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30 Awesome Japanese Idioms We Should Start Using in English

Japan Languages
by Alex Scola Alex Bresler Oct 1, 2019

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 Japanese 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 quotes and phrases to write in your travel journal and start using straight away.

1. 自業自得

Translation: “One’s act, one’s profit”

Meaning: Similar to “you reap what you sow.” Everyone eventually faces the consequences of their actions.

2. 十人十色

Translation: “Ten men, ten colors”

Meaning: Similar to “different strokes for different folks.” People have different tastes and preferences — and that’s okay.

3. 起死回生

Translation: “Wake from death and return to life”

Meaning: To take a bad or desperate situation and turn it into a successful one.

4. 我田引水

Translation: “Pulling water to my own rice paddy”

Meaning: To do or say things for your own benefit.

5. 悪因悪果

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.

6. 見ぬが花

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.”

7. 弱肉強食

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.

8. 海千山千

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.

9. 酔生夢死

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.

10. 一期一会

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.

11. 異体同心

Translation: “Different body, same mind”

Meaning: Refers to kindred spirits or like-minded people, somewhat similar to calling someone a “brother from another mother.”

12. 羊頭狗肉

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.

13. 会者定離

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.

14. 美人薄命

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.”

15. 自業自得

Translation: “Work of self, obtainment of self”

Meaning: Similar to “you get what you give,” only the Japanese version sounds way more fulfilling and relevant for self-improvement.

Other idiomatic phrases that relate to English idioms or proverbs

16. 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず。

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.”

17. 猿も木から落ちる。

Translation: “Even monkeys fall from trees.”

Meaning: A considerably more hilarious way to say, “Everybody makes mistakes.”

18. 蓼食う虫も好き好き

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.

19. 蛙の子は蛙。

Translation: “Child of a frog is a frog.”

Meaning: “Like father, like son.” It is similar to the Malagasy African proverb, “The child of a rat is a rat.”

20. 覆水盆に帰らず。

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.

21. 知らぬが仏

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.

22. 猫に小判

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

23. 井の中の蛙大海を知らず。

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.

24. 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず。

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.”

25. 門前の小僧習わぬ経を読む。

Translation: “An apprentice near a temple will recite the scriptures untaught.”

Meaning: Like saying, “People are a product of their environment.”

26. 七転び八起き

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.

27. 案ずるより産むが易し。

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.

28. 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない。

Translation: “Unless an idiot dies, he won’t be cured.”

Meaning: This Japanese phrase is a harsh way of saying, “Only death will cure a fool.” Or maybe, “You can’t fix stupid.”

29. 秋茄子は嫁に食わすな。

Translation: “Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants.”

Meaning: Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.

30. 花より団子

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.

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