Hasty digging in the Mines of Morai

(Awateru kojiki wa morai ga sukunai;
A beggar in a hurry receives little alms”)


Haste makes waste; slow and steady wins the race. Rushing about or fighting to get in the door first, especially in pursuit of profit, tends to lead to errors and result in loss or harm. The original nuance includes the warning that an appearance of uncontrolled greed fosters negative feelings in others and makes them less willing to help, or less open-handed when they do, but over time it seems to have become a general admonition against unwarranted haste.

For example, if you actually care about the health of the economy, don’t just “reopen” it willy-nilly in the face of a pandemic. A careful plan, carefully carried out, is better for long-term public safety and profit alike.


We begin with the verb 慌てる (awateru), “to hurry,” “to panic,” in prenominal form and modifying the noun 乞食 (kojiki), “beggar.” Particle は (wa) marks this noun phrase as the topic of discussion. The comment on this topic begins with the verb 貰う (morau), in conjunctive form and acting as a noun. This noun is marked as the subject of its clause by the particle が (ga), and its predicate is the adjective 少ない (sukunai), “few,” in conclusive form.


Compare 急がば回れ and 急いては事を仕損じる; contrast 善は急げ. There also seem to be a number of sayings about mice or crabs being in such a fluster that they don’t make it back to their burrows in time.

For beginners: keep in mind that the ない in this case is not a negative suffix; instead, this is one of a small group of adjectives that simply happen to have a na before the i ending, such as 危ない (abunai, “dangerous”) or 汚い (kitanai, “dirty”). Note that historically, sukunai has also been written (on rare occasion) as 寡い, in which the na is clearly subsumed into the character’s reading rather than acting as part of a suffix.

Example sentence:


(“Aa, Takashi nara, aniki ga shucchou kara kaette kite, nimotsu wo orosu ya ina ya, shitsukoku omiyage wo nedatta kara, aniki ga okotte omiyage wo hitotsu shika watasanakatta nda. Dakara shonbori shiteru nda yo. Awateru kojiki wa morai ga sukunai to iu kotoba wo wasurete shimatta nda ne.”)

[“Ah, if you’re talking about Takashi – our big brother got back from his trip, and Takashi was alread begging him for a treat when he’d barely had time to put his suitcase down. So our brother got mad and only gave him one, so now he’s all mopey. I guess he forgot that ‘a beggar in a hurry receives little alms.’”]

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Spear-spine spirit


Literally: neck / head – tail – one – pierce

Alternately: Seeing something through from beginning to end without any change in attitude. Consistency in principles, execution of a project, etc. Although the idea might seem negative to those who value flexibility, the connotation for this compound is positive.

Notes: Compare 終始一貫 (among many synonymous phrases); contrast 支離滅裂.


Yes, of course there’s a self-help book. Yes, it promises that cultivating a sense of 首尾一貫 will solve all your woes. Amazon.

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All eyes upon you, Masao-kun

(Yowarime ni tatarime; “In a time of weakness, a curse”)


To be beset by compounded troubles when things were already bad. To be kicked when you’re down. Having salt rubbed on your wounds. Things were already worrisome, then they got worse.


Here we find two noun phrases joined by particle に (ni), “(added) to.” The first noun phrase begins with the verb 弱る (yowaru) “to become weak,” or by extension “to be troubled,” in conjunctive form. That’s right: you might expect a verb preceding 目 (me), which is most often the noun “eye,” to appear in prenominal form, but in this case the form is apparently conjunctive and 目 is acting as a suffix that indicates the state or condition something is in. (Note, however, that taken as a whole, 弱り目 seems to be acting as a noun.) Next we have a parallel construction using the verb 祟る (tataru), “to curse,” “to cause a bad result,” again in conjunctive form and taking 目 as a suffix.


One variant replaces 弱り目 with 落ち目 (ochime), “waning fortunes,” based on the verb 落ちる (ochiru), “to fall.” Compare 泣き面に蜂.

Bear in mind that while the term 祟り目 can also refer to “the evil eye,” kaynahara, this saying refers to situations rather than literal weakened or accursed eyes.

