Long before Tezuka or Dazai

(Tazan no ishi motte tama wo osamu beshi;
“One must polish one’s jewels with stones from other mountains.”)


A command to take someone else’s mistakes as an opportunity to reflect on and improve your own ways. “One must learn from the mistakes of others.” Just as polishing a gem requires other rocks to act as whetstones, so does the refinement of one’s own skills and character require reference to the foibles, sins, and foolishness of others.


We begin, slightly into the sentence, with the noun 石 (ishi), “stone.” The particle の (no) associates it with the noun 他山 (tazan), “(an)other mountain.” The direct-object marker is absent here, but assumed, and the action performed upon the stone has taken the form 以て (motte; note the geminate T), “by means of.” (More on that below.) The verb performed by means of the other-mountain stone is 攻む (osamu), in this case “to polish” or “to manufacture.” This appears in conclusive form and is followed by adjective-as-helper particle べし (beshi), “should,” “must,” in sentence-final form.

Keen observers may notice that 以て looks and acts and awful lot like a verb. This is because it is! The verb is 以つ (motsu), in conjunctive form and followed by the particle つ (tsu), also in conjunctive form. The resulting structure is 以ちて (mochite) and as time passed, this was slurred and reduced to the motte that we know today.


Because the nuance is specifically of learning from someone else’s flaws and failures, it’s considered an error to use this phrase to refer to learning from a boss or social superior, or even a teacher. Interestingly, it’s also considered incorrect to use it for situations that one doesn’t have a personal connection to – somebody you know, or a situation that impacts your life, can produce 他山の石; something that you merely read about in the news apparently cannot.

Compare and contrast with 反面教師.

This phrase may be shortened to 他山の石, or even rendered into a sort of four-character compound as 他山之石; there is no change in pronunciation or meaning.

As the grammar and word choice suggest, this one’s got some pretty antique origins – specifically, the “Lesser Court Hymns” (小雅, in Japanese shouga) section of the Classic of Poetry (詩経, in Japanese Shikyou), a relatively familiar friend.

Although it doesn’t seem to be the usage in this saying, 他山 can also mean “another temple,” presumably by extension and as a result of the tendency of Buddhist temples to distance themselves from civilian life, and each other, by being sited partway up unclaimed mountain slopes.

Example sentence:


(“Hito no koto wo baka ni shicha ikenai yo. Tazan no ishi motte tama wo osamu beku, hito no ayamachi wo kyakkanteki ni mite benkyou shiyou.”)

[“You shouldn’t just make fun of people! You should learn through objective observation of their mistakes, of a mind that the faults of others are good teachers.”]

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Literally: scold – scold – big – laugh/smile

Alternately: Laughing Out Loud. Hearty laughter.

Notes: As usual, the second 呵 can be replaced with the doubling mark 々. 大 may also be pronounced dai, although this seems to be less common than tai.

While in contemporary Japanese dictionaries, 呵 appears in terms such as 呵責 (kashaku, “accuse”), the original meaning of the character seems to be something closer to “blow out air.” It’s unclear (to me) whether its association with laughter is derived from the above, or from the phonetic component ka. In either place, 呵 on its own – singly or in series – is almost certainly a phonetic representation of laughter (although in modern Chinese it seems to be pronounced rather than ka or “ha”).

This compound reportedly comes to us from a Song dynasty collection of biographies of Zen Buddhist priests, The Transmission of the Lamp (景徳傳燈録, in Japanese Keitoku dentouroku).


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This kotowaza brought to you by Ed Sheeran


(Taigan no kaji; “Fire on the far shore”)


Somebody Else’s Problem. Something that doesn’t impact you in any way; “No skin off my nose.” Like a fire seen from the opposite shore of a body of water, from which the viewer is completely safe.


This simple idiomatic noun phrase connects two compound nouns using the associative particle の (no). The primary noun is 火事 (kaji) “fire” (in the sense of a thing burning that shouldn’t, not an intentional flame like a campfire or cooking fire), and the dependant noun that modifies the fire is 対岸, (taigan), “opposite shore.”


This saying also has several variations, such as 川向こうの火事 (kawa mukou no kaji), “a fire on the other side of a river.” Some variants replace the fire with 喧嘩 (kenka), “fight” or “argument.” A closer variant simply replaces 火事 with synonym 火災 (kasai).

