Tokyo Damage Report

MOST DEPRESSING KOTOWAZA

 While reading all those "explaining the dark side of Japan" books I posted about a while back, I noticed that most of the authors used really fucked-up, depressing kotowaza (old sayings) to show the traditional roots of self-defeating Japanese behaviors. These kotowaza are important because they are the only things that directly express  deep cultural assumptions that are usually hidden. Also they're hilarious.

 

Of course, all cultures have sexist/racist/just plain rude old sayings. Children should be seen and not heard!  And not all "old sayings" are actually indicative of how most people in the culture feel ("If she's old enough to bleed, she's old enough to breed.").  So, keeping that in mind. . . .

 


GENDER


女は向こう見ずの癇癪持ち。

mukoumizu no kanshakumochi

truly women are reckless and hot-tempered



妻は下より選ぶべし、友は上より選ぶべし
tsuma wa shita yori erabubeshi, tomo wa ue yori erabu beshi

Choose a wife from a lower station in life, and friends from a higher station in life.


可愛い子は棒で育てよ
kawaii ko wa bou de sodateyo

spare the rod and spoil the child (lit.: raise your beloved child with a stick)


 女三人寄れば姦しい 

Onna sannin yoreba kashimashii

wherever three women gather it is noisy (this is a pun based on the kanji for noisy, which consists of , literally, three women)

 


遊女の誠と卵の四角はない
yuujo no makoto to tamago no shikaku wa nai

a sincere whore no more exists than does a square egg



女の知恵は猿知恵
[おんなのちえはさるじえ, onna no chie wa sarujie] a woman’s wisdom is monkey wisdom


女房と靴は古いがいい
nyoubo to kutsu wa furui ga ii

wives and shoes are better when old (i.e.once they have been "broken in")

compare to . . .

 

女房と畳は新しいがいい
nyoubo to tatami wa atarashii ga ii

wives and tatami mats are better when new (i.e.: they are more attractive)


SHUT UP


泣かぬ猫はねずみを取る
nakanu neko wa nezumi o toru

the cat that does not cry catches mice



雉も鳴かずば撃たれまい

Kiji mo nakazuba utaremai

the pheasant that keeps its mouth shut is least likely to get shot


言わぬが花 

Iwanu ga hana

lit: Not-speaking is the flower. (i.e. some things are better left unsaid;
Silence is golden)


  薮をつついて蛇を出す 

Yabu wo tsutsuite hebi wo dasu

 Poke around in a bush and a snake will come out.


災いは口より来る
wazawai wa kuchi yori kitaru

misfortune comes from the mouth (i.e.: the words we speak, which cannot be taken back once spoken, cause great harm)


笑って損したものなし
  waratte sonshita mono nashi

there is no loss to be had by laughing  (i.e. better to laugh since complaining might cause offense)


耳遠ければ命長し
  mimi tookereba inochi nagashi

a deaf person lives long (since they don't hear what they're not supposed to)


鳥を泣かずば撃たれまじ
tori o nakazuba uraremaji

there is safety in silence


顔が心の鏡
kao ga kokoro no kagami

the face is the mirror of the heart (so the average Japanese person keeps a calm face) (interesting and depressing because other cultures, like  (at the risk of offending folks) Mediterranean cultures believe the same exact thing, but draw the exact opposite conclusion: the face is the mirror of the heart SO one should accentuate one's speech with  dramatic facial expressions) The Japanese interpretation of this idiom is not just colder but much more paranoid: the heart is something you DON'T want people to see.


喧嘩両成敗
  kenka ryouseibai

when two quarrel, both are in the wrong


相手のない喧嘩はできぬ
aite no nai kenka wa dekinu

you cannot have a fight alone

 

These last two are both tied to the concept of "wa". Usually "WA" is  translated as "harmony" but as you can see – wa really means "blame the girl who got punched for shattering the harmony".  Wa makes no distinctions between perpetrator and victim.




GENERAL HATRED / BAD REPUTATION



かえるの子はかえる。

Kaeru no ko wa kaeru

A frog's son is still a frog


基樹に勝る裏木なし
motoki ni masaru uraki nashi

no branch surpasses the trunk; no fountain can rise higher than its source

 

貧乏人の子沢山

Binbou nin no ko takusan
The poor have a lot of children


末代の恥

Matsudai no haji!

Samurai insult: “the shame till the last generation of the IE”


身は一代名は末代
mi wa ichidai, na wa matsudai

life is for one generation, a good name is forever


憎まれっ子世に憚る
nikumarekko yo ni habakaru

the world shuns a hated child (n.b.: but such children often grow up into people with strong personalities, for better or worse)


憎まれっ子世にはばかる
nikumarekko yo ni habikoru

a hated child will run wild through the world (n.b.: he may therefore be successful and live a long life, though often becoming arrogant in the process)


年寄りに冷や水

toshiyori ni hiyamizu:

“like cold water drunk by an elderly person”.

Japanese believe that drinking cold water makes olds cramp up and get sick.

