Don’t work for the man, man

Rarely truer than now

(Sumajiki mono wa miya-dzukae;
“The thing one mustn’t do is serve at court”)


If possible, it’s best not to let yourself be used by other people. It’s best to be your own boss instead of serving at the beck and call of others. Originally this phrase referred to “government” service in the imperial household, but nowadays it can also be used to extol the freedoms of self-employment over working for a company.


We begin with the verb す (su, kanji 為 although this saying seems to use mostly kana), “to do,” in sentence-final form, which allows it to take the negative-probability or negative-obligation suffix まじ (maji), which in turn appears in prenominal form (as majiki), i.e. “shouldn’t.” The following noun is もの (mono), probably “thing.” The particle は (wa) marks all of the above as the topic, and what follows is the comment: noun 宮 (miya), “imperial residence,” coupled with verb 仕ふ (tsukau), “to serve.” Oddly, 仕へ (仕え in modern orthography) would be either the imperfective or the conjunctive form. I’m not sure which it is (or if it’s something else, although it does seem to be acting as a noun) or why it ended up like that. But in any case 宮仕え is a set phrase referring to service in the imperial household.


A variant replaces the opening noun phrase with さすまいもの (sasumai mono), but trying to use すさまじきもの (susamajiki mono) is an error. Similarly, replacing 仕え with 遣い (tsukai), “errand(-runner),” “~user” is an error.

Example sentence:


(“Jibun no resutoran wo keiei shiteiru to iroiro kurou ga aru kedo, sarariiman no koro ni kurabetara jinsei no baransu wa yoku toreteiru to omou. Sumajiki mono wa miya-dzukae da na.”)

[“A lot of things are hard when you’re running your own restaurant, but I feel like my life balance is better than when I was a company man. I guess ‘he is not free who serves others.’”]

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The playground of Tengu!


Literally: heavens – up – heavens – down

Alternately: The world above the sky (the heavens) and the world below the sky (the earth). Also, the space between heaven and earth. The whole world.

Notes: Reading 下 as ge instead of ka is somewhat unusual; this use of the “Wu sound” marks the phrase’s antiquity and ties in with its Buddhist origins.

This phrase apparently sees less usage on its own than its partner 唯我独尊, or compounds with comparable meanings like 有象無象 or 森羅万象, but it sure did get made into a manga about… supernatural punching, I think? And swords and stuff.


Note the lower right-hand corner: it’s an R-rated (NC-18, technically) fight manga.

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Birds of any feather care for kids together

Don’t be the kind of sordid villain that drives parents to this level of protective sacrifice. Don’t allow that kind of villain to hold any power over others. Think of the children.

(Yakeno no kigisu yoru no tsuru;
The pheasant in a burning field, the crane at night”)


This phrase is used to express the deep affection of parents for their children. The pheasant is said to protect and guide its children to safety instead of simply fleeing for its own life even if the field they nest in is on fire, while the crane is said to spread its wings to shelter and warm its young on cold nights instead of conserving its body heat.


We begin with the noun 雉子 (kigisu), an archaic term for what is now more commonly known as the kiji – the Japanese pheasant. The associative particle の (no) connects it with the noun 野 (also no), “field,” which in turn is modified by the verb 焼く (yaku), “to burn,” in prenominal form. The next noun phrase in this simple pairing is 鶴 (tsuru), the Japanese crane, placed by another の in the 夜 (yoru), “night.”


It’s also perfectly acceptable to write yakeno as simply 焼野, or kigisu as 雉, without any change in meaning or pronunciation. Some variants separate the two noun phrases with a comma.

Example sentence:


(Yakeno no kigisu yoru no tsuru no you na oya ga risou na no ni, watashi wa shikari sugi nan ja nai ka to tokidoki fuan ni naru yo ne.”)

[“The ideal is to be a loving and protective parent like the pheasants in the field or the crane at night, but sometimes I worry that I nag my kids too much.”]

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Written on the 4th of July

(I searched for phrases using 独 because of the 独立記念日.)


Literally: only – self – alone – precious

Alternately: Thinking that oneself is the best in the world. Being so self-assured that you don’t listen to anyone else. Conceit. Vainglory. Arrogance.

Notes: This compound may be paired with 天上天下 (which I thought I’d written a post on, but apparently not yet!), and apparently both come to us from the Dīrgha Āgama (長阿含経, Jou agonkyou in Japanese). It’s written that the Buddha (Shakyamuni) emerged suddenly from his mother’s side, took seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions, pointed to the earth and sky, and declared 天上天下唯我独尊. I suppose if you’re a newborn baby and yet already capable of walking and talking on your own, that level of self-importance may be a bit justified, but the rest of us should probably practice a bit of modesty. And despite this exalted origin, the phrase tends to be used to criticize someone’s unwarranted yet overweening pride.


High or low, east or west, talking babies are the best!

