“Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth”

– FDR

再三再四
sai.san.sai.shi

Literally: again – three – again – four

Alternately: Repeatedly; over and over; time and time again. It seems that this phrase is often used while chewing someone out, to emphasize how many times they were given a warning or piece of advice (which they then ignored, to unfortunate effect).

Notes: Supposedly the human brain, while also capable of some pretty advanced counting and other mathematical tricks, also tends to weight triples with indefinite extension: something that happens once is noteworthy, twice is a coincidence, and three times means it’s the rule. This compound plays on that by combining the power of three with the power of escalation and the power of repetition to really drive home the point. Note that 再三 can also be used on its own with the same meaning.

Apparently this simple phrase comes to us from the Qing-era Chinese novel, Hongloumeng (Japanese 『紅楼夢』 = Kouroumu), a.k.a. Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone.

SIDECHEST

The title of a song by a band called… SideChest?!

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A leaf on the wind; watch how it soars

一葉落ちて天下の秋を知る
(Ichiyou ochite tenka no aki wo shiru;
“A leaf falls, and one knows autumn”)

Definition:

Sensing something big coming on from a relatively minor hint. Understanding the future from the very first signs. Like realizing that fall is on its way after seeing the fall of a single leaf. In some, but not all, cases, this may specifically refer to presentiments of some sort of downfall.

Breakdown:

We begin with number-noun 一葉 (ichiyou), “one leaf,” particle elided but acting as the subject of the verb 落ちる (ochiru), “to fall.” This appears in conjunctive form and prefaces the action of the following clause. The particle を (wo) marks the noun 秋 (aki), “autumn,” as the object of this clause. Associative particle の (no) allows this noun to be modified by the preceding noun 天下 (tenka), which, if you recall, refers to the (mortal/material) world as a whole. And the verb acting on aki is 知る (shiru), “to know,” which appears in conclusive form.

Notes:

This saying comes to us from our friend, the classical Chinese essay anthology Huainanzi (Japanese 『淮南子』 = Enanji or Wainanshi), from the chapter on “discourse on mountains” (説山訓).

In keeping with this history, there are many variations on the basic phrase. Some specify that the leaf in question belongs to the 青桐 (aogiri, the Chinese Parasol tree), apparently known to start dropping its leaves relatively early; others condense the saying in various ways, for example, by eliminating the 天下 part or even the final verb.

Example sentence:

彼は一葉落ちて天下の秋を知ることを目指して些細な現象や出来事にやたらと敏感になったが、基礎的な知識の不足のため、再三再四失敗で終わった。

(Kare wa ichiyou ochite tenka no aki wo shiru koto wo mezashite sasai na genshou ya dekigoto ni yatara to binkan ni natta ga, kisoteki na chishiki no fusoku no tame, saisan-saishi shippai de owatta.)

[“Aiming for the ability to foresee big events from their first signs, he became excessively sensitive to even the most insignificant events and phenomena. But lacking any sort of foundational knowledge, his efforts ended in failure time and time and time again.”]

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In preparation for Thanksgiving

…a rule that Americans traditionally break shatter.

腹八分目に医者要らず
(Hara hachibunme ni isha irazu;
“At the belly’s eighth part, no need for doctors”)

Definition:

It’s better for your health to not eat until you’re stuffed, but rather to stop before your body starts telling you to stop. Eat until you’re only 80% full, and you’ll avoid a variety of disorders that might otherwise have sent you to the doctor.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 腹 (hara), “belly.” Next we may imagine an elided particle such as the associative no, but what actually follows is number-noun 八分 (hachibun), “eight part(s),” where traditionally each 分 is one part of ten. (Hence 80%, above.) The following 目 (me) is acting as an ordinal number marker – that is, like “th” in English. The particle に (ni) marks this noun phrase as the metaphorical point at which the following clause applies:

This begins with the noun 医者 (isha), “doctor,” followed and modified by the verb 要る (iru), “to need,” in imperfective form and taking the negative suffix ず (zu) in conclusive form.

Notes:

The 目 is actually entirely disposable; about half of my sources do without; there’s a similar split between whether 分 is read as bun or bu. More rare is a variant that replaces 分目 with 合 (gou), which can also refer to one-tenth of a total amount. The final irazu may be written in all kana, as いらず. Another variant is more direct about the health impact, saying 病なし (yamai nashi, “no disease”) instead of mentioning doctors at all. In some cases the whole phrase may be reduced to just 腹八分.

This saying is attributed to Edo-era botanist and philosopher Kaibara Ekiken (貝原益軒), in his 1713 CE treatise 『養生訓』 (Youjoukun), apparently translated as The Book of Life-nourishing Principles.

Example sentence:

腹八分の法則を守っているから大丈夫だと豪語していたうちの叔父は、確か比較的に健康だったけど、いくら腹八分って言ってもさすがに毎日吸ってたら、肺ガンで死んでも当然だよな」

(Hara hachibu no housoku wo mamotteiru kara daijoubu da to gougo shiteita uchi no oji wa, tashika hikakuteki ni kenkou datta kedo, ikura hara hachibu tte itte mo sasuga ni mainichi suttetara, haigan de shinde mo touzen da yo na.”)

[“My uncle boasted that he was in good shape because he obeyed the rule of an eight-tenths-full belly, and he probably was relatively healthy. But it’s hardly a surprise, no matter how healthy his diet, that someone who smoked every day would die of lung cancer.”]

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Not quite cuckoo

But closer every day

鳩居鵲巣
kyuu.kyo.jaku.sou

Literally: dove – sit/be [in a place] – magpie – nest

Alternately: Taking someone else’s achievements or social position for yourself. Undeservedly stealing someone else’s laurels or spotlight.

Notes: This comes from our friend, the Classic of Poetry (Japanese 『詩経』 = Shikyou). The magpie is supposedly an especially good nest-builder, and the image is of its labor being taken by a bird thought to be especially bad at the task.

Apparently the original usage of this metaphor was mainly applied to a man’s social status and household being taken over by the woman who came to be his wife, but modern usage has been generalized into something less sexist. In a sort of halfway point, it can also apparently refer to someone living temporarily in someone else’s home.

The parts can be reversed to give 鵲巣鳩居. Another version uses this order but replaces 居 with 占 (sen, “occupy”) as its final character.

In this town, at this price, you're lucky it has real twigs!

Pigeons can apparently be… very bad at nest-making. From Reddit.

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A skeleton in every closet

A monster under every bed

人を見たら泥棒と思え
(Hito wo mitara dorobou to omoe;
When you see someone, think them a thief”)

Definition:

Don’t blindly trust strangers. A proverb advising the listener to protect themselves by doubting and confirming, rather than naively believing the best and accepting whatever people say. “Assume everyone you meet is a thief.”

To be honest, I don’t like this as a rule for day-to-day, in-person life. Most people are just folks, and don’t mean any particular harm. That said, this should probably be Rule One on the internet, where anonymity plus facelessness plus unlimited range make everything more dangerous and less trustworthy.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 人 (hito), “person,” although in this case it carries the nuance of “other person,” “outsider,” “stranger,” rather than people in general. This person is marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of the verb 見る (miru), “to see,” in conditional form, acting as “when.”

The clause that describes the result of this condition being met begins with the noun 泥棒 (dorobou), “thief,” “robber,” marked by the particle と (to, sounds like “toe”). This turns the part before the と into something like a quoted bit of text – in this case, the content of the following verb. This verb is 思う (omou), “to think,” in imperative form.

Notes:

Keep in mind that this saying should not be taken literally: don’t go around assuming that everyone is a criminal. Instead, the point is to be cautious and reserved in your dealings with others, especially people you don’t know well.

Several variants use synonyms such as 盗人 (nusubito) instead of 泥棒. A couple of variants also warn you to think of every fire as a dangerous conflagration (火事 = kaji, or 焼亡 = joumou) – again, the point is to encourage a healthy level of caution. Yet another variant advises you to think that 明日は雨 (ashita wa ame) – “tomorrow it will rain.”

Contrast with 七度尋ねて人を疑え and 渡る世間に鬼は無し.

Exactly one of my sources asserts that this phrase comes from a kabuki play titled 『楷子乗出初晴業』 (Hashigo-nori dezome no harewaza) by popular Edo-era playwright 河竹黙阿弥 (Kawatake Mokuami).

