Don’t look a gift friend in the mouth

Turns out that’s kind of rude with humans too, eh

(Sedo no uma mo aikuchi;
“Even a back-entrance horse has a friend”)


“Even an unruly horse can be tamed.” Even the most unfriendly, poorly-socialized person can become relatively cooperative if approached the right way. The image is of a horse so wild or malicious that it must be taken to the rear entrance of an estate (because taking it through the main entrance would get in people’s way or otherwise cause problems) – and how if handled correctly, even that horse will behave docilely.


This terse saying begins in the middle with the noun 馬 (uma), “horse.” The associative particle の (no) connects this to the compound noun 背戸 (sedo), literally “back door,” i.e. the rear entrance of an estate. The emphatic particle も (mo), “also,” “even,” in turn connects the resulting noun phrase to the noun 相口 (aikuchi), literally “mutual mouth,” i.e. a friend; someone willing to spend time chatting together. One may imagine an elided copula at the end.


This saying has apparently fallen into disuse and doesn’t appear at all in most of my usual sources, but is apparently the せ (se) entry of the Osaka iroha karuta set.

Aikuchi may also be written as 合口 or 合い口 without any change in meaning or pronunciation. There is also a homophone 匕首, but this refers to a short dagger-style weapon and would be an error if used in this saying.

Example sentence:


(Sedo no uma mo aikuchi dakara, biiru de mo ogottara nakayoku nareru ka to omotta no ni, ainiku ano shimattsura yarou wa geko dattaa.”)

[“They say that even a wild horse can be tamed, so I thought that I could get on his good side if I treated him to a beer… but of all the luck, it turns out that that scowling a-hole doesn’t drink!”]

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

Press “ko” for “konquer”

Apply to current events as you feel appropriate


Literally: far – mix / associate – near – attack

Alternately: A policy of cultivating good relations with more distant nations while attacking (and attempting to conquer) those nearby. A more recent example might be the Nazis and Soviets partitioning Poland between them at the start of World War II.

Notes: This phrase comes to us from Chinese antiquity; in the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki) it is attributed to a minister named Fan Ju (范雎, Japanese Han Sho; sometimes referred to as Fan Sui) in the state of Qin, who orchestrated Qin’s eventual victory over the other major Chinese states during the Warring States period. It is listed among the “thirty-six stratagems.”

As with a number of phrases derived from Chinese, this may also be given the separate Japanese-style reading of tooki to majiwari chikaki wo semu (or semeru).

One is left wondering who all their neighbors were

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

Party rockers at the gate tonight

Everybody just have a good time?

(Monzen ichi wo nasu;
“A market forms before the gates”)


For a place, especially a home, to be so frequented by visitors that the press of people and vehicles at the entrance to the estate (because you are an aristocrat with a whole estate to manage, right?) makes it look as if a marketplace has sprung up. Teeming with people and activity. Perhaps ironically, this metaphor may occasionally be used to describe an actual store that is doing brisk business for a throng of customers; or it may in particular refer to a situation where many people have gathered specifically to seek fame and fortune.


This simple phrase ends, and is made into a sentence, with the verb 成す (nasu), “to become,” “to do,” “to establish,” in conclusive form. The particle を (wo) tells us that the verb takes a direct object, which is the noun 市 (ichi), “marketplace,” which is located in space (with particles elided) by the noun 門前 (monzen), “in front of the gate.”


This may be shortened to simply 市を成す (ichi wo nasu). A variant phrase may replace the final particle and verb with ~の如し (~ no gotoshi), a nominalized adjective generally translatable as “[X is] like [Y],” “[X is] the same as [Y].” A further variant replaces 門前 with 門庭 (montei), “gate and (court)yard,” and renders gotoshi as 若し, without any change in meaning or pronunciation. This idiom is considered antonymous with 門前雀羅を張る.

Today’s phrase comes to us from our friend the Book of Han (Japanese 『漢書』 = Kanjo) (not to be confused with the Book of the Later Han).

Example sentence:


(Sono ato, kare wa monzen ichi wo nasu hodo yuumei na sakka ni narou to omotte, mainichi muga muchuu de kaite wa keshi, mata kaite wa keshi wo kurikaeshi, kanpeki na shousetsu wo kaku you ni zenryoku wo tsukushiteita.)

[After that, driven by the thought that one day he would become such a famous author that people would flock to his door, he worked to his limit every day, utterly absorbed in repeated cycles of writing and erasing, writing again and erasing again, trying to craft the perfect novel.]

