Here is some of popular proverbs people in Japan still use in daily conversations. If you know these proverbs, not only you can enjoy conversation but also you will be getting respect immediately. So, let’s learn Japanese Proverbs.
Hotoke tsukutte tamashii irezu (irenu).
An image of Buddha is made, but there is no soul in it.
This is said of failure to put the finishing touch. The phrase, “manako o irenu” (no eyes are given to it) is sometimes substituted for “tamashii irezu (no soul put in it). There is an expression, of Chinese origin, “garyo- tensei” (completing the eyes of a painted dragon). A painted dragon minus the eyes suggