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Japanese Proverbs

Updated on January 26, 2010

Japanese Proverbs

Proverbs have always been interesting to me: so much meaning packed into a few simple, well chosen words. Japanese proverbs are interesting because they express ideas told with little pictures (the Japanese writing characters). A proverb is the looking glass into the culture and minds of its people and yet expresses ideas packed with meaning and emotions that every human can relate to. Proverbs afford us a moment of epiphany; a different slant on the life we've been seeing from the same point of view all our lives. A proverb can shift our reality and open new horizons of thought. Look into the heart of Japan and see what meanings the Japanese proverbs have to offer you.

Modesty

実るほど頭のさがる稲穂かな

Reading:

みのるほどこうべのさがるいなほかな

Minoru hodo kobe no sagaru inaho ka na

Translation:

The boughs that bear most hang lowest

Meaning:

Literally, the quotation means that a bough of a fruit tree that is laden with fruit will be heavier (and hang lower) than a bough of a fruit tree that bears little fruit.

Figuratively, the quotation is open to multiple interpretations. One possibility is that those who are the most valuable and productive may also be those who are the most unassuming and least pretentious. It is a reference to modesty and humility being virtues, similar in meaning to 'not blowing your own trumpet'.

Hanka's take:

This is a very important concept in Japan and most people abide by it. And this is one reason I love Japan. I also love my home country America, but one thing I can't stand is how some people boast arrogantly about how great they are, how rich they are, how successful they are, etc. I think that people who are truly great don't have to tell everybody about it because they are confident in themselves. Truly great people can be realized without having to say a word about their greatness.

Narrow-mindedness

井の中の蛙大海を知らず

Reading:

いのなかのかわずたいかいをしらず

i no naka no kawazu taikai o shirazu

Translation:

A frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean

Meaning:

This is a metaphor of a narrow world view based on limited experience. We may think we know something when in fact our own little world is quite small and we do not know of the greater world outside of our current reality.

Hanka's take:

Many Japanese people I meet fall into this category. This is an island nation and is quite isolated from the rest of the world. More than a physical isolation, this is a psychological isolation among Japanese. They do this to feel a sense of unity and safety amongst each other. Ironically, I when I go back to America I feel that many Americans are also unaware of the world around them. Americans often refer to different elements of their culture as "best in the world", when in fact those things, such as a sports tournament, celebrity, product, etc, is merely the best in the United States, not the world.

Courage

虎穴にいらずんば虎子を得ず

Reading:

こけつにいらずんんばこじをえず

koketsu ni irazunba koji o ezu

Translation:

Literal: If you don't enter the tigers den, you will never catch its cub

Figurative: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Meaning:

If you never take a risk, you will never have the opportunity to reap any reward

Hanka's take:

Japanese people are not risk takers. For the most part, most people live a very safe, planned out life. The basic life plan goes like this:

  • Study hard in school

  • Go to university

  • Immediately after graduation start working full time at a well known, established company

  • Get married by 25

  • Have children

  • Work at same company until retirement rarely taking a day off from work in 30 years (man)

  • Save all your money

  • Repeat those expectations with children

    Not much risk at all, as children are nurtured well into their 30's and most of them follow the expectations of their parents and society.

Beauty

花鳥風月

Reading:

かちょうふうげつ

ka chou fuu getsu

Translation:

Literal: flower, bird, wind, moon

Figurative: The beautfy of nature is a looking glass to one's self

Meaning:

Experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself.

Hanka's take:

There is a lot of beautiful nature in Japan. The season are very tough with very cold winters and extremely hot and humid summers. Japanese people build houses that are mainly designed to keep the elements and "strangers" outside. The windows of Japanese homes are often very small and not even transparent, whereas in America we like homes with big windows to let in the sunlight and give us a nice view. Not only the beautiful aspects of nature are a mirror into the human soul; the ugly facets of nature also reflect the suffering and conflict that exist in all of us.

Imperfection

猿も木から落ちる

Reading:

さるもきからおちる

saru mo ki kara ochiru

Translation:

Literal: Even monkeys fall from trees

Figurative: Nobody's perfect

Meaning:

Everyone makes mistakes. There is no person who never makes a mistake.

Hanka's take:

This way of thinking is rarely abided by in Japan where you must profusely apologize for mistakes and make monetary compensation if expected to. Imperfection is not well received in this country. The language is peppered with empty expressions of forgiveness as if to imply that we should be perfect human beings. Why do you think Japanese people love robots so much? Because they don't make mistakes.

Your Thoughts

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    • AbigailsCrafts LM profile image

      AbigailsCrafts LM 6 years ago

      Interesting lens :)

      My favourite Japanese saying (though not strictly a proverb I guess) is 'Nana koroubi ya oki', or 'fall down 7 times, get up 8.'

    • profile image

      California_Dreamin 7 years ago

      I like the Japanese version of "Too many cooks spoil the broth" : "Sendo okushite fune yama ni noboru" (too many captains will bring the boat up a mountain).