第352課: Idioms V: 諺

     諺(ことわざ), proverbs, are often short sayings, 言い習わし. A proverb shows some sort of virtue, a common truth that anyone can relate to. A proverb may also show moral, satire, truth, and a whole array of important cultural items in a short and concise way. Free translation is often needed to make them sensible to English speakers. You don't have to be Japanese to learn Japanese proverbs. This is a bigoted argument that you should never listen to. If you're human and are capable of acquiring new information, you can learn Japanese proverbs. 

The first sentence of each example will be in Japanese script. The second will be the same sentence in かな. The third sentence shows the literal translation and the fourth sentence shows the idiomatic or general translation. If anymore information needs to be made about a given expression, a fifth line will be used. 

漢字 to learn this week: 鳶、鰹、鷲、鷗、鱒、髭、麹、宏、蜃、禽、麿、蟻、雹、豹、賑、藁、虻、蝦、蕊、葱  

 

案ずるより生(う)むが易し。
Giving birth is easier than worrying about it.
Fear is often greater than the danger.

天は自ら助くるものを助く。
Heaven helps those who helps themselves.  

鰻(うなぎ)の寝床。
Sleeping grounds of eels.
Long/thin building or room. 

全ての道はローマに通ず。
All roads lead to Rome. 

見ぬが花。
The thing that does not see is the flower.
1. Reality can't compete with imagination.
2. Prospect is often better than possession.

寝耳に水
Water in the ears when one is asleep
Unexpected and shocking 

一年の計は元旦にあり。
Sum of the year is at New Year’s.
The whole year's plans should be made on New Year's.  

魚心あれば水心
If a fish has the mind of being one with the water, the water also has the mind of being one with the fish
If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

一を聞いて十を知る。
Hear one and know ten.
To understand it all from only one part.

猫に小判。
A koban to a cat.
1. Cast pearls before swine.
2. Give valuable to someone who doesn't value it.
3. Caviar to the general.
4. Really big waste of resources.

Cultural Note: A koban is an oval coin used in currency in Japan made either of gold or silver.

漁夫の利
A fisherman's profit
Profiting while others fight 

毒をもって毒を制す。
To use poison against poison.
To fight fire with fire. 

宝の持ち腐れ
A held jewel rotting
Unused possessions 

尻切れトンボ
A dragonfly with its ass cut off
Unfinished business 

七転び八起き。
Seven falls and stand up on eight.
1. Keep trying when life knocks you down.
2. Always rise after repeated failures. 

ペンは剣よりも強し。
The pen is mightier than the sword.

どんぐりの背比べ。
Comparing the height of acorns.
To have no outstanding characteristics. 

言わぬが花。
The thing that does not speak is the flower.
Silence is golden.

諸刃の剣
A double-edged sword 

火のないところには煙は立たぬ。
Smoke doesn't rise from a place that doesn't have fire.
Where there is smoke, there is fire. 

藪を突付いて蛇を出す。
Poke through a bush and a snake will come out.
1. To stir up trouble for oneself.
2. Let sleeping dogs lie.

豚に真珠。
A pearl to a pig.
Cast pearls before swine. 

鶴の声
A crane's voice
A powerful voice decides an argument 

月夜に提灯(ちょうちん)。
A paper lantern in a moonlit night
Superfluousness

井の中の蛙大海を知らず。
The frog in the well doesn't know of the great ocean.  
A person who is ignorant of the world. 

馬の耳に念仏。
A sutra in a horse's ear.
A nod is as good as a wink to a blind man.

縁側の下の力持ち。
A strong person underneath the veranda.
Someone of great assistance in the background.

ローマは一日にして成らず。
Rome wasn't built in a day. 

口は禍の元。
The mouth is the source of disaster. 

良薬口に苦し。
Good medicines tastes bitter in the mouth.
Good advice is hard to swallow.

借りてきた猫。
A borrowed cat.
Being quiet and meek. 

住めば都。
If residing, the capital.
Wherever you live, you come to love it.

多々益々弁ず。
The more, the better. 

河童も川流れ。
Even an excellent swimmer can get carried down a river.
Even Homer sometimes nods.
Everyone makes mistakes.