This expression means, “Old folks should not try to have an active life or go out and have fun since they will only get hurt and it’s their own fault.”


DON’T BE DIFFERENT


臭い物に蓋

Kusai mono ni futa
To put a lid on something that stinks (mentally or physically handicapped family member, for instance. Or one's own sexual abuse, domestic violence situation. Remember what I said about wa?)


能ある鷹爪を隠す
nou aru taka tsume o kakusu

the capable hawk hides his claws; a talented person is modest


出る杭が打たれる
deru kui ga utareru

don’t make waves; don’t rock the boat, (lit.: the protruding peg gets pounded down) Used to indicate that being distinct, different, or obvious is not a good thing.

Most gaijin think that this means specifically THEM: people who are different looking or have an obviously different lifestyle. But actually, it's even more fucked: "Deru kui" traditionally refers to regular-looking people, ethnic Japanese people, who are doing socially acceptable jobs . . . . but they do the jobs BETTER or FASTER than their co-workers, which makes the co-workers jealous. That's it.


柳に風

Yanagi ni kaze.

A will before the wind. (i.e. Follow the path of least resistance.)



郷に入っては、郷に従え 

Sato ni haitte ha sato ni shitagae

Literal: Entering the village, obey the village.


鵜の真似をするカラス水におぼれる

U wo mane suru karasu mizu ni oboreru.

“The crow that mimics a cormorant is drowned.”


一条の矢は折るべく、十条は折るべからず
ichijou no ya wa orubeku, juujou wa orubekarazu

in union there is strength (lit.: one arrow may break, but ten will not)


数多ければ、安全なり
kazu ookereba, anzen nari

there is safety in numbers


赤信号、皆で渡れば怖くない。

akashingo, minna de watareba kowakunai

“red light: if we all cross together we have nothing to fear.” Apparently this one is used by drunk beuracrats behaving badly.

 

風に向かってつばする
kaze ni mukatte tsuba suru

He  who spits against the winds spits in his own face





DON’T TAKE RISKS


転ばぬ先の杖
korobanu saki no tsue

taking all necessary precautions (lit.: a walking stick before you fall)


人見知りをする

Hitomishiri wo suru
lit: Look at people and know.

Wait and see what everyone else thinks.


危ない事は怪我のうち
abunai koto wa kega no uchi

 lit.:  dangerous things invite wounds


誉められるより謗られるな
homerareru yori soshirareru

rather than being praised, avoid being slandered

According to the book INSIDE THE KAISHA, this belief motivates most of Japanese decision making. For instance, if you are working at  any organization (from a rock band to a major corporation), and you notice a faster, better way to do things, you think to yourself "If i try it the new way and fuck up, I will never in a million years be forgiven for deviating from the path. But even if my new way is a huge success, I will not really get a lot of credit or praise for it." That's why Japanese society is so slow to correct its faults: there is no incentive to innovate.


見ぬが花
minu ga hana

not to see is a flower (i.e. ignorance is bliss)


身のほどを知れ
mi no hodo o shire

literally; know the boundaries of your own body (i.e. know your limits)


石橋をたたいて渡る
ishibashi o tataite wataru

cross a stone bridge by tapping on it  (i.e. be very cautious, to; be doubly cautious)



念には念を入れ
nen niwa nen o ire

one cannot be too careful 




BE A GOOD SLAVE


良馬は鞭影を見て行く
ryouba wa benei o mite yuku

良馬一鞭
ryouba hito-muchi

 

a good horse runs by watching the shadow of the whip (i.e.: the horse needs only the slightest instruction as to what to do)

(a smart person will know what to do even with very little instruction)


一を聞いて十を知る
ichi o kiite, juu o shiru

a word to the wise is sufficient (lit.: hearing one and knowing ten)

Again according to INSIDE THE KAISHA, this (and not sheer stubbornness) is why most salarimen work such long hours: if the boss hints that maybe he wants to know about minerals for tomorrow's meeting, it's the responsibility of his staff to prepare 100 reports on every concievable type of mineral, regardless of if that's what the boss actually wanted. Because to just ASK him would be unbearably rude.


 

 

細く長く
hosoku nagaku

slender and long (describes a long and frugal life)


身を殺して仁をなす
mi o koroshite jin o nasu

lit :  a candle lights others and consumes itself (i.e. sacrifice one’s life to do good)




遠慮ひだるいし、伊達寒し
enryou hidaruishi, date samushi

 lit.: being reserved makes one hungry, and being a showoff makes one cold


長生きすれば恥多し
  nagaiki sureba haji ooshi

 if you live a long life, you will have much to be ashamed of



家来とならねば、家来を使えぬ
kerai o naraneba, kerai o tsukaenu

lit.: you cannot use a retainer unless you have been a retainer (i.e. by obeying we learn to command)


遊び人暇なし
asobi-nin ni hima nashi

pleasure seekers have no leisure (their time is consumed by all their activities)

 

  石の上にも三年 

Ishi no ue nimo sannen

Lit: Sitting on a stone for three years. (i.e. endure a shitty job  or terrible athletics club or general peer hazing for three years, THEN decide if you like it or not)


ならぬ堪忍するが堪忍
naranu kannin suru ga kannin

to endure what is cannot be endured is true endurance (i.e.: bearing what is unbearable is true forbearance)

 

先憂後楽

Sen’yu koraku

first distress, later pleasure



PARANOIA

 

“Silent worms dig holes in the walls.”

