

I see he opted for female-style battle armor

I’m going to just assume that this is how the Japanese media portray Joseph R Biden

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

Don’t just tread on it

Make sure your neighborhood is friendly to mongooses

(Hebi no namagoroshi wa hito wo kamu;
“A half-killed snake bites a person”)


If you take action but don’t finish the job, you only invite harm. A snake wounded but not finished off, or left only half-dead, will lash out and bite. Once you’ve started something – especially the defeat of a vicious foe – finish the job lest it come back and haunt you. While the “action” left unfinished may be general, this saying often carries a connotation of something potentially dangerous that is not dealt with thoroughly.


We begin four (and five) characters in, with the verb 殺す (korosu), “to kill,” in prenominal form and acting as a noun. This is compounded with the noun 生 (nama), “raw” or “live,” or in this case “unfinished.” The associative particle の (no) attaches this compound to, and allows it to be modified by, the noun 蛇 (hebi), “snake.” This entire noun phrase is marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic begins with the noun 人 (hito), “person,” which is marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 噛む (kamu), which appears in conclusive form.


Writing hebi with katakana (ヘビ) or writing kamu as 咬む is a perfectly acceptable orthographic variation.

The phrase 蛇の生殺し on its own can refer to leaving an opponent to suffer after wounding but not killing them, or by extension, any job left half-finished. Things may also be rearranged to give 生殺しの蛇に噛まれる (namagoroshi no hebi ni kamareru), “to be bitten by a half-killed snake,” i.e. “to be harmed after failing to completely root out something bad.”

Example sentence:


(“Toubun no aida wa gisei mo naku tero wo fusegu koto ga dekita ga, hebi no namagoroshi wa hito wo kamu koto ni naranai you ni, inbou ni kwawatta mono wo minna taiho suru made yasumazu ni tsutome tsudzukeru tsumori da.”)

[“For the time being, we’ve managed to avert a terror attack without any victims. But to prevent a half-finished job from coming back to bite us, we intend to continue working until every member of the conspiracy is behind bars.”]

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

Wolves among the flowers


Literally: fall – flower – wolf – spread

Alternately: Things are scattered or disorganized. Chaos and disorder. Violence, especially violence directed towards women and children.

Notes: As with last week’s yojijukugo, this is a compound of compounds, with 落花 referring to scattered flower petals and 狼藉 being the flattened grass where a wolf has bedded down. The image of flower petals may be taken as an example of disorder, or (as in the final usage mentioned), as a metaphor for the supposed fragile beauty of noncombatant women and children.

This phrase comes to us from the Wakan rōeishū (『和漢朗詠集』, a thousand-year old poetry collection including both Chinese and native Japanese works.

Writing 落花 as homophone 落下, “fall,” “descent,” or 藉 as close relative 籍 is naturally an error.


It’s a book title. I have no idea what about. You can buy it if you’d like.

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

An ounce of prevention is worth….

Buy it when prevention is cheap, not when cure is costly

(Chi ni ite ran wo wasurezu; “In peace, do not forget strife”)


Even in times of peace and safety, it’s still necessary to plan ahead in case something goes wrong. In times of plenty, prepare for scarcity; in times of peace, be ready to deal with disaster or violence. Even when things are going well, make a point of thinking about ways that they could go poorly, and lay plans accordingly.


We begin with the noun 治 (chi), “peace,” although note that in contemporary Japanese this usage is obscure and often adds the meaning of “governance” to compound terms, e.g. 治安 (chian, “public safety/order”). This is marked as the (temporal) location of the verb 居る (iru), “to sit,” “to be,” in conjunctive form and taking the perfective suffix つ (tsu), also in conjunctive form. The following clause begins with the noun 乱 (ran), “disorder,” “war,” marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of the final verb 忘る (wasuru), “to forget,” which is in imperfective form (as 忘, wasure) and takes the negative suffix ず (zu) in conclusive form.


This comes to us from a commentary appended to the I Ching (Japanese 『易経』 = Ekikyou) known as the “ten wings” (十翼 = juuyoku) – specifically the “Great Commentary” (繁辞伝 = Keijiden).

Writing chi with homophone 地 (“earth”) is, of course, an error. However, writing ite in kana as いて is acceptable. As we might expect based on the fame and antiquity of its source, this saying also boasts multiple variants, e.g. by replacing 治 with some grammatical form of 安 (an, also “peace”) and 乱 with 厄 (yaku, “disaster”) or 危 (ki, “danger”), and/or perhaps the final verb with the affirmative form of 思う (omou, “to think [of]”), among others.

Example sentence:


(“Tekisetsu na gyouseikan to ittara, hotondo no hito ga souzou suru no wa kinkyuu jitai ni nattara reisei ni rinkiouhen ni taiou dekiru jinbutsu da to omou kedo, boku wa somosomo kinkyuu jitai ga okiru mae ni, chi ni ite ran wo wasurezu de, shikkari to sonaete oku no ga ichiban da to omoimasu.”)