[Image by ASUKAEN (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

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Nor trying at plying

All the songless birds can fly, though

(Nakazu tobazu; “Nor crying nor flying”)


Quietly waiting one’s chance. Doing nothing for a long time, but with the specific intention of taking action as soon as the opportunity finally comes.


This simple phrase comprises two verbs, in forms that look identical but are technically different grammatically. The first verb is 鳴く (naku), a catch-all verb for animals making noise and thus translatable as “chirp,” “call,” “cry,” “bark,” etc. It appears in imperfective form with negative suffix ず (zu) in conjunctive form. The next verb is 飛ぶ (tobu), “to fly,” also in imperfective form and followed by negative suffix ず… but in this case the zu can be seen as appearing in either conjunctive or sentence-final form.


This saying comes to us from the 史記 (Shiki), the Records of the Grand Historian. Its original Japanese form apparently prefaced the verbs by specifying that the waiting took 三年 (sannen, “three years”), and some versions flip the order of the verbs.

The story goes that in the Warring States Period, king Zhuang of Chu paid no attention to affairs of state for a full three years after taking the throne, and in fact threatened to have anyone who tried to get him to change his ways killed. Wu Ju – who was acting as regent – came to him with a riddle, asking “What kind of bird is it that doesn’t call and doesn’t fly for three years?” The king got the point, dismissed the regent, and set about doing his job.

From this we get the meaning of “doing nothing,” while the part about biding one’s time seems to have been a later addition or extension.

Example sentence:


(“Edo-kun wa daigaku sotsugyou kara sannen tobazu nakazu kedo, kikai wo matteiru no ka, hikikomori seikatsu ni ochiitteiru no ka wakaranakute, chotto shinpai da.”)

[“Ed hasn’t really done anything for three years since graduating college. I can’t tell whether he’s waiting for his chance or just falling into a shut-in lifestyle, so I’m kind of worried.”]

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Reverse the order for Biblical time

Something birds, something stones?


Literally: one – morning – one – evening

Alternately: A single day. By extension, a brief and fleeting span of time. Often used in a negative structure to express that something can’t be done in (such) a small amount of time.

Notes: This compound comes to us from the I Ching (易経, in Japanese Ekikyou).

In a variant, the character 朝 is replaced with 旦 (tan), “daybreak.” Meanwhile, while 夕 can often be read as yuu, doing so in either variant of this compound is considered an error.


From this site, which tries to be cute by saying that the commonality between diets and asset management is that they both can’t be done in 一朝一夕.

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Waft your way to a win?

(Mi wo sutete koso ukabu se mo are;
“There are rivers that you cross by throwing away your body”)


Sometimes facing danger head-on is the only way to escape it. There are times when you need to be willing to take a risk in order to deal with a situation. Similar to “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” but the goal is often survival or avoiding some bad result rather than pure profit. A drowning person’s struggles may only make their situation worse; the image is of floating to the surface and escaping by relaxing and entrusting one’s body to the water instead of by fighting it.


We begin with the noun 身 (mi), “body,” marked as the object of a verb by the particle を (wo). The verb is 捨つ (sutsu), “to throw away,” in conjunctive form, with the perfective suffix つ (tsu), also in conjunctive form. This verb phrase is in turn followed by emphatic particle こそ (koso). The following clause begins with the verb 浮かぶ (ukabu), “to float,” in prenominal form, attached to and modifying the noun 瀬 (se), often used to refer to the “shallows” of a river (the part where you ford it), but in this case possibly referring to the “rapids.” In either case, se is marked by the particle も (mo), here serving to emphasis that “this kind of river-part does also exist.” And finally we get the verb あり (ari), “to be,” in perfective form.

Why is the final verb in perfective form instead of sentence-final form? Well, it turns out that in classical grammar, this was just kind of how you did it following koso, in effect using an unusual form at the end of the sentence to remind the reader/listener of the emphasis and focus from earlier.


If you watch enough semi-realistic anime fights, you’ll probably notice this trope in action: rushing into the opponent’s space without hesitating is a dangerous move, but when used properly it can give an advantage or at least lessen the strength of the opponent’s attack where holding back (i.e. failing to “throw away the body”) would have resulted in being struck down.

There’s another saying that references fords, 立つ瀬がない (tatsu se ga nai), meaning that someone has lost face or is in a troublesome situation. Naturally, mixing these up and saying 身を捨ててこそ立つ瀬もあれ is an error.

This saying is descended from a 1632 kanazoushi called 尤双紙 (Mottomo no soushi).

Example sentence:


(“Karate wa mi wo mamoru tame no undou da to itte mo, uchiwaza wo ukeru kokorogamae ga nakereba benkyou ni naran. Tsumari, mi wo sutete koso ukabu se mo are to iu koto da.”)

[“You can call karate a kind of exercise that protects your body, but if you’re not prepared to take a blow then you won’t be able to learn. In other words, it’s only by passing through danger that you reach safety.”]

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