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

Good, evil, and dogfights

Apply to current events as you feel appropriate


Literally: black – white – divide / understand – bright

Alternately: A situation where it is easy to tell pros from cons, right from wrong, good fromd evil. As easy to distinguish and black and white.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds, of course. 黒白 is “black and white” (along with its concomitant metaphorical meanings); 分明 refers to “clear understanding.” Note that in some cases the first two characters may be switched to give 白黒 (in four-character compounds hakkoku, although in other contexts almost always shirokuro) without any change in meaning. On that note: while 白 is normally given the reading of haku in most compounds, in today’s yojijukugo only a voiced hyaku is considered correct.

Contrast 黒白混淆 (koku byaku kon kou), which refers to situations that are not a clear-cut “black and white,” but rather mixed together into shades of gray.

This phrase is attributed to our acquaintance the Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Japanese 『春秋繁露』 = Shunjuu hanro).

BULLET HELL (and bullet heaven?)

From Ikaruga, a “schmup” game in which the player needs to distinguish, and respond appropriately to, black and white “bullets”

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

No rest for the nebbish

The wicked all too often have a surfeit of leisure

(Binbou hima nashi;
“Poor, no rest”)


The poor have no free time; when you’re poor, you have to work constantly just to meet your needs and stay alive. When you’re paid in starvation wages, you can never afford to stop working.


This compact phrase begins with the compound noun 貧乏 (binbou), “poor,” “poverty,” with any particles elided and followed immediately by the noun 暇 (hima), “free time,” “leisure.” This in turn is modified by the adjective なし (nashi), “not,” in conclusive form.


This is the ひ ((h)i) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. It comes to us from our acquaintance, the linked-verse collection 『世話尽』 (Sewa tsukushi).

Adding “person” to “poor” (貧乏  = binbounin) is considered an error. Some versions may extend the phrase by specifying a job: 魚売り (sakana uri, “selling fish”), 砂利かつぎ (jari katsugi, “carrying gravel”), etc. Interestingly, while presumably nashi could be written with kanji as 無し, none of my sources present it this way.

Example sentence:


(Binbou hima nashi de honshoku ni kuwaete yoru ni mo baito wo shiteiru hito ga okanemochi no kazoku ni umareta hito ni “isshoukenmei hataraitara ookiku moukerareru yo” to iwaretara okotte hanpatsu shite mo okashiku wa nai darou.)

[If someone so unrelentingly poor that they need to take a night shift in addition to their day job is told, by someone born into a wealthy family, that “you can make good money if you just work as hard as you can,” it wouldn’t be weird for them to get mad and push back.]

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

Archery’s swan song


Literally: not – lose / error – correct – swan

Alternately: To correctly grasp the main point, meaning, or implication of something. To hit the nail on the head; to get a metaphorical bullseye.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. 不失 refers to “not missing,” and 正鵠 refers to the center of an archery target, apparently so named because in traditional archery practice, one style of target has a central dot that is white.

The character 鵠 may occasionally be pronounced as kou without any change in meaning. The phrase as a whole may be given the Japanese-style reading 正鵠を失わず (seikoku wo ushinawazu), “to not miss the bullseye.”

This phrase originates in our friend, the Book of Rites (Japanese 『礼記』 = Raiki).

It's interesting how much archery has become a woman's sport in Japan

I mean, at that distance you can hardly miss

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

Waiting to En-gage

(En to tsukihi wa sue wo mate;
“In relationships and in life, wait for the time to come”)


All things come in their own time; the best strategy is not to rush around in a fluster, but to calmly and patiently wait for a good opportunity to come so that you can use it effectively when it does. May especially be applied to looking for a good partner in love, or major opportunities to improve your situation in life in general.


We begin with the nouns 縁 (en) and 月日 (tsukihi), grouped together by the conjunction と (to, sounds like “toe”), which functions here as “and.” The noun themselves are a bit broad and amorphous, but here 縁 refers to “fate” or to the relationship between two people, and 月日 to “months and days,” i.e. time, especially one’s time spent living in the world. This group is marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic begins with the noun 末 (sue), “end,” “conclusion,” marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of the verb 待つ (matsu), “to wait,” in imperative form.


A variant phrase replaces は with the associative particle の (no), which connects the “end” more explicitly to the thing being waited on but ultimately doesn’t impact the meaning. Other variants replace 月日 with 浮き世 (ukiyo), a term for this transient material world we live in, or with 時節 (jisetsu), “season,” “the times,” or by extension “opportunity.” The contracted form 縁と月日 is one of two possible options for the ゑ ((e)) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set.

