Japanese Sayings: Start Speaking Like a Local!

japanese sayingsWith such a strong history it’s inevitable that there are proverbs and words of wisdom from ancient Japan that are still commonly used today. What’s great about learning the language is that once you’ve got your head around the different alphabets, these sayings will help you remember and master the Japanese language. If you’re a beginner, start with this course on casual Japanese conversation, or check out this blog post and discover some of the ways you can learn conversational Japanese, fast.

Some of the sayings make you think, others make you consider the wisdom, and others are simply there for a laugh. There’s no better way to start improving your language skills than with the following phrases. If you like a challenge try this course first and try your hand at reading the Japanese characters before you read the Romaji (the characters in the roman alphabet).

悪妻は百年の不作。
Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku
Literal translation: A bad wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.
Interpretation: A bad wife will be the ruin of her husband.

残り物には福がある。
Nokorimono ni wa fuku ga aru
Literal translation: Luck exists in the leftovers.
Interpretation: There is luck in taking the last helping, so don’t be shy.

虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず。
Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu
Literal translation: If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you cannot catch its cub.
Interpretation: When there is nothing ventured, there is nothing gained. Whatever you strive to do, you have to take a chance.

夏炉冬扇
Karo tōsen
Literal translation: Summer heater winter fan.
Interpretation: Used to describe something that is “out of season” and therefore simply useless.

花鳥風月
Kachou Fuugetsu
Literal translation: Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon.
Interpretation: As you experience all of the beauty of nature, you will learn also about yourself.

起死回生
Kishi kaisei
Literal translation: To wake from death and return to life.
Interpretation: To describe a situation where the subject has made a recovery in a sudden burst (i.e. a sports team has turned the tables on a game).

自業自得
Jigou Jitoku
Literal translation: Your act’s, your advantages.
Interpretation: You get what you deserve.

瓜田李下
Kaden rika
Literal translation: A melon field, standing under a plum tree.
Interpretation: Your actions can be misunderstood, avoid anything which could be taken on bad faith (standing under a plum tree implies you are planning to steal the fruits).

晴天の霹靂
Seiten no heki-reki
Literal translation: A thunderclap from a clear sky.
Interpretation: Something that has taken you by complete surprise.

猿も木から落ちる。
Saru mo ki kara ochiru
Literal translation: Even monkeys can fall from trees.
Interpretation: Everyone can make mistakes, because nobody’s perfect.

蓼食う虫も好き好き
Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki
Literal translation: You can even find bugs that eat knotweed.
Interpretation: To each individual, their own. They have their own tastes.

井の中の蛙大海を知らず。
I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu
Literal translation: A frog in a well does not know the great sea.
Interpretation: There are too many people ready to use their own narrow experience to judge, without ever knowing more about the world outside.

蛙の子は蛙。
Kaeru no ko wa kaeru
Literal translation: The child of a frog, is a frog.
Interpretation: Like the father, like the son.

鳶が鷹を産む。
Tobi ga taka wo umu
Literal translation: A kite has bred a hawk.
Interpretation: A compliment given to a gifted child who has common parents.

覆水盆に帰らず。
Fukusui bon ni kaerazu
Literal translation: Spilt water cannot return to the tray.
Interpretation: There is no use crying over spilt milk. This is also used to talk about relationships, and that a couple who has separated can never go back to the way it was.

二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず。
Ni usagi wo ou mono wa ichi usagi wo mo ezu
Literal translation: The one who chases after two hares will not even catch one.
Interpretation: By trying to do more than one thing at a time, you will inevitably fail at both.

継続は力なり。
Keizoku wa chikara nari
Literal translation: Continuance is also strength.
Interpretation: Continuing down a path after a setback is a strength, and don’t ever give up.

門前の小僧習わぬ経を読む。
Mon zen no kozō narawanu kyō wo yomu
Literal translation: An apprentice who is near a temple will recite the scriptures without teaching.
Interpretation: It is from our environment that our characters form.