Example sentence:


(“Donna ni yowarime ni tatarime de mo, daichikoku shisou na asa ni tousan ga risutora sareta no wo shirasarete, sara ni tora ni oikakerareru nante yume ni mo omowanakatta.”)

[“I don’t care how much ‘it never rains but it pours,’ in my wildest dreams I never would have imagined that on this morning when I’m running really late, I’d learn that my dad had been downsized… and then I’d be chased by a tiger!”]


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Balanced on the head of a hinpin


Literally: style – substance – refined – refined

Alternately: (A person in whom) external beauty and internal substance are in balance and harmony. Someone unbalanced in favor of their “interior” is crude, plain, unrefined. Someone unbalanced in favor of the “exterior” is affected, chintzy, overdone.

Notes: While in modern Japanese 文 almost always refers to writing, as in literature or correspondence, in the context of this yojijukugo it refers to the aspect of a person observable on the surface: movement, actions, clothing, appearance. It should be no surprise, then, that this compound also comes from Chinese antiquity: this is another extract from the Analects of Confucius.


I feel like figure skating is mostly overdone in terms of 文, but perhaps they make up for it with good core strength. (Image from this blog using yojijukugo to praise Olympic skater Yuzuru Hanyu.)

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From the ashes a fire shall be woken?

A light from the shadows shall spring!

(Yake-bokkui ni hi ga tsuku; “Fire catches on a burned stick”)


A former relationship that was cut off is easy to reestablish. On meeting an old friend or lover, you often quickly end up talking as if you’d never been apart, in contrast to the relatively slow intimacy of meeting someone wholly new. The comparison is to how a stick of charcoal – which has been burned once – is easy to light afire again.


We begin with the intransitive verb 焼ける (yakeru), “to burn,” in prenominal form. This allows it to precede and modify the compound noun 木杭 (bokkui), “wooden stake,” which is marked by particle に (ni) as the location of the verb つく (tsuku), “to catch (fire).” The subject of this verb is, unsurprisingly, the noun 火 (hi, sounds like “hee”), “fire,” and is marked as such by the particle が (ga).


Some variants stress the ease of the rekindling, e.g. 焼け木杭に火が付き易い (yake bokkui ni wa hi ga tsukiyasui). Others replace 焼ける with 燃える (moeru), “to burn,” without significant change in meaning. Supposedly bokkui is a phonetic alteration of 棒杭, boukui, where 棒 means “staff,” and it is still possible to write bokkui as 棒杭. However, in modern writing, 木杭 is by far the more common rendering.

Example sentence:


(“Juugoshuunen no dousoukai no nijikai ga owattara, Sawajiri-san to Mine-kun ga tanoshisou ni tonari no kouen de hanashiteiru no wo mikaketa. Yake-bokkui ni hi ga tsuku tte yatsu ne.”)

[“At our 15-year class reunion, after the after-party ended, I happened to spot Sawajiri and Mine talking in the neighboring park. They seemed to be having a good time. I guess that’s what you call ‘rekindling an old flame.’”]

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A leap of dumbth


Literally: light (as opposed to “serious”) – action – delusion – motion

Alternately: Rash, unthinking action. Doing this and that on impulse, without planning or consideration. Indiscriminate wild flailing.

Notes: Despite their relatively similar meanings, replacing 妄 with homophone 盲 (“blind”) is considered an error.

Perhaps because human history is full of this kind of behavior, there are a number of synonyms, including 短慮軽率 and 付和雷同. Fortunately, there are also antonyms, including 熟慮断行 and 思慮分別.


The blog that made this association was talking about Japanese politics, but it does quote Arendt as saying that the Government is not a playground for children.

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Soldiers are for war, not for peaceful protests

(Another saying that features 焉. Next week we’ll have something different, I promise.)

(Niwatori wo saku ni izukunzo gyuutou wo mochiin;
“Why use a cow-cleaver to cut up a chicken?”)


There’s no need to use powerful tools, or people of great ability, on small tasks. Don’t use a huge cleaver meant for cows when preparing chicken; don’t send people of great ability and experience to do trivial tasks; don’t waste energy with overkill.


