This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)
Proverbs are words of wisdom from our ancestors. They help us change our way of thinking so we can live better lives. It also reflects the culture of the country. Here are 20 Japanese proverbs that will teach you a lesson in life! Translations roughly done by the writer.
1. Don’t feed the bride/daughter-in-law autumn eggplants (秋茄子は嫁に食わすな)
There are many interpretations to this proverb. The word “yome” means both bride and daughter-in-law, so that helps create the different interpretations. One is that this proverb shows the inevitable feud between the husband’s mother and the daughter-in-law, since autumn eggplants are said to be delicious. Another says that eating too many eggplants can cause illness, so the mother shows wisdom and prevents the daughter-in-law (new bride) from eating it to protect her.
2. Hide your head but fail to hide your butt (頭隠して尻隠さず)
This proverb means that you think you’ve hidden all of your flaws, but you’ve just hidden part of them and pretend that everything is fine but everyone else can see the problems.
3. The festival afterwards (後の祭り)
This proverb literally means “too late!” Even if you regret something, it’s too late, and it’s just a waste of time moping about it. Matsuri are festivals done at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, and are often associated with fun.
4. 3 years sitting on a rock (石の上にも三年)
What happens when you sit on a rock for 3 years? It eventually gets warm. This proverb means that even though you may seem to be going through hard times, something will change, and things will get better.
5. Walk across a stone bridge after hitting it. (石橋を叩いて渡る)
Stone bridges are literally very hard. However, like any kind of bridge, stone bridges can collapse at any time if their structure has weakened. This proverb shows the necessity of taking precautions even though it may seem safe at first.
6. Once-in-a-lifetime meeting (一期一会)
This proverb is to remind that the encounters in life are temporary and therefore you must keep in mind to treat people with an attitude that will leave no regrets.
7. Even the head of a sardine can become holy with devotion. (鰯の頭も信心から)
The origin of this proverb comes from the Edo period. During then, there was a custom of hanging the head of the sardine at entrance of the house to ward off the evil spirits during Setsubun (the day before Risshun, the first day of spring according to the old calendar). This proverb means that with belief, anything can become holy because faith is mysterious.
8. Chanting a prayer to Buddha into a horse’s ear (馬の耳に念仏)
This proverb means lecturing idealistic or magnificent things to a person or a thing that doesn’t or doesn’t try to understand is a waste of time. Similar Japanese proverbs are “reading the Discourses of Confucius to a dog,” “giving money to a cat,” and “giving a pearl to a pig.”
9. Fishing bream with shrimp as bait (海老で鯛を釣る)
Breams are high-class fish in Japan, and are usually eaten during festivals or at a celebration meal. Shrimp is fairly common seafood. The meaning of this proverb is gaining great profit with a small amount of funds or work.
10. The powerful person that holds up the house. (縁の下の力持ち)
The en (縁) is the long and thin wooden porch on Japanese-style houses, such as in the bottom right side of the image above. The en isn’t the highlight of the design of the house. This proverb points to the situation where people work hard for others but aren’t recognized for it, like unsung heroes or people who do thankless tasks.
11. Too long for an obi, too short for a tasuki. (帯に短くたすきに長し)
Obi is a decorative piece of cloth tied around the waist over a kimono, shown in the image above. Tasuki is a piece of fabric used to tie up clothing to get it out of the way. The image below shows how to use a tasuki to do so. This way of holding up clothing is called tasuki-gake (たすき掛け).
The proverb is referring to an item that isn’t fit to be used in any situation.
12. Eating meals from the same iron pot. (同じ釜の飯を食う).
A kama is an iron pot, shown in the image above, which was commonly used in formal settings. This proverb means strengthening the sense of belonging to a community or a group by eating the same meals; it also refers to a situation where people share the same home and their lives together.
13. Kappa being washed away by the river (河童の川流れ)
The kappa is a Japanese mythical creature. It’s said to live inside clear river streams, is great at swimming, and loves cucumbers. This proverb means that even a person who is a master at something can make mistakes too. Similar Japanese proverbs are “even monkeys fall from trees,” and “even Koubou (a famous Buddhist priest) makes mistakes in writing”.
14. Jumping off from the Kiyomizu-no-Butai. (清水の舞台から飛び降りる)
Kiyomizu-no-Butai is the observation deck at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, as shown in the image above. There was a legend that if you jump off this place without being injured, your wishes will come true. If you jump off and die, you will go to Nirvana. This proverbs means to take a risky plunge and hope for the best in a situation.
15. Without knowing, you can be at peace like Buddha. (知らぬが仏).
This proverb means that your mind and heart can be undisturbed like the state of Buddha without knowing the truth. It also means you can be carefree and happier if you didn’t know the truth. A similar English proverb is “ignorance is bliss.”
16. Three people gathering can create wisdom. (三人寄れば文殊の知恵)
This proverb means that even if each of the three people aren’t especially clever individually, by gathering together they can think up something clever; two heads are better than one.
17. Her standing figure looks like a Chinese peony, her sitting figure looks like a tree peony, and her walking figure looks like a lily. (立てば芍薬座れば牡丹歩く姿は百合の花)
This proverb describes the ideal looks and behavior of a woman by using flower metaphors. Shakuyaku and botan, shown in the image above, are in the same peony family but are slightly different. Shakuyaku looks like the image below.
18. The moon and the Chinese soft-shelled turtle (月と鼈)
The moon is round. The Chinese soft-shelled turtle, as shown in the image above, is also round. They are both similar being round, but their worth is different. On one hand the moon is the symbol of beauty, while the soft-shelled turtle lives in the dirt. From this reason, this proverb is the simile of things being so different beyond comparison.
19. To boil and drink the dirt underneath fingernails. (爪の垢を煎じて飲む)
This proverb refers to trying to become a great person by drinking the dirt from beneath a master’s fingernails. Senjiru (煎じる) means to extract ingredients from herbs and things by boiling them. It can also mean that great people have greatness even in the dirt under their nails
20. Counting raccoon dog skins before they’ve been caught (捕らぬ狸の皮算用)
This proverb means to calculate or expect your rewards before it’s possible, similar to “counting one’s chickens before they’ve hatched.” It’s often shortened to “kawazanyou.”