Example sentence:


(“Kono yo no arayuru hito・mono・goto wa tsunagatteiru yue ni, shin no imi de no taigan no kaji to ieru joukyou wa nakarou.”)

[“All things, and all people, in this world are connected; therefore, there cannot in any true sense be a fire too far away to burn you.”]

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Pride cometh

Every castle is undefeated… for some while!


Literally: difficult – attack – not – fall

Alternately: Nigh impervious to assault. Difficult even to attack, much less to actually bring down, like a near-impregnable castle. By extension, a situation where things don’t go as planned, expected, or desired.

Notes: Sources suggest that this compound was formed in the Sengoku period, and note wryly that few of the era’s supposedly-invincible castles remained undefeated.


Kumamoto Castle, which bills itself as Japan’s most 難攻不落 fortification.

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Butter, no; steel, yes

(Shuukou kin wo tokasu;
The mouths of the masses melt metal.”)


Rumor and slander tend to get worse as they spread. The power of many people all talking about something is to be feared, because even correct information has a tendency to get altered or distorted. The phrase invokes the terrifying power of a smelter, which can reduce even strong metals to liquid.


We begin with compound noun 衆口 (shuukou), literally “the mouth of the masses,” i.e. something that many people are talking about. A possible clarifying particle is elided, and we move straight to a verb phrase. This is the verb 鑠く (toku), “to melt,” with the particle を (wo) marking the noun 金 (kin), “gold,” or by extension “metal,” as its direct object. The verb appears in imperfective form, with causative suffix す (su), in sentence-final form.


This saying comes to us from the Discourses of the States (國語, in current Japanese 国語, Kokugo), a 4th century BCE compilation of speeches (“discourses”) attributed to various famous historical figures.

The character 鑠 is no longer in common usage and may be hard to produce by typing. It looks like it can be replaced by near-synonymous homophone 爍 (near-synonymous because 鑠 carries a secondary meaning of “charmed, captivated,” while 爍 carries a secondary meaning of “to shine”). None of my sources use 鎔 or 熔, the moderns character for “melt [metal].”

Example sentence:


(Kaji-kun wa koushoku ni tsuite kara sugu ni uwasa no osoroshisa wo shiri, shuukou ni wa kin wo tokasu hodo no chikara ga aru to satorimashita.)

[After taking public office, Kaji quickly became acquainted with how frightening rumor is, and came to realize that public discussion can have the power of a blast furnace.]

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Seal up your lips, and give no words

But mum!


Literally: other – say – no – use

Alternately: “Don’t talk about this to anyone.” “Loose lips sink ships.”

Notes: 言 may also be pronounced gen.

In contrast to the aphoristic nature of most yojijukugo, this one is a direct imperative – a trait it shares with other phrases ending in 無用.

Mean rabbit making shhh face

The rabbit’s name is Shouta (翔太)? Don’t tell anyone, though.

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Castles in the (hot) air

(Kuchi de wa Oosaka no shiro mo tatsu;
“Even Osaka Castle can be built in words”)


Mighty deeds are easy to talk about, but hard to actually accomplish. “Easier said than done.”


We begin with the noun 口 (kuchi), “mouth,” followed by particle で (de), indicating “the means by which an action is performed,” then topic-marker は (wa), probably here serving a contrastive function. This is followed by noun 城 (shiro), “castle,” connected by associative particle の (no) to proper noun 大阪 (Oosaka), i.e. “Osaka.” This noun phrase is followed by emphatic particle も (mo), “also” or “even,” and finally the verb 建つ (tatsu), “to be built,” in sentence-final form.


One variant replaces the castle with… a town? The part after は may be replaced with ~親船も造る (~oyafune mo tsukuru), and while the term 親船 looks like it should mean “mothership,” a quick search suggests that it’s mostly associated with a town named Oyafune. See also 口自慢の仕事下手 and 不言実行.

Example sentence:


(Kuchi de wa Oosaka no shiro mo tatsu to iwarete mo… keikaku wo jikkou ni utsusu tame ni wa, somosomo keikaku wo tatenai to nani mo susumanai ja nai desu ka? Mazu wa keikaku no bureinsutoomingu wo sasete kudasai.”)

[“Even saying that words are just pie in the sky… if you don’t have a plan in the first place, you don’t have anything to implement, right? Please let me do some brainstorming first.”]

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