蚤(のみ)の夫婦
A flee couple
A couple in which the woman is taller than the man 

上には上がある。
There is a top on the top.
There's always someone better than you. 

石の上にも三年。
On top of a stone for three years.
One who endures wins through perseverance.

落花(らっか)枝に帰らず。
A fallen blossom doesn't go home to its branch.
What's done is done.

沈む瀬あれば浮かぶ瀬あり。
If the current sinks, it will rise again.
Life has its twists and turns. 

為せば成る。
If you do, it will happen.
You can do anything you have your mind set on doing.  

乞食を三日すればやめられぬ。
If you beg for three days, you won't be able to quit.
Once a good-for-nothing, always a good-for-nothing.

急がば回れ。
If hurried, go around.
Slow and steady wins the race.
When in a hurry it is faster to take a roundabout.

噂をすれば影(がさす)
Shadows if you gossip
Speak of the Devil

前門の虎、後門の狼
A tiger at the front gate and a wolf at the back gate. 
Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

弘法筆を択ばず。
Koubou doesn't choose the brush.
An expert doesn't blame his tools.
A bad workman always blames his tools.
 

早起きは三文の得。
Waking up early gets you three mon.
The early bird catches the worm. 

年寄りの冷や水。 
An old person's cold water.
Old people acting reckless.

来年のことを言えば鬼が笑う。
Demons laugh if you talk of next year.
No one knows what tomorrow brings. 

光陰(こういん)矢の如し。
Time is like an arrow.
Time flies.

一寸先は闇。
A sun inward is darkness. 
The future is unpredictable.

身から出た錆
Rust from the blade
What goes around comes around. 

捕らぬ狸の皮算用をするな。
Don't count the tanuki skins that you haven't caught yet.
Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
Note: A tanuki is an indigenous animal in Japan that looks like a raccoon.

過ぎたるはなお及ばざるが如し。
Doing too much is the same as doing naught.
Doing too little and too much are equally bad. 

転石苔(てんせきこけ)を生せず。 
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
1. Those who are active make progress.
2. Those who frequently change jobs can't be successful in life. 

塵(ちり)も積もれば山となる。
When even dust piles up, it becomes a mountain.
1. Little things add up.
2. Little and often fills the purse.
3. Many a little makes a nickle.

損して得取る。
Take a loss, then take a gain.
One step back, two steps forward.

三度目の正直
The third's honesty
Third time's a charm.  

釈迦に説法
Teaching Buddhism to Buddha
An idiot trying to teach a know-it-all 

脳ある鷹(たか)は爪(つめ)を隠す。
A hawk with talent hides its claws.
1. Still water runs deep.
2. A wise man keeps some of his talents hidden.
3. The one who knows most often says the least.

頭を隠して尻(しり)を隠さず。
Hiding one's face but not one's ass.
Don't expose your weak spot when protecting yourself.

三人寄れば文殊の智慧(ちえ)。
If three gather, Manjusri wisdom.
Two heads are better than one.

Buddhism Note: Manjusri is the bodhisattva of Wisdom.

溺れる者は藁(わら)をも掴む。
A drowning person will even grasp straw. 

仏の顔も三度。
Even the face of Buddha three times.
To try a saint's patience.
There are limits to one's patience.

悪妻は六十年の不作。
A bad wife is the bad harvest of sixty years.
A bad wife is the ruin of her husband.

触らぬ神に祟りなし。
An undisturbed god doesn't wreak havoc.  
Let sleeping dogs lie.

悪事千里を走る。
Running from a wicked deed 1000 ri.
1. Ill news runs apace.
2. Bad news travels fast.

枯れ木も山の賑わい
Dead trees are also a mountain's liveliness
Dead trees are better than no trees. 

猫も杓子(しゃくし)も
Even cats and bamboo ladle.
Anybody; anything.

旅の恥は掻き捨てて。
Get rid of the humiliation of travel.
Once over the border you can do anything.

青雲の志。
The will of a blue sky.
Lofty ambitions.

雲泥の差。
Separation between clouds and mud.
A vast difference. 

初心忘るべからず。
We mustn't forget our beginner's spirit. 

