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. . . .
mukoumizu no kanshakumochi
truly women are reckless and hot-tempered
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.
kawaii ko wa bou de sodateyo
spare the rod and spoil the child (lit.: raise your beloved child with a stick)
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)
yuujo no makoto to tamago no shikaku wa nai
a sincere whore no more exists than does a square egg
[おんなのちえはさるじえ, onna no chie wa sarujie] a woman’s wisdom is monkey wisdom
nyoubo to kutsu wa furui ga ii
wives and shoes are better when old (i.e.once they have been "broken in")
compare to . . .
nyoubo to tatami wa atarashii ga ii
wives and tatami mats are better when new (i.e.: they are more attractive)
nakanu neko wa nezumi o toru
the cat that does not cry catches mice
Kiji mo nakazuba utaremai
the pheasant that keeps its mouth shut is least likely to get shot
Iwanu ga hana
lit: Not-speaking is the flower. (i.e. some things are better left unsaid;
Silence is golden)
Yabu wo tsutsuite hebi wo dasu
Poke around in a bush and a snake will come out.
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)
waratte sonshita mono nashi
there is no loss to be had by laughing (i.e. better to laugh since complaining might cause offense)
mimi tookereba inochi nagashi
a deaf person lives long (since they don't hear what they're not supposed to)
tori o nakazuba uraremaji
there is safety in silence
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.
when two quarrel, both are in the wrong
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
Kaeru no ko wa kaeru
A frog's son is still a frog
motoki ni masaru uraki nashi
no branch surpasses the trunk; no fountain can rise higher than its source
Binbou nin no ko takusan
The poor have a lot of children
Matsudai no haji!
Samurai insult: “the shame till the last generation of the IE”
mi wa ichidai, na wa matsudai
life is for one generation, a good name is forever
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)
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)
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
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?)
nou aru taka tsume o kakusu
the capable hawk hides his claws; a talented person is modest
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.
Yanagi ni kaze.
A will before the wind. (i.e. Follow the path of least resistance.)
Sato ni haitte ha sato ni shitagae
Literal: Entering the village, obey the village.
U wo mane suru karasu mizu ni oboreru.
“The crow that mimics a cormorant is drowned.”
ichijou no ya wa orubeku, juujou wa orubekarazu
in union there is strength (lit.: one arrow may break, but ten will not)
kazu ookereba, anzen nari
there is safety in numbers
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.
kaze ni mukatte tsuba suru
He who spits against the winds spits in his own face
DON’T TAKE RISKS
korobanu saki no tsue
taking all necessary precautions (lit.: a walking stick before you fall)
Hitomishiri wo suru
lit: Look at people and know.
Wait and see what everyone else thinks.
abunai koto wa kega no uchi
lit.: dangerous things invite wounds
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.
minu ga hana
not to see is a flower (i.e. ignorance is bliss)
mi no hodo o shire
literally; know the boundaries of your own body (i.e. know your limits)
ishibashi o tataite wataru
cross a stone bridge by tapping on it (i.e. be very cautious, to; be doubly cautious)
nen niwa nen o ire
one cannot be too careful
BE A GOOD SLAVE
ryouba wa benei o mite yuku
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)
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.
slender and long (describes a long and frugal life)
mi o koroshite jin o nasu
lit : a candle lights others and consumes itself (i.e. sacrifice one’s life to do good)
enryou hidaruishi, date samushi
lit.: being reserved makes one hungry, and being a showoff makes one cold
nagaiki sureba haji ooshi
if you live a long life, you will have much to be ashamed of
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)
asobi-nin ni hima nashi
pleasure seekers have no leisure (their time is consumed by all their activities)
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)
naranu kannin suru ga kannin
to endure what is cannot be endured is true endurance (i.e.: bearing what is unbearable is true forbearance)
first distress, later pleasure
“Silent worms dig holes in the walls.”
Anyone know the Japanese for this one?
kabe ni mimi ari, shouji ni me ari
the walls have ears and the paper screens [shouji] have eyes.
shinin ni kuchi nashi
a dead person has no mouth
hiru niwa me ari, yori niwa mimi ari
the day has eyes, the night has ears
magaraneba yo ga watarenu
unless you are crooked, you cannot get along in the world
lit.: if defeated, you are a traitor (i/e/ history goes to the victors)
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)
lit.: the superior wins, the inferior fails (i.e. survival of the fittest)
Shiranu ga hotoke.
Lit: Not knowing is Buddha. (i.e. Ignorance is bliss. / What you don’t know can't hurt you)
Soron sansei, kakuron hantai
in general, yes. In this case, no. (the core of the so-called "situational morality" of the Japanese)
Makeru Ga Kachi
Sometimes the best gain is to lose
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?"
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. . .
yoitewa honshou o arawasu
when drunk people reveal their true selves
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?)
Shinto mekkyaku sureba hi mo mata suzushi
clear your mind of mundane thoughts and you will find even fire cool.
Tenjo tenga yuiga dokuson
in heaven and in earth, only I am lord.
What does that even mean??
Mukashi no joushiki wa ima no doutoku
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
rengi de hara kiru
lit.: commit harakiri with a pestle (i.e. do something in an ineffective way)
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. . . .)