[“If you talk about what makes a good public administrator, I think most people imagine someone who stays calm and adaptable during emergencies. But I believe that what’s best is actually someone who thinks about trouble even when things are calm and prepares thoroughly before an emergency situation actually arises.”]

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



Literally: disorder – violence – wolf – spread

Alternately: To engage in violent and unlawful behavior; to ignore reason and act wildly and destructively. Rioting; committing outrages.

Notes: It is an error to replace 藉 with homophone 籍, “register” (note the 艹 “crown” in one and the ⺮ in the other). So is reading 暴 as baku, although that can be a valid pronunciation in other contexts.

This is a doubled-for-emphasis type of yojijukugo; both 乱暴 and 狼藉 refer to “violence.” Supposedly the latter invokes the image of a patch of disturbed grass where a wolf has lain down to sleep. The compound may be made into a verb phrase by following it with ~を働く (~wo hataraku).

Read it yourself; I'm tired right now:

Scenes of violence from a historical text at Daitakuji (大澤寺), a Buddhist temple in Shizuoka that is – and I am not making this up – just a couple minutes walk from a goldfish shop called White House. Topical!

Posted in Japanese, Yojijukugo | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Never bring a gun to a stats fight

Seriously; that’d be a crime.

(Heta na teppou mo kazu uteba ataru;
“Even an inept gun, fired a number of times, will hit.”)


Even if someone is very bad at something, with enough tries they’ll produce strong results or success every now and then out of pure chance. Take enough shots, and one of them is bound to get lucky. Bear in mind that this is about statistics, where good results are produced by random chance from a high volume of attempts, rather than the change-averse trait of “even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” in which (for me, at least), someone holds to one belief or strategy that is usually wrong, and benefits when the situation matches it.


We begin with noun 下手 (heta), “unskilled,” with particle な (na) allowing it to act as an adverb and modify the noun 鉄砲 (teppou), “gun.” This is marked by emphatic particle も (mo), here acting like the English adverb “even.” It also subsumes an implied topic-marker は (wa), and the remainder of the phrase is the comment on this topic.

The comment begins with what looks like the noun 数 (kazu), “number,” but is actually acting as an adverb: “frequently,” “repeatedly.” This modifies the verb 撃つ (utsu), “to hit,” “to attack,” “to shoot (at),” which appears in perfective form with conditional suffix ば (ba), “when.” And the following conditional clause consists of the verb 当たる (ataru), “to hit,” “to be accurate,” “to go well,” etc. (among myriad other possible translations) in conclusive form.


撃てば may be contracted to 撃ちゃ (ucha), and/or the kanji 撃 may be replaced with homophone 打, without any change in meaning.

A variant saying asserts that 下手な鍛冶屋も一度は名剣 (heta na kajiya mo ichido wa meiken), “Even an unskilled smith will produce one high-quality sword.”

This phrase can be insulting (as you’d expect, given the use of 下手), so use with caution in conversation or public discourse.

A couple of my sources claim that this comes from an English saying, “He that shoots oft at last shall hit the mark.” To be honest, I’ve never heard this before and most search results seem to be for Japanese pages making the same assertion, so take this with a grain of salt.

Example sentence:


(Heta na teppou mo kazu uteba ataru darou to omotte, seccho wo suujuusha no shuppan gaisha ni okuttte mimashita.”)

[“Believing that even a terrible marksman will hit the target with enough shots, I tried sending that little thing I wrote to several dozen publishing companies.”]

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


I certainly prefer it to the pork


Literally: go – cloud – flow – water

Alternately: Going where the wind and tides carry you, instead of sticking with one thing or staying in one place. Constantly changing rather than keeping a single shape. By extension, this phrase may also describe a Zen priest on a pilgrimage.

Notes: This phrase is attributed to the writings of Song-era Chinese poet and government official Su Shi (蘇軾, Japanese So Shoku), perhaps via the epic history text, the History of Song (Japanese 『宋史』 = Sou shi).

The order of the parts may be switched to 流水行雲 without any change in meaning, although this version seems to be relatively rare.

A little worried about that red spot

The name of an actually completely stationary restaurant in Nagano (site). Appropriately enough, 蘇軾’s “art name” Dongpo (東坡, Japanese Ton Po) was also given to a roast pork dish that he is credited with inventing.

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

Hefty fluff

(Juubako no sumi wo tsutsuku;
To poke at the corners of a juubako”)


To fuss over trivial details; to nitpick; to carp endlessly about fine points that don’t actually make a difference. The image is of someone who has essentially finished their meal, but uses a toothpick to pick tiny bits of food out of the corners of the tray. The phrase has a negative nuance and is commonly invoked to criticize someone’s behavior or attitude.


We begin at the end with the verb 突く (tsutsuku), “to poke,” in conclusive form. The particle を (wo) marks the noun 隅 (sumi), “corner,” “recess,” as the object of the verb. Meanwhile, the associative particle の (no) associates 隅 with, and allows it to be modified by, the noun 重箱 (juubako), a “multi-tiered food box.”