Example sentence:

「大学一年目は知らない町で赤の他人に囲まれながらの一人暮らしだったし、親に言われた通りに人を見たら泥棒と思っておいた。一体、どれだけの詐欺師を避けられたのか、どれだけ新しい仲間を作る機会を逃してしまったのかは、振り返ってみてもさっぱりわからない」

(“Daigaku ichinenme wa shiranai machi de aka no tanin ni kakomareganara no hitori-gurashi datta shi, oya ni iwareta toori ni hito wo mitara dorobou to omotte oita. Ittai, dore dake no sagishi wo sakerareta no ka, dore dake atarashii nakama wo tsukuru kikai wo nogashite shimatta no ka wa, furikaette mite mo sappari wakaranai.”)

[“My first year of college was an isolated life, surrounded by complete strangers in an unfamiliar town, so I took my parents’ advice and treated everyone I met as a potential robber. Looking back now, I don’t have the slightest idea how many con artists I was able to avoid that way, or how many chances I missed to make new friends.”]

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Doing the wave

人海戦術
jin.kai.sen.jutsu

Literally: person – ocean – war – technique

Alternately: Human-wave tactics. Assaulting enemy lines with an unsupported mass infantry charge in the hopes of overwhelming them with sheer numbers. By extension, any strategy of throwing large numbers of people at a problem in order to solve it through what mathematicians call “brute force.”

Notes: A close variant may replace 戦術 with 作戦 (sakusen), “tactics” or “strategy.”

SAIL

Sailing my boat on the sea of souls – Source

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All ties weird and wonderful

A red thread binds them all?

縁は異なもの味なもの
(En wa i na mono aji na mono;
A relationship is a strange thing, a wondrous thing”)

Definition:

The ties that bind two people together are mysterious, inexplicable, and often pleasantly weird. This phrase may especially be brought out to comment on a romantic relationship that people wouldn’t have anticipated.

Much of the literature assumes that the relationship in question is a romantic one between a man and a woman, and some sources even goes out of their way to stress that this saying is mistaken when applied to same-sex friendships (assumed to be platonic). But modern usage has broadened and this saying may now be used to describe romantic same-sex matches.

Breakdown:

We begin with the particle は (wa) marking the topic of discussion: the noun 縁 (en). In some cases this character can refer to an edge, such as the “veranda” running around a traditional estate house (as seen in 縁の下の舞). By extension, it can also refer to a relationship, including the individual’s relationship with the Buddha himself. But in this case, it refers to a relationship born of fate, or destiny, that binds two people, especially in marriage – or to the “chance meeting” that happened to bring them together.

What follows, to comment on the topic of this “fated link,” is a doubled noun phrase. Each phrase begins with a noun and ends in もの (mono), “thing,” joined by the particle な (na) to show that the initial noun is acting as an adjective, describing the “thing” that 縁 is. The first such noun is 異 (i, pronounced to rhyme with “fee”), often “different” but in this case meaning “strange”; the second is 味 (aji), often “flavor” but in this case meaning “strange” again, with a nuance of being appealing in some way.

Notes:

This is the ゑ (defunct character ye) entry of the Edo iroha karuta set. Apparently it comes from a 1707 joururi play titled 『丹波与作待夜の小室節』 (Tannobayo sakumatsuyo no komurobushi) by famed dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松門左衛門), whom we’ve met before.

Condensed versions of the saying may eliminate the repetition: simply 縁は異なもの or 縁は味なもの, perhaps depending on which aspect you want to emphasize. And 縁 may be read enishi without any change in meaning. But replacing 異 with 奇 (ki, “strange”), despite its somewhat similar pronunciation and meaning, is considered an error.

Example sentence:

「クソ真面目なチェスサークルの部長の彼女と、太鼓のプロになりたがっている彼がまさか付き合うなんて誰も思いもしなかったけど、まあ、縁は異なものだよね」

(“Kuso-majime na chesu saakuru no buchou no kanojo to, taiko puro ni naritagatteiru kare ga masaka tsukiau nante dare mo omoi mo shinakatta kedo, maa, en wa i na mono da yo ne.”)

[“She’s painfully straightlaced, and captain of the chess club, and he wants to be a professional taiko player. Nobody would have ever thought that they’d end up going out but, well, the ties that bind are mysterious things.”]

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And the Wild Things gnashed their terrible teeth

And clenched their terrible arms?