This saying’s origin is attributed to a ballad called 雲井のろうさい (Kumoi no rousai), or perhaps 雲井弄斎 (Kumoi rousai). It joins a wide and often poetic array of sayings praising the virtues of patience.

Example sentence:


(“Ima no jibun ga koukousei no toki no jibun ni messeeji wo okureru nara, nani wo kaku ka datte? Uun, sou da naa. ironna hito to deeto wo suru koto wa betsu ni warui koto ja nai kedo, aseranai you ni ne, ka na? En to tsukihi wa sue wo mate, to.”)

[“If I could send a message to myself in high school, what would I write? Hmm, let’s see. There’s no harm in dating people, but don’t rush anything, maybe? ‘Your chance will come in its own time.’”]

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

Everything is more powerful when it rhymes


Literally: beginning – spirit – vigorous – opposed

Alternately: Full of energy. Bursting with pep, vim, vigor. Lively.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. 元気 is a very common term in Japanese, and denotes a broad theme that we might call energy, health, spirit, or wellbeing. 溌剌 is rarely found other than as part of this compound, and originally referred to a fish leaping out of the water, from which we get a metaphorical image of active vigor.

溌 may be written in its alternate form as 潑, and 剌 may be written as 溂, without any change in meaning or pronunciation. Since all of these characters fall outside of the standard set, though, hatsuratsu may also be rendered phonetically in kana as はつらつ or ハツラツ.

So full of energy that your hands become rabbits!

Apparently used as the catchphrase of energy drink Oronamin C

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

The Scrooge of the Orchard

The Marley of the barley?

(Shiwanbou no kaki no tane;
“The miser’s persimmon seed”)


This phrase is used to criticize people who penny-pinch to an unhealthy extreme. The image is of someone so obsessed with never letting anything go that they can’t even bear to part with an essentially worthless iota, such as as a single persimmon seed.


We begin at the end of this noun phrase with the noun 種 (tane), “seed.” The kind of seed is identified by using associative particle の (no) to connect it to the noun 柿 (kaki), the persimmon (tree). The associative particle の, in its possessive function, gives the persimmon seed to 吝ん坊 (shiwanbou), “miser.” We can further break this word down into adjective 吝い (shiwai), “stingy,” and noun 坊 (bou), which as we saw last week can refer to a person characterized by a specific quality. That said, last week I suggested that the ん (n or m) is inserted for euphony, but further research shows that this is not the case.

Instead, if the preceding element is a noun, ん is thought to be a pronunciation-shifted version of that same associative particle の. If the preceding element is a verb or adjective, it seems to be a pronunciation-shifted version of the helper verb む (mu) expressing a meaning like “the kind of” in an indirect or euphemistic way.


This is the し (shi) entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set. Because the character 吝 is no longer in common usage, shiwanbou may be written as しわん坊. A variant phrase replaces shiwanbou with synonym けちん坊 (kechinbou). Compare and contrast 爪に火を点す.

One of my sources attributes this phrase to an Edo-era text (apparently an illustrated story?) titled 『夜話荘治』 (Yawa souji).

Note that while there is a popular snack in Japan called 柿の種, it’s actually made from rice. Bear in mind that really, any seed is potentially pretty valuable; it’s just that realizing this value can take some time.

Example sentence:


(“Kamikire ichimai sura hairu yoyuu mo nai hodo danboorubako de ippai ni natta monooki wo miteitara, shiwanbou no kaki no tane to wa masa ni jibun no koto da to omotte, jikoken’o ni ochiitta.”)

[“As I was looking at my closet, so filled with cardboard boxes that there wasn’t even room to slip in a single scrap of paper, I realized that I was the very image of a miser who hoards every last useless scrap, and I fell into a pit of self-loathing.”]

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




Literally: true – one – sentence – character

Alternately: Straight as an arrow; as the crow flies; as straight as the written character for the number one, which is just a straight line. By extension; when a person’s actions are focused, single-minded.

Notes: Keep in mind that 文 here is not adding significant meaning on its own; 文字 (usually pronounced moji in contemporary Japanese) refers to a written or printed character. If we divide up the parts of this yojijukugo, it’s not half-and-half but 真 modifying 一文字 “the character for ‘one’.”

There’s a set phrase for compressing your mouth into a straight line: 真一文字に口を結ぶ (maichi monji ni kuchi wo musubu).

:| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[ :| :[

😐 :[ 😐 :[ 😐 :[ 😐 :[

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