Anyone know the Japanese for this one?


壁に耳あり、障子に目あ り
kabe ni mimi ari, shouji ni me ari

 the walls have ears and the paper screens [shouji] have eyes.


死人に口なし
shinin ni kuchi nashi

 a dead person has no mouth



昼には目あり、夜には耳あり
hiru niwa me ari, yori niwa mimi ari

the day has eyes, the night has ears



CYNICISM

曲がらねば世が渡れぬ
magaraneba yo ga watarenu

unless you are crooked, you cannot get along in the world


負ければ賊
makereba zoku

lit.: if defeated, you are a traitor (i/e/ history goes to the victors)


李下の冠を正さず
rika no kanmuri o tadasazu

lit.: do not adjust your tiara while under a peach tree (i.e.: do nothing suspicious when you might be seen by others)


優勝劣敗
yuushou reppai

lit.: the superior wins, the inferior fails (i.e. survival of the fittest)




OTHER


知らぬが仏

Shiranu ga hotoke.

Lit: Not knowing is Buddha. (i.e. Ignorance is bliss. / What you don’t know can't hurt you)


総論賛成各論反対

Soron sansei, kakuron hantai

in general, yes. In this case, no. (the core of the so-called "situational morality" of the Japanese)


負けるが勝ち

Makeru Ga Kachi

Sometimes the best gain is to lose


福は内、鬼は外
fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto

in with fortune, out with demons (said on the festival Setsubun)

It's just a kid's game, but that didn't stop me from getting into a huge fight with my girlfriend over the issue of :"Is childhood really the best time to teach people to hate outsiders?"

She was like, "No, the outsiders are demons, so that's ok. And we try to bring good luck inside!" I was like, "Yeah, exactly! Can you really not see why that might push a button on outsiders like me?"


命の洗濯
inochi no sentaku

lit.: laundering of life (a very feudal way of referring to recreation, fun. . .you know. . .WHAT LIFE IS SUPPOSED TO BE) Just give the peasants enough recreation so they don't rebel, and then return them to the fields. . .


酔いては本性を現す
yoitewa honshou o arawasu

when drunk people reveal their true selves

 

旅の恥はかき捨て。

Tabi no haji wa kakisute

on a journey, cast off shame (I assume this is the one said by businessmen going on sex tours in Thailand?)

 

心頭滅却すれば火もまた涼し。

Shinto mekkyaku sureba hi mo mata suzushi

clear your mind of mundane thoughts and you will find even fire cool.

 

 

天上天下唯我独尊

Tenjo tenga yuiga dokuson

in heaven and in earth, only I am lord.

What does that even mean??

 

  昔の常識は今の道徳

Mukashi no joushiki wa ima no doutoku

yesterday's common sense is today's moral. Meaning that some people follow some rules with great self-righteousness, without even understanding the real reason for the rule anymore.

My pal's grand-dad explained this one to me, but I can't find it anywhere on google.


枯れ木も山の賑わい

Kareki mo yama no nigiwai.

Better a dead tree on a mountaintop than no tree at all. Imagine all the faces of the kids that heard THAT one.




JUST PLAIN GROSS


れんぎで腹切る
rengi de hara kiru

lit.: commit harakiri with a pestle (i.e. do something in an ineffective way)


息みは死に身
  ikimi wa shi ni mi

to live is to die (lit.: a living body is a dying body)



for a huge dictionary of kotowaza (not all depressing) go here (all in japanese, I'm afraid. . . .)

http://www4.airnet.ne.jp/swata/swkoto_a.html


3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. François September 22nd, 2011 1:59 pm

    郷に入っては郷に従え is quite easy to translate into "In Roma, do as the Romans do.
    長生きすれば恥多し is fucking depressing.
    I don't agree with your explanation for 遊び人暇なし In Japanese, 暇 is a negative word, meaning "time wasted doing nothing, being bored". Well at least, that's how it's being used nowadays. Which is depressing, somehow. Another similar saying is 貧乏人に暇無し
    天上天下唯我独尊  てんじょうてんげゆいがどくそん are supposedly the first word uttered by 神武天皇, the mythological 1st emperor of Japan (son of 天照, or something like that). Nice way to show his modesty.

  2. Serge September 24th, 2011 10:59 am

    天上天下唯我独尊 – Gautama Buddha said that.

  3. François October 13th, 2011 1:47 pm

    Oops, my bad ! Thanks Serge for correcting.
    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%94%AF%E6%88%91%E7%8B%AC%E5%B0%8A

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