知らぬが仏
Shiranu ga hotoke
Literal translation: Not knowing a fact is Buddha.
Interpretation: Ignorance can be bliss, and sometimes it’s better not to know the truth.

見ぬが花
Minu ga hana
Literal meaning: Not seeing is a flower.
Interpretation: The reality can never compete with your imagination.

猫に小判
Neko ni koban
Literal translation: Giving gold coins to a cat.
Interpretation: To describe a useless gesture, where a gift has been given to someone who will not appreciate it.

猫に鰹節
Neko ni katsuobushi
Literal translation: Like fish to a cat.
Interpretation: To describe a situation where you cannot let your guard down *(the cat cannot resist stealing your fish)

七転び八起き
Nanakorobi yaoki
Literal translation: You’ve stumbled seven times but recovered on the eighth.
Interpretation: Fight to persevere, it is better than defeat.

三日坊主
Mikka bōzu
Literal translation: A monk for only three days.
Interpretation: Someone who easily gives up at the first sign of trouble.

案ずるより産むが易し。
Anzuru yori umu ga yasashi
Literal translation: Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about giving birth.
Interpretation: Your fear of a danger is often greater than the danger itself. Sometimes making an attempt is easier than you expect.

馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない。
Baka wa shinanakya naoranai
Literal translation: Unless an idiot dies, he can’t be cured.
Interpretation: You can’t fix stupid people, only death can cure a fool.

出る杭は打たれる。
Deru kui wa utareru
Literal translation: The stake that sticks out gets hammered down.
Interpretation: It is best not to make waves, so put your efforts where they make the most good. This can also mean that its better to conform than to stick out.

挨拶は時の氏神。
Aisatsu wa toki no ujigami
Literal translation: A greeting is the deity who turns up providentially.
Interpretation: In a quarrel, seek arbitration and find a solution. Arbitration is a godsend.

秋茄子は嫁に食わすな。
Akinasu wa yome ni kuwasuna
Literal translation: Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants.
Interpretation: You cannot let yourself get taken advantage of.

花よりだんご
Hana yori dango
Literal translation: Choosing dumplings instead of flowers.
Interpretation: This is a comment that is aimed at a person, to describe how they prefer practicalities than aesthetics and luxury.

水に流す
Mizu ni nagasu
Literal translation: Let flow the water
Interpretation: “It’s water under the bridge,” so forgive and forget.

雨降って地固まる
Ame futte chi katamaru
Literal translation: After a rain, the earth hardens
Interpretation: It is through adversity that character is built and formed.Once the storm has passed, things will be even stronger than before.

油を売る
Abura o uru
Literal translation: To sell oil
Interpretation: When you are wasting time in the middle of a task, or chitchatting.

竜頭蛇尾
Ryuutou dabi
Literal translation: Dragon, head, snake, tail
Interpretation: This is used to describe an anticlimax. The beginning is akin to a dragons head, great and majestic, but the ending withers away like a snakes tail, into nothing.

晴耕雨読
Seiko udoku
Literal translation: Clear sky, cultivate, rain, reading
Interpretation: The traditional meaning is farm when it’s sunny, and read when it rains. Today, it is used to describe choosing the right activities based on the weather.

四面楚歌
Shimen soka
Literal translation: Chu songs on all sides
Interpretation: Used to describe a situation where defeat is clear, and circumstances are desperate beyond hope.

十人十色
Jūnin toiro
Literal translation: Ten men, ten colors.
Interpretation: To each person, their own.

大同小異
Daidō shōi
Literal translation: A big similarity, and a small difference.
Interpretation: The similarities are greater than the differences.

一石二鳥
Isseki nichō
Literal translation: One stone, two birds.
Interpretation: Killing two birds with one stone, i.e. achieving two tasks with a single action.

雲散霧消
Unsan mushō
Literal translation: Scattered clouds, and disappearing mist
Interpretation: To disappear, without any trace.