We begin with the noun 鶏 (niwatori), “chicken,” marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 割く (saku), “to cut up.” This seems to be in prenominal form and acting as a noun (or a nominalizer such as koto is elided), because what follows is the particle に (ni) acting as an indirect object marker on the noun phrase “cutting up a chicken” as a whole.

Moving into the next clause, we begin with interjection (or adverb) 焉んぞ (izukunzo), “how~?” “why~?”, often used to set up a rhetorical question. Next comes the noun 牛刀 (gyuutou), literally “cow sword,” i.e. a large butcher’s knife used to divide up a cow’s parts after slaughter. This is also marked by the direct-object particle を (wo), and then we have the verb 用いる (mochiiru), “to use.”

I’m not 100% certain on the grammar at this point, but my guess is that we have 用いる in imperfective form (as 用い) with particle む, which can express supposition or soften a statement by making it indirect. While the character む is generally read as mu, in this sort of usage it is often pronounced, simply, n, and in prenominal or conclusive form it may be written ん as well to reflect this. We can probably assume that, at the end of the sentence, it’s in conclusive form.


This comes from a story in the Analects in which Yanzi, one of Confucius’ disciples, is said to have been set to administer a town, where he studiously applied his master’s teachings. Confucius visited and joked with the words that became this saying, implying that the teachings being applied – or the talents of Yanzi himself – were wasted on such a small town.

This saying, or the idea it expresses, can take a variety of forms, including four-character compound 牛刀割鶏 (gyuutou kakkei) and the more specifically Japanese 大根を正宗で切る (daikon wo Masamune de kiru).

Example sentence:


(“Suugaku no shukudai ni torikumu mae ni, niwatori wo saku ni izukunzo gyuutou wo mochiin to omotte, hitori de charenji shite mita kedo, yappari suugaku ga tokui na niichan ni oshiete morawanai to chotto muri datta….”)

[“Before taking on my math homework I thought great talent would be wasted on small problems, so I tried tackling it on my own, but you’re really good at math and I guess I can’t do it without your help after all…. ” (to the speaker’s older brother)]

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Chai knees characters

(Why yes, I am using this because I was looking into 焉 for the previous kotowaza post. Funny how that works.)


Literally: bird – how / why – foolish – fish

Alternately: The meanings of the original characters don’t actually matter here! Instead, the point is that 烏 and 焉 are similar, as are 魯 and 魚. Put together, this pair of pairs refers to the act of mis-writing; of accidentally replacing one character with a similar but incorrect one. The kanji equivalent of a homophone-based spelling error.

Notes: There are a number of variations on this theme, such as 魯魚亥豕 (rogyo gaishi), which moves the fishalikes to the front and replaces the birdalikes with 亥 (“boar”) and 豕 (“pig”).

One bit of kanji trivia is that 鳥 can also mean “crow” rather than the more generic “bird,” while small birds have been more specifically represented by 隹. In modern Japanese, though, the former character has been generalized, while the latter almost exclusively appears as a single element of more complex characters. (Examples include 隼 = hayabusa, “falcon,” 雀 = suzume, “sparrow,” 鶴 = tsuru, “crane,” and so on.)


A chart of characters that can be mistaken for each other. Note that many are just alternate versions of the same character, which mainly makes a difference when writing names, while others truly are close-but-no-cigar lookalikes. Source.

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Fire Down Below – On Becoming

It’s been a while since we had a Fire Down Below post! But finally I’m ready to talk about a more or less workable version of some mechanics that I’m very proud of: mostly diegetic leveling (inspired in part thanks to the musings of a creator known as Cavegirl), plus a way to keep playing even when your current character is dead.

