With 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).
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.
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.
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.
Literal translation: Summer heater winter fan.
Interpretation: Used to describe something that is “out of season” and therefore simply useless.
Literal translation: Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon.
Interpretation: As you experience all of the beauty of nature, you will learn also about yourself.
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).
Literal translation: Your act’s, your advantages.
Interpretation: You get what you deserve.
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).
Seiten no heki-reki
Literal translation: A thunderclap from a clear sky.
Interpretation: Something that has taken you by complete surprise.
Saru mo ki kara ochiru
Literal translation: Even monkeys can fall from trees.
Interpretation: Everyone can make mistakes, because nobody’s perfect.
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.
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.
Kaeru no ko wa kaeru
Literal translation: The child of a frog, is a frog.
Interpretation: Like the father, like the son.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Minu ga hana
Literal meaning: Not seeing is a flower.
Interpretation: The reality can never compete with your imagination.
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.
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)
Literal translation: You’ve stumbled seven times but recovered on the eighth.
Interpretation: Fight to persevere, it is better than defeat.
Literal translation: A monk for only three days.
Interpretation: Someone who easily gives up at the first sign of trouble.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mizu ni nagasu
Literal translation: Let flow the water
Interpretation: “It’s water under the bridge,” so forgive and forget.
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.
Abura o uru
Literal translation: To sell oil
Interpretation: When you are wasting time in the middle of a task, or chitchatting.
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.
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.
Literal translation: Chu songs on all sides
Interpretation: Used to describe a situation where defeat is clear, and circumstances are desperate beyond hope.
Literal translation: Ten men, ten colors.
Interpretation: To each person, their own.
Literal translation: A big similarity, and a small difference.
Interpretation: The similarities are greater than the differences.
Literal translation: One stone, two birds.
Interpretation: Killing two birds with one stone, i.e. achieving two tasks with a single action.
Literal translation: Scattered clouds, and disappearing mist
Interpretation: To disappear, without any trace.
Undei no sa
Literal translation: The separation between clouds and mud.
Interpretation: When there is a vast difference between two things.
Literal translation: Pouring water in my own rice paddy.
Interpretation: Speaking about things in a way that benefits yourself.
Ken’en no naka
Literal translation: The relationship between dogs and monkeys.
Interpretation: To describe a relationship of mutual hatred, between two natural enemies.
Literal translation: If you take an action, it will become.
Interpretation: You can always do it if you try.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tagei wa mugei
Literal translation: Having many skills is having no skill
Interpretation: A Jack of all trades is always a master of none
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.
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.
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.