雲泥の差
Undei no sa
Literal translation: The separation between clouds and mud.
Interpretation: When there is a vast difference between two things.

我田引水
Gaden insui
Literal translation: Pouring water in my own rice paddy.
Interpretation: Speaking about things in a way that benefits yourself.

犬猿の仲
Ken’en no naka
Literal translation: The relationship between dogs and monkeys.
Interpretation: To describe a relationship of mutual hatred, between two natural enemies.

為せば成る
Naseba naru
Literal translation: If you take an action, it will become.
Interpretation: You can always do it if you try.

鴨が葱をしょって来る
Kamo ga negi o shotte kuru
Shortened for everyday use: 鴨ネギ or Kamonegi
Literal translation: A duck has come along carrying a leek on its back
Interpretation: This is used to describe something that is very convenient, or a stroke of luck. The origin of the phrase is that duck soup is made with leeks, so its as if the duck has come along just asking for you to eat it.

忙中閑あり
Bouchuu kan ari
Literal translation: Even when you’re very busy, there’s time time to take a rest.
Interpretation: Don’t work too hard, remember to rest when you need it.

初心忘るべからず
Shoshin wasuru bekarazu
Literal translation: We cannot forget our beginner’s spirit.
Interpretation: When you are starting something new, it’s both exciting and humbling.

頭隠して尻隠さず
Atama kakushite siri kakusazu
Literal translation: Hiding your head but not your behind
Interpretation: A failure to completely “cover up” any bad deeds you have done

沈む瀬あれば浮かぶ瀬あり
Shizumu se areba ukabu se ari
Literal translation: If the current can sink, it will rise (again)
Interpretation: In life there are many ups and downs, try not to stress when you can’t affect the outcome.

猫の首に鈴を付ける
Neko no kubi ni suzu o tsukeru
Literal translation: Putting a bell around a cat’s neck
Interpretation: This saying is used when you are discussing to do something that is nearly impossible.

長所は短所
Chousho wa tansho
Literal translation: Our strong points are our weakest points
Interpretation: If you put an overreliance on your strengths, it will lead you to make careless mistakes.

起きて半畳,寝て一畳
Okite hanjou, nete ichijou
Literal translation: You need just half a tatami mat when awake, and a single tatami mat when asleep.
Interpretation: You don’t need to be rich to lead a good, and satisfied life.

猫を追うより皿を引け
Nneko o ou yori sara o hike
Literal translation: Don’t chase the cat, take away the plate
Interpretation: Go to the source of a problem, and solve it at the root of the issue.

多芸は無芸
Tagei wa mugei
Literal translation: Having many skills is having no skill
Interpretation: A Jack of all trades is always a master of none

盛年重ねて来らず
Seinen kasanete kitarazu
Literal translation: The prime of your life does not come twice
Interpretation: You only get to be young once, live your life to the full.

相槌を打つ
Aizuchi o utsu
Literal translation: To strike the hammer of the forge
Interpretation: To classify the verbal feedback we normally give when we are listening, using words like “yes”, “uh-huh” and so on. The proverb likens it to the rythmic exchange of hammers from a blacksmith who are working on a katana.

天は自ら助くるものを助く
Ten wa mizukara tasukuru mono o tasuku
Literal translation: Heaven helps those who help themselves.
Interpretation: It’s up to you, to make things happen. Don’t just wait for opportunity to fall in your lap, go out and seek it.

When you’re looking to take your Japanese conversation to the next level, you’ll have a much deeper understanding and connection with the locals when you can use a proverb or two. This course is another great tool in your arsenal as you learn to speak Japanese fluently, and if you’re still struggling with the characters try this guide at learning how to read in Japanese (for the impatient among us!).

Using a saying or two in your conversation is going to get good-natured smiles from your Japanese colleagues, and is a fantastic way to interact and build better connections with your friends. Learn a couple of the sayings above, and make your own conversation skills a little bit more light hearted. You’ll be glad you did.