Bear in mind that while the English “corner” can refer to a convex or a concave angle, 隅 is only concave; it refers to the “inside” part of a corner. The “outside” (convex) part is a 角 (kado), as seen in terms like 三角 (sankaku), “triangle.” Naturally, replacing 隅 with 角 is an error.

That said, this saying does allow for quite a few variations. Tsutsuku may be written in kana as つつく. It may be replaced by ほじくる (hojikuru), “to dig out,” “to pick [one’s nose, teeth, etc.].” The specificity of の隅 may be elided, or specificity may be added by saying that the picking is done 楊枝で (youji de), “with a toothpick”; this may be added at the beginning of the sentence, or just before the verb.

重箱 is a fascinating word. It’s a rare example of a compound in which one character uses the Chinese-origin on reading while the other uses the Japanese-origin kun reading (in this case, respectively juu for 重 and hako for 箱). In fact, juubako is the ur-example of an on/kun combination, while the kun/on equivalent is 湯桶 (yutou), a “container for hot liquids” that might be used to serve drinks, or for washing in a traditional bath or onsen. Beyond this, while 重 is commonly translated as “heavy,” here we see it refer to something that is “piled up” or “layered”; cf. 二重 (futae), “twofold.”


A decorated juubako, from Wikimedia Commons

Example sentence:


(“Oniichan ga juku ni kayoi hajimete kara, nandemo kandemo juubaku no sumi wo tsutsuku you na iikata wo suru you ni natta. Nande darou, chotto iya na kibun.”)

[“Ever since my big brother started going to cram school, he’s been nitpicking every little thing, no matter what we’re talking about. I wonder why; it’s kind of gross.”]

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

A life spent just hanging around?


Literally: one – life – hang / depend – life / destiny / decree

Alternately: Putting maximum effort into something. Striving as hard as you can; putting your very life on the line.

Notes: The original form of this phrase used 所 (sho – note the short vowel), “place,” rather than 生. This form has almost identical pronunciation and meaning, although the 一所 carries connotations of someone (such as a samurai) staking their life on the maintenance and defense of the domain they had been placed in by their lord; that territory might be called 一所懸命の土地 (isshoukenmei no tochi), where tochi is “land,” or “place.”

The version that uses 生 spread and eventually became more common in the modern era after the feudal system was abolished, travel became free and widespread, internal warfare died out, and 一所 was rendered largely irrelevant to the Japanese lifestyle. One may still find the 一所 version here and there; the main issue is to pronounce each version with the correct vowel length.

This is such a common phrase that I was shocked to discover that I don’t seem to have done a post on it yet! Well, better late than never.

Experts disagree on whether the hair spike is necessary for proper 手話.

The Japanese sign language sign for 一生懸命, from this site. My daughter saw this image and declared that it was a picture of her, so I am required to use it in this post.

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

Next verse, same as the first

(Ni no mai wo enjiru; “to dance the second dance”)


Committing someone else’s previous errors, even with the awareness of what has happened. Seeing someone fail, and then making the same mistakes.


This simple phrase begins three characters in with the noun 舞 (mai), “dance.” The associative particle の (no) connects it to, and modifies it with, the number 二 (ni), “two.” The resulting noun phrase is marked as the object of a verb by the particle を (wo), and the verb in question is 演じる (enjiru), “to perform,” in conclusive form.


This saying is based on a gagaku (classical court music) performance in which a dance called the Ama (安摩) was followed by a second dance (the 二の舞) that followed the form of the first but with comedically exaggerated errors. (The curious can watch a nearly 30-minute performance here; it’s probably very different from what you expected!) The saying used to simply refer to a “repeat performance,” but over time greater emphasis has been placed on the making of mistakes.

Original* verb form 演る (enzuru) is also perfectly acceptable, although apparently less common (*In the sense that the ~じる structure is derived from the ~ずる structure as a way to turn nouns into verbs.)

Another expression that may appear almost identical at first glance is 二の足を踏む (ni no ashi wo fumu), literally “to take a second step,” but in use meaning “hesitation.” Mixing the two up and writing this “dance” saying as 二の舞を踏む (ni no mai wo fumu, where 踏む is “to (take a) step,”) is technically an error, but has been a common enough occurrence that it may pass unremarked-on. However, replacing 演じる with 繰り返す (kurikaesu), “repeat,” is considered an error.

Example sentence:


(“Junkesshou de Sunada ni sente wo utarete sugu ni makete shimatta senpai no ni no mai wo enjitakunai kara, ashita no shiai ni sonaete aitsu no waza wo shikkari kengaku shite haaku shite okou to omou.”)

[“I don’t want to just repeat the way sempai immediately lost the initiative, and the match, to Sunada, so I’d like to prepare for tomorrow’s match by watching his technique until I really get how it works.”]

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