 

門前市(もんぜんいち)をなす。
 To produce a market outside a gate.
To have a constant stream of visitors.

他人の飯を食う。
To eat another's person's feed.
To experience the hardships of the world everyday.

情けは人の為ならず。
Kindness is not for others.
Compassion is not for other people's benefit.

餅は餅屋
As for mochi, a mochi store.
Leave things to the experts. 

宵越しの金を持たぬ。
 To not have the money to pass the evening.
To spend one's money as quickly as one earns it.

青年重ねて来たらず。
Prime years don't return.
You're only young once. 

腐っても鯛(たい)
Even if it rots, (it's still a) sea bream
If something has value, it doesn't matter what shape it's in.  

石の上にも三年
Three years on top of a rock
Persistence leads to success. 

李下瓜田( りかかでん)
 A melon field below a plum tree.
Leave no room for scandal.

三つ子の魂百まで
The spirit of a three year old until 100
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

かわいい子には旅をさせよ。
Make pretty kids take trips.
Have kids experience challenges of life. 

すずめの涙
A sparrow's tear
A very small amount 

焼餅焼くとて手を焼くな。
Don't burn your hand even when you're making yakimochi.
Don't be susceptible to folly because of jealousy. 

李下の冠を正さず。
Not correcting a crown below a plum tree.
To avoid the appearance of evil.

腹八分目に医者いらず
You don't need a doctor if your stomach is only 8/10ths full.
It's best to eat in moderation. 

出る杭は打たれる。
The stake that sticks out will get hammered.
The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

知らぬが仏。
The one who does not know is Buddha.
Ignorance is bliss.

笑う門には福来(きた)る
Good fortune comes in the laughing gate.
Good fortune and happiness will come to the home of those who smile.

猿も木から落ちる。
Even monkeys fall from trees.
1. Everyone makes mistakes.
2. Pride comes before a fall.

泥棒を捕らえて縄を綯(な)う。
Catching a thief and tying him up.
Hastening to do something after an incident.

人は見かけによらぬもの
Don't judge people by their looks. 

花より団子。
Dumplings than flowers.
1. To prefer substance over style.
2. People are more interested in the practical over the aesthetic.

井の中の蛙(かわず)大海を知らず。
 A frog in a well doesn't know of the big ocean.
1. To know nothing of the world.
2. Used to encourage someone to get a wider perspective.

鳴く猫はねずみを捕らぬ。
Loud cats don't catch mice.
Empty vessels make the most sound. 

濡れぬ先の傘。
The dry end of an umbrella.
Better safe than sorry. 

弘法(こうぼう)にも筆の誤り。
Even Koubou made mistakes with the brush.
Anyone makes mistakes.
Even experts have their shortfalls.

Note: Koubou, posthumous name, was a Buddhist priest famous for his calligraphy.

寄らば大樹の陰
Look for a big tree for shade.

目には目を、歯には歯を。
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. 

河童の川流れ。
A kappa swept away by the river.
Even experts screw up.  

石橋を叩いて渡る。
Hitting a stone bridge and crossing.
Safety on top of safety. 

立つ鳥跡を濁さず。
It is common courtesy to clean after yourself. 

蓼(たで)食う虫も好き好き。
Even knot-weed eating insects have various tastes.
There is no accounting for taste.

喉元(のどもと)過ぎれば熱さを忘れる。
If it passes the throat, you forget the heat.
Danger past and God forgotten. 

時は金なり。
Time is money. 

人のふり見て我がふり直せ。
Watch other's actions, and fix one's own.
One man's fault is another's lesson.

生兵法(なまびょうほう)は大怪我の基(もと)。
Crude tactics is the source of great blunders.
A little learning is a dangerous thing. 

隣の芝生は青い。
The next door lawn is green.
The grass is always greener on the other side.
 

隣の花は赤い。
The flowers next door are red.
Grass is always greener on the other side. 

郷(ごう)に入っては郷に従え。
When entering a village, obey it.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

焼け石に水。
Water on burning rocks.
Something bound to fail due to inadequacies. 

