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10 Japanese Idioms and Proverbs to Take to Heart

Every culture has its share of idioms and proverbs, messages that help to illuminate truths about their beliefs, customs, and ways of being. Technically speaking, a proverb is a short and pithy saying that gets at an elemental piece of advice (“Don’t cry over spilled milk”), whereas an idiom is a turn of phrase that uses a figure of speech to make a specific point (“They rubbed me the wrong way”). Japanese culture is rife with wisdom imparted in both forms; in fact, in Japan, proverbs are known as kotowaza, a term that was used in ancient Japan to refer to words conveyed by deities through oracles. Proverbs hold a particularly significant place within Japanese culture — they are thought to be wisdom passed down from the ancestors.

It’s worth noting that although there are many English phrases that can be used as rough translations for Japanese idioms and proverbs, there is often no direct equivalent, given that these aphorisms are so contextually and culturally dependent. For instance, the Japanese proverb “Nen ni wa nen o ireyohas been translated into “Look before you leap,” but a more literal translation of the phrase is “Put care into care,” which is a considerably different sentiment than the English translation. All the same, part of the joy of learning proverbs and idioms from other cultures is getting to understand language and seeing life lessons in a new light. Here are 10 wise Japanese sayings that offer up some small but important everyday reminders.

二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず (Nito wo ou mono wa itto mo ezu)
A man who chases two rabbits doesn’t deserve one.

The closest equivalent proverb in English is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” In other words, it is best to focus on just one thing at a time, rather than have your attention scattered in multiple directions.

口は災いの元  (Kuchi wa wazawai no moto)
A mouth causes trouble.

There are many Japanese proverbs and idioms that extol the wonders of silence and stillness, and this is one of them. Roughly translated, the idiom refers to the idea that “silence is golden,” or that sometimes talking too much can be a liability in certain situations.

負けるが勝ち (Makeru ga kachi)
To lose means to win.

This particular saying reveals a lot about Japanese cultural attitudes: The idea here is that sometimes the best way to gain the upper hand in a situation is to simply walk away. Some situations, in other words, just aren’t worth getting tangled up in.

自業自得 (Jigou jitoku)
You get what you deserve.

This straightforward proverb is not dissimilar from the English version, “You reap what you sow.” In other words, you get out of life what you’re willing to put into it — so be sure to live life with kindness, openness, and generosity.

井の中の蛙大海を知らず (I no naka no kawazu, taikai wo shirazu)
A frog in the well knows not the ocean.

This Japanese proverb is believed to have originated from a Chinese fable about a frog who spent his entire life in a well and who was then visited by a sea turtle from the ocean. The takeaway here is that we all have a limited view of the world, and that there is always, inevitably, more than we’re able to see or experience.

愛と咳を隠すことはできません (Ai to seki o kakusu koto wa dekimasen)
Love and a cough cannot be hidden.

Just as it is difficult to stifle a cough if you are sick, the saying goes, it is nearly impossible to hide your feelings when you love someone.

出る杭は打たれる (Derukui wa utareru)
The nail that sticks out is struck.

Perhaps one of the most well-known Japanese proverbs, this saying flies in the face of Western logic, which prizes individualism. The quote instead encourages people to not stick out, to assimilate to their surroundings, and to think instead about how to be of best use to the collective good.

見ぬが花 (Minu ga hana)
Not seeing is a flower.

Loosely translated into an English equivalent, this saying could also be construed as “Reality is never as good as your imagination.” The point is that oftentimes, what we can conjure up in our minds is better than what we actually face in the real world.

七転び八起き (Nana korobi ya oki)
Fall seven times, get up eight.

This Japanese proverb has been so commonly used and translated that it has essentially become a part of the English lexicon, the equivalent of “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” The saying leans into the importance of perseverance, of bouncing back after setbacks, no matter how many arise on the path toward success.

花より団子 (Hana yori dango)
Dumplings over flowers.

This seemingly culturally specific saying is actually quite universal, extolling the virtues of a practical gift or object over one of beauty. The saying is so popular, in fact, that it is also the name of a Japanese drama based on a manga comic; fittingly, the story line follows a protagonist who doesn’t care for wealth or style, embracing the pragmatic parts of life instead.

Photo credit: Anastasiia_Guseva/ iStock

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About the Author
Joyce Chen
Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and community builder based in Seattle, Washington.
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