Getting ahead in the (under)world

One thing I’d like in a Fire Down Below campaign is for “advancement” to mostly be diegetic rather than abstract. Here are ways that characters can become more adept at surviving the depths:

  • “Normal” leveling. Each time a character returns alive to the surface after a nontrivial adventure, they gain a level and may choose one save or skill to add a rank to. This must be a save or skill that they used in that expedition. This benefits the individual, reflecting their training through experience “in the field.”
  • Learning practical knowledge. As the heroes encounter more of the underworld’s challenges and search for ways to defeat, nullify, bypass or befriend them, both players and characters alike will get closer to their ultimate goal simply by virtue of knowing what to do (and what not to do). This benefits the entire community, forearming every hero from every family.
  • Finding secrets. The mythic underworld has resources and treasures not available on the surface, including shrines to gods whose worship has been forgotten on the surface. Some of these will benefit individual heroes, while others will benefit the entire community.
  • Performing heroic deeds. Significant accomplishments are recounted on the surface and may be commemorated as tattoos (there’s that Moana influence again); these tattoos increase the bearer’s spiritual power and can provide a variety of benefits. Most deeds only benefit the individual who performed them, but others will offer a benefit to every member of a given family, or (in rare cases) the entire community.

Fantastic deeds and where to do them

Deeds aren’t just a mechanic for character advancement in a low-tech, low-magic fantasy setting: they’re also a tool for the GM and players to establish what sort of play they hope for everyone to enjoy. In this case, the GM can communicate the sort of action they intend for the campaign by drawing up a list of heroic deeds and corresponding rewards they produce as tattoos; players may suggest additions to the list, either in advance or after achieving something they feel should count as a deed but hadn’t been thought of previously. Here are some sample deeds to get you started:

  • Anyone who risks their life by venturing into the underworld, even once, may remember the deed with a hero tattoo that grants +1 to any one attribute score.
  • A hero who is the first to honor a newly discovered deity and bring its blessings to the community may remember the deed with an acolyte tattoo that they may spend a watch meditating on to gain a minor devotion (for that deity!) at any time while on an expedition.
  • A hero who defeats a powerful and hostile foe may remember the deed with a slayer tattoo that lets them ignore menace penalties while in combat.
  • A hero who discovers an important non-divine secret may remember the deed with a seeker tattoo that gives them +1 rank each to Scavenge, Inspect, and one Sensory skill.
  • A hero who risks their own life to rescue another from certain doom may remember the deed with a savior tattoo that lets them heal one of a party member’s wounds while taking on a level of weariness.
  • A hero who gives their life that the party as a whole may survive may be honored by any member of their family thereafter with a martyr tattoo that provides +1 to the saves of all other party members.

Mortal career changes

Speaking of martyrdom… when a character’s menaces (wounds plus afflictions) match or exceed their menace allowance (aka hit points), they are incapacitated for the remainder of the expedition. They must be carried back to the surface and allowed to recuperate. If an incapacitated character is left underground when an expedition returns to the surface, or if further significant menaces are inflicted on them, they are lost forever.

(Note that lost characters are not necessarily dead! They are lost as playable characters. But depending on the menaces that ended their heroic careers they may be dead, undead, or simply changed by the underworld into one of its own creatures. In any case, they become NPCs (or simply inert corpses) and their original spirit has vacated their original body.)

Whenever a player character is incapacitated, regardless of whether they are lost (yet) or not, the player plays as that detached spirit.

Life as a ghost

A detached spirit has no body and is extremely limited in how it can interact with the material world.

  • It can move freely in any direction, passing through material objects at will.
  • It is invisible to the naked eye, although a Sixth Sense check at a DC equal to 20 minus its “spiritual force” (see below) will reveal its presence.
  • It has Expert rank in Sixth Sense, but otherwise gains no special sensory abilities. (I.e. a spirit can’t automatically see in the dark. Worse, anything done to the physical body that might have allowed the character to see in the dark is left behind with the body!)
  • It loses the ability to take any action that requires interaction with matter – usually.
  • It has no mouth and cannot scream (or talk, etc.).
  • It gains a number of “spiritual force” points equal to its store of personal and ancestral deeds, which it can spend to affect the material world in various ways.
    • Each time you use spiritual force, check off one of your deeds. Even if your spirit and body are somehow reunited before returning to the surface, any tattoo gifts provided by these checked deeds lose their force until the character can recuperate.
    • A character who has spent some of their spiritual force may spend a surface turn to reenact their deeds and reconsecrate their tattoos.

A detached spirit may spend its spiritual force to create the following effects. If a roll is needed (for example, when the spirit’s actions are resisted by someone or something else), the default skill to check is Emote.