男心と秋の空。
A man's heart and the autumn sky.
Both a man's heart and the autumn sky are fickle.

玉に瑕(きず)
A flaw on a gem

二階から目薬
Eye drops from the second floor
Something that can't be done no matter what.

駄目で元々
Nothing to lose 

仏の顔も三度
The buddha's face thrice
To try the patience of a saint. 

痘痕(あばた)も笑窪
Pockmarks and dimples
Love is blind.

匙(さじ)を投げる。
To throw the space.
To throw in the towel. 

鴨が葱(ねぎ)をしょってくる。
A duck comes back with a leek on its back.
A stroke of luck.

無い袖(そで)は振れぬ。
Can't wave without a sleeve. 
A man can't give what he doesn't have.

濡れ衣を着せる。
To make someone wear wet clothes.
To make someone innocent look guilty. 

覆水盆に返らず。
Spilled water doesn't go back to the tray.
It's no use crying over spilled milk.

終わりよければ全てよし。
All's well that ends well. 

泣き面に蜂(はち)。
A bee to a crying face.
1. One misfortune comes after another.
2. Misfortunes never come alone.
3. When it rains, it pours.

叩けば埃が出る。
If you strike it, dust will come out.
Everything has flaws. 

頭隠して尻隠さず。
To hide your head but not your ass.
To fail to cover up all your bad deeds. 

虻蜂(あぶはち)取らず
Neither catching the horsefly nor the bee.
To accomplish nothing.

犬猿の仲。
The relationship between dogs and monkeys.
Natural enemies. 

挨拶(あいさつ)は時の氏神(うじがみ)
Arbitration is time's god.
Arbitration is a gift from the gods.

千里の道も一歩から
A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step

惚れてしまえば痘痕(あばた)も笑窪。
There are scars and dimples even when falling in love.
She who loves an ugly man thinks him handsome.
Love is blind.

堪忍袋の緒が切れる。
For the string of a tolerance bag to snap.
To be out of patience.  

麻の中の蓬(よもぎ)。
Mugwort inside hemp
People become like those around them. 

朱に交われば赤くなる。
If you mix something with red, it too will become red.
People become like those around them.

絵に描いた餅(もち)。
Rice cake drawn in a picture.
A pie in the sky.

門前の小僧習わぬ経を読む。
A novice before a gate reading an untaught sutra.
1. To learn something without being taught it.
2. You learn, without realizing it, from what is around you.
3. A young monk outside the gate can read sutra he has never studied.  

前事を忘れざるは後事の師なり。
Not forgetting the past is the teacher of the future.

秋茄子(あきなす)は嫁に食わすな。
Do not feed autumn eggplant to your wife.
Autumn eggplants will reduce fertility and give a woman the chills.

備えあれば憂いなし。
If you're prepared, there need to be no worry.

袖振り合うも他生(たしょう)の縁。
Sleeves waving together is even karma from a past life.
Even a chance acquaintance is preordained.
 

猫の首に鈴をつける。
To put a bell on a cat's neck.
Don't talk about doing the impossible.  

糠(ぬか)に釘(くぎ)。
A nail in rice bran.
All is lost that is given to a fool.

餅は餅屋。
Rice cake at a rice cake store.
Every man to his trade.

二足の草鞋(わらじ)。
Two pairs of sandals.
Having two different jobs.

猫を追うより皿を引け。
Take away the plate rather than chase the cat.
Attack the root of a problem.  

小人閑居して不善を為す。
Small people in free time do vice.
An idle brain is the devil's shop.

二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず。
He who chases two rabbits won't catch one.
Do what you can accomplish rather than wasting your energy at trying to do the impossible.

 

Exercises

1. Relate the literal meanings of proverbs to their actual definition(s) for at least 10 different expressions.

2. Use the internet to search for Japanese proverbs and give literal definitions and more idiomatic explanations when either or are not given. 

3. Annotate and explain at least 15 proverbs mentioned in this lesson. What do you notice about the cultural implications from them?

4. Religion and core values to a society are often shown in proverbs and short sayings. Show how this is so in Japanese. 

5. A lot of sayings in Japanese originate from agriculture. Show this is true with Japanese proverbs.