切歯扼腕
se-.sshi.yaku.wan

Literally: cut – tooth – dominate / obstruct – arm

Alternately: Convulsive rage (or frustration, or other negative emotion). Grinding the teeth and clenching the arms against one’s body. Being so worked up that you don’t know what to do with yourself. Note that the negative emotions can come from either internal sources (regret) or external (anger, impatience).

Notes: On its own, 切歯 can also mean “incisor” (i.e. “cutting tooth.”).

This compound may be written with 扼 replaced by its older, unsimplified form, 搤, without any change in meaning or pronunciation.

This phrase comes to us from our friend, the Records of the Grand Historian. (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki).

Pained tooth

A tooth so angry it’s grinding its teeth….

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Some people just want things that don’t burn

沈香も焚かず屁もひらず
(Jinkou mo takazu he mo hirazu;
Neither burning agarwood incense nor loosing a fart”)

Definition:

A person (or lifestyle) without any particular good or bad points; someone who causes no harm but is exceedingly mediocre. Someone with, metaphorically speaking, neither the complex, pleasing fragrance of high-quality incense, nor the unpleasant odor of a fart. Middle of the road.

Breakdown:

This saying comprises paired parallel phrases. The first begins with the noun 沈香 (jinkou), “agarwood,” highly valued for its use in incense. Next comes the particle も (mo), which we’ll get back to later. The verb being applied to the agarwood is 焚く (taku), “to light (a fire),” in imperfective form and taking the negative suffix ず (zu), here likely in conjunctive form.

The second phrase begins similarly with the noun 屁 (he, sounds like “heh”). This is acted upon by the verb ひる (hiru), “to expel from the body,” also in imperfective form and taking the negative suffix ず (zu), this time in conclusive form.

The も particles actually work as a paired set here. Often the Aも…Bも construction will work as “both A and B.” In this case, with the negative suffixes, we should read it as “neither A nor B.”

Notes:

Some versions specify the incense as 伽羅 (kyara), which is just the same agarwood under a different name, although often translated with alternate term “aloeswood.” It is also possible to replace the agarwood entirely with 線香 (senkou), a more generic term for “stick incense.” And hiru may occasionally be written in kanji as 放る. On the other hand, reading 沈 as chin, or writing taku as homophone 炊く (“to boil [rice]”), is considered an error.

This saying comes to us from a mid-Ero-era work of satire titled – and I am not making this up – 『放屁論』 = Houhiron, or A Theory of Farting. As of this writing, you can get it on Kindle for less than a dollar, or free with Kindle Unlimited.

Example sentence:

優れたリーダーはたとえどんなに優れていても、何か失敗があったら、厳しい批判を受けざるを得ない。その一方で、人間失格の詐欺師がリーダーになってしまったら、沈香も焚かず屁もひらず、平々凡々な人ですらまだましだと思えてくる。

(Sugureta riidaa wa tatoe donna ni sugureteite mo, nanika shippai ga attara, kibishii hikan wo ukezaru wo enai. Sono ippou de, ningen shikkaku no sagishi ga riidaa ni natte shimattara, jinkou mo takazu he mo hirazu, heiheibonbon na hito de sura mada mashi da to omoete kuru.)

[No matter how much an excellent leader excels, they meet with harsh criticism as soon as they make a mistake. On the other hand, if a con artist and utter failure of a human being becomes a leader, one comes to realize that even an utterly average person, without a single whiff of vice or virtue, would be so much better.]

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It didn’t work for stoicism

一子相伝
i-.sshi.sou.den

Literally: one – child – mutual – transmit

Alternately: A traditional system where the inner, secret, or ultimate teachings of an art, craft, school of thought, etc. are passed on to exactly one heir (usually from a father to an oldest or chosen son).

Notes: This is a compound of compounds. Isshi means “one child,” as you’d expect, and souden refers to inheritance across generations.

The idea expressed in this phrase is practically a staple in martial arts stories, where interpersonal and familial drama are spiced up with (often supernatural) violence. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly bright idea if you want your “house style” to survive long-term, but what can you do.

A variant replaces 一 with 父 (“father,” pronounced here as fu), making the patrilineal transmission explicit. Reading 相 as shou in this case is considered an error.

"Old sake"

Also the label of this sake that sells for a little over $100 per bottle on Amazon, of all places.

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