  • Telekinesis – material things that aren’t attached to anything else may be shifted around in a blunt way over the course of a watch; the spirit may focus on one bulky object or up to a collection of smaller objects, as long as they’re all moving in the same general way. Writing using this method is slow and sloppy, producing about one word per minute.
  • Poltergeist – material things may be violently flung over the course of a vignette. They may be yanked free of attachments, including hands and the like, and/or directed at a target in an attempt to cause harm.
  • Curse – the spirit may focus its ill will on one creature, giving it disadvantage on all rolls made relating to a single task (or in a single round of combat).
  • Possession – the spirit may attempt an Emote roll, defended against with a Charisma save or Recall check as the target prefers. If the target is sentient and conscious, the possession lasts for a single vignette. If it is living but not conscious, the possession lasts for a single watch. If the spirit possesses a corpse, that corpse can only take actions it was already capable of, if any.
  • Revenant – the spirit may also possess its own body, spending one point of spiritual force for the possession plus one more for each menace it wants to ignore (minimum one). When the party returns to the surface, or if the body takes on more menaces than the spirit can ignore, the character is immediately lost and this time the player really does need to wait until the start of the next expedition.
  • Signs from beyond – the spirit can cause odd ghost-story phenomena: flickers seen from the corner of the eye; odd coincidences; moaning wind currents; sudden chills. This can also be used to influence the results of any sort of divination attempt.
  • Visions – the spirit may briefly manifest for one other character as a vision. It can be seen and heard, but still not interacted with physically in any way. The catch is that the character receiving the vision must already have at least one spiritual or psychological affliction.

Finally, when all is said is done, either the character receives treatment and is able to continue on with body and spirit united, or the character is lost and the spirit moves on to whatever comes next.

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Ambition is for the birds

(Enjaku izukunzo koukoku no kokorozashi wo shiran ya;
“How could the swallow or sparrow understand the goose or swan?”)


People of lowly character or small ability don’t, and can’t, understand the thought processes and ambitions of those with good character or great ability. The story goes that there was a man who worked on a farm but harbored great ambitions. When his employer made fun of him, he responded with this phrase… and later became the king of Chu. There does seem to be a certain amount of classism and arrogance built into this phrase.


We begin with the compound noun 燕雀 (enjaku), literally “swallows and sparrows,” but more generally indicating “small birds.” What follows is a set phrase interjection: 安くんぞ (izukunzo), which essentially means “how~?” or “why~?” and sets the stage for the final や. Apparently the structure is derived from question word 何処 (idzuko, ancestor of modern どこ, “where~?”) plus directional or locational particle に (ni) plus linking particle ぞ (zo).

Next comes 鴻鵠 (koukoku), literally “wild geese and swans,” but more generally indicating “large birds.” The associative particle の (no) marks the noun 志 (kokorozashi), “will(power),” “intent,” “goal,” as the possession of these great birds. The particle を (wo) marks kokorozashi as the direct object of the verb 知る (shiru), “to know,” which appears in imperfective form and takes the negative suffix ず (zu), which is forced into prenominal form by the following bound particle や (ya), which indicates a sense of irony or makes the phrase into a rhetorical question.


Izukunzo may also be written in other contexts as 焉んぞ, but this kanji is no longer in common usage and does not seem to appear in modern forms of the saying. Alternate “spellings” include 烏んぞ (using the character for “bird”), 悪んぞ (“bad”), 奚んぞ (“servant”), and 寧んぞ (“preferably”).

This kotowaza may also be expressed in yojijukugo form as 燕雀鴻鵠 (enjaku koukoku).

As you perhaps guessed from the archaic grammar and kanji and the variety of ways to phrase the thought, this comes to us from classical Chinese literature – specifically, from our friend the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki).

Example sentence:


(Enjaku izukunzo koukoku no kokorozashi wo shiran ya to wa ie, kokumin ni jibun no kangae ya okonai wo kakushite bakari iru daitouryou wa shin’you dekinai shi, sassa to yamete hoshii.”)

[“Small birds may not understand the will of the great, but I can’t trust a president who’s always hiding his thoughts and actions from the public; I’d like him to resign ASAP.”]

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