Idioms are common to most, if not all, languages. Often, they share meanings with idioms in other languages, yet every place has its own funny phrases to express universal sentiments and experiences. Japan is no exception. Countless idioms have become staples of everyday conversation, and though they may sound strange to American ears at first, many of them sound just as cool translated into English. Here are 30 Japanese idioms we should all start using.
Translation: “One’s act, one’s profit”
Meaning: Similar to “you reap what you sow.” Everyone eventually faces the consequences of their actions.
Translation: “Ten men, ten colors”
Meaning: Similar to “different strokes for different folks.” People have different tastes and preferences — and that’s okay.
Translation: “Wake from death and return to life”
Meaning: To take a bad or desperate situation and turn it into a successful one.
Translation: “Pulling water to my own rice paddy”
Meaning: To do or say things for your own benefit.
Translation: “Evil cause, evil effect”
Meaning: Another iteration of “you reap what you sow.” This one is a tad more specific and almost suggests a karmic outcome.
Translation: “Not seeing is a flower.”
Meaning: In Japan, flowers can be used to represent imagination, beauty, and sometimes politeness. In this case, the idiom means, “Reality cannot compete with imagination.”
Translation: “The weak are meat; the strong eat.”
Meaning: This one’s pretty straightforward, meaning something like “survival of the fittest.” Bonus points because it rhymes.
Translation: “Ocean thousand, mountain thousand”
Meaning: A reference to the sly old fox, someone who’s seen everything and can therefore handle any situation, usually through cunning.
Translation: “Drunken life, dreamy death”
Meaning: To dream your life away or have your head in the clouds. To spend all your time daydreaming without accomplishing anything.
Translation: “One life, one encounter”
Meaning: Every encounter is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Sometimes used as a reminder to cherish every moment because you’ll only experience it once.
Translation: “Different body, same mind”
Meaning: Refers to kindred spirits or like-minded people, somewhat similar to calling someone a “brother from another mother.”
Translation: “Sheep head, dog meat”
Meaning: False advertising, similar to the phrase “crying wine and selling vinegar,” only the Japanese idiom paints a more graphic picture.
Translation: “Meeting person always separated”
Meaning: Perhaps the most Confucius-esque idiom of the bunch, this one simply means that every meeting must end in a parting.
Translation: “Beautiful person, thin life”
Meaning: More superstition than anything else, this one really means that a “beautiful woman is destined to die young” but is more analogous to “beauty fades.”
Translation: “Work of self, obtainment of self”
Meaning: Similar to “you get what you give,” only the Japanese version sounds way more fulfilling.
Other idiomatic phrases that relate to English idioms or proverbs
Translation: “If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.”
Meaning: You can’t achieve anything without taking risks, or “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Translation: “Even monkeys fall from trees.”
Meaning: A considerably more hilarious way to say, “Everybody makes mistakes.”
Translation: “There are even bugs that eat knotweed.”
Meaning: A roundabout way of saying, “There’s no accounting for taste” or “to each his own.” Japanese knotweed is one of the world’s worst invasive species.
Translation: “Child of a frog is a frog.”
Meaning: “Like father, like son.”
Translation: “Spilt water will not return to the tray.”
Meaning: A way of saying, “No use crying over spilled milk,” only water fittingly seems like way less of a significant loss than milk.
Translation: “Not knowing is Buddha.”
Meaning: A more mystical way of saying “Ignorance is bliss.” Bust this one out on the beach or at a party, trust me.
Translation: “Gold coins to a cat.”
Meaning: Same as “pearls before swine,” meaning to give a gift to someone who can’t appreciate it.
Other idiomatic phrases that don’t relate to anything in English
Translation: “A frog in a well does not know the great sea.”
Meaning: People make judgments based on their own limited experiences with no knowledge of the world outside of those experiences.
Translation: “One who chases after two hares won’t catch even one.”
Meaning: If you try to do two things at once, you will fail at both. Or, in the words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
Translation: “An apprentice near a temple will recite the scriptures untaught.”
Meaning: Like saying, “People are a product of their environment.”
Translation: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
Meaning: This one rolls “if at first you don’t succeed” and “perseverance is better than defeat” into one idiom.
Translation: “Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.”
Meaning: Stressing out about something is usually worse than the thing you’re stressing out about. And it certainly doesn’t help.
Translation: “Unless an idiot dies, he won’t be cured.”
Meaning: A harsh way of saying, “Only death will cure a fool.” Or maybe, “You can’t fix stupid.”
Translation: “Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants.”
Meaning: Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.
Translation: “Dumplings rather than flowers.”
Meaning: This one is used to refer to someone who prefers substance over style, a practical person. There’s that use of “flower” again.
A version of this article was previously published on May 18, 2014 by Alex Scola, and was updated on October 1, 2019 by Alex Bresler.