Growing up half-Japanese, my ethnic identity was always being contested. I wanted desperately to be able to integrate fully into the Japanese portion of my family, not least because my mother would always chat with my grandmother in the native language, which drove my brother and me nuts (we always knew they were talking trash about us right in front of us). I picked up a few phrases here and there (mostly during my Anime phase), but never quite got around to learning the language like I’d hoped.
Among the many idioms and proverbs the Japanese have in their extensive language, my favorite brand is the Yojijukugo (the “four character idiomatic phrase”), which is composed of 4 kanji characters whose overall meaning cannot be inferred from the individual characters’ meanings. As an added bonus, dropping any one of these casually into conversation will make you sound like a sage mystic, wise and mysterious.
Here are 30 Japanese idioms we should really start using in English (starting with the Yojijukugo):
“One’s act, one’s profit.”
Equivalent to “you reap what you sow,” this one rings way more timelessly as few are sowing these days.
“Ten men, ten colors.”
Aka, “different strokes for different folks” — I prefer the image of colors to the image of folks getting stroked.
“Wake from death and return to life.”
Meaning “to turn a bad or desperate situation into a success,” this truly underscores just how dire some bad situations feel sometimes.
“Pulling water to my own rice paddy.”
“Doing or saying things for one’s own benefit.” While totally regionally charged, I feel like dropping this one would give you an air of well-traveled-ness.
“Evil cause, evil effect.”
Another “you reap what you sow,” this one is a tad more specific, and almost suggests a karmic outcome.
“Not seeing is a flower.”
I love the fact that the Japanese use “flower” to describe imagination, beauty, and sometimes pointlessness. In this case, “reality cannot compete with imagination.”
“The weak are meat; the strong eat.”
“Survival of the fittest” — I like eating meat so this was always going to appeal to me, and it rhymes.
“Ocean thousand mountain thousand.”
A reference to a “sly old fox,” someone who has been through everything and seen everything and can therefore handle any situation, usually through cunning. A thousand oceans, a thousand mountains, an ultimate badass.
“Drunken life, dreamy death.”
Meaning to dream one’s life away, or spending all one’s time dreaming without accomplishing anything significant…at least this one seems to make light of the situation.
“One life, one encounter.”
Every encounter is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter — this really underscores how many first-and-only-time things happen in the day-to-day.
“Different body, same mind.”
Harmony of mind between two people — this one is a bit more literal, and a hair creepy, but I love it all the same. Sort of like “brother from another mother.”
“Sheep head, dog meat.”
Meaning false advertising, or “crying wine and selling vinegar,” the image this one paints is more graphic, and therefore more powerful.
“Meeting person always separated.”
Possibly the most “Confucius”-esque of the bunch, this one simply means “every meeting must end in parting.”
“Beautiful person, thin life.”
More superstition than anything else, this one really means “a beautiful woman is destined to die young,” but is probably analogous to “beauty fades.”
“Work of self, obtainment of self.”
“You get what you give,” but this one sounds way more fulfilling. Perhaps it’s the use of the word “self”; “you get what you give” feels like an exchange, where as “work of self, obtainment of self” feels more like your work is its own soul-reward.
Other idiomatic phrases that relate to English idioms or proverbs:
“If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.”
Nothing ventured, nothing gained…but from now on everything I’m venturing to gain shall be considered a tiger’s cub.
“Even monkeys fall from trees.”
A considerably more hilarious way to say “everybody makes mistakes.”
“There are even bugs that eat knotweed.”
A roundabout way to say “there’s no accounting for taste / to each his own,” plus you get to say “knotweed” (of course, referring to Japanese knotweed, one of the world’s worst invasive species).
“Child of a frog is a frog.”
“Like father, like son,” but not so human-centric.
“Spilt water will not return to the tray.”
I like this way of saying “no use crying over spilled milk,” mainly because water seems way less significant a loss than milk.
“Not knowing is Buddha.”
A way more mystical way to say “ignorance is bliss.” Bust this one out on the beach or at a party, trust me.
“Gold coins to a cat.”
Okay, both forms of this sort of baffle me. Meaning “pearls before swine” (giving a gift to someone who can’t appreciate it), it’s a bit of a tossup as to which is the better image. Better use them interchangeably.
Other idiomatic phrases that don’t relate to anything in English:
“A frog in a well does not know the great sea.”
Way easier to say than: “People make judgments based on their own limited experiences, with no knowledge of the world outside of those experiences.”
“One who chases after two hares won’t catch even one.”
Of course this one means “if you try to do two things at once, you will fail at both.” Like two birds with one stone, (which I may use a little liberally and sometimes inappropriately), I like sayings that include two animals…I’m not entirely sure why.
“An apprentice near a temple will recite the scriptures untaught.”
Way better than “people are products of their environment” — I like the idea that the right environment can transmit knowledge and skills. Yes, it obviously doesn’t work like that, but I can say conclusively I was at my most creative and productive when surrounded by like-minded people.
“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
This one has “perseverance is better than defeat” and the age-old “if at first you don’t succeed” rolled into one, but has a way cooler vibe to it. Something about only having to get up one time more than you fall down really speaks to me.
“Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.”
Basically “fear is greater than the danger [of the thing being feared].” Personally, while I can’t relate to giving birth, to me there’s something poetic about comparing dread to childbirth, with childbirth itself being less hassle than dread.
“Unless an idiot dies, he won’t be cured.”
A harsh way to say “only death will cure a fool,” it sort of speaks to the incurable nature of ignorance.
“Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants.”
Meaning “don’t let yourself be taken advantage of,” this one is just too ridiculous not to immediately integrate into our daily speech.
“Dumplings rather than flowers.”
This one is used to refer to someone who prefers substance over style, a practical person. There’s that use of “flower” again, and as a foodie c’mon, how was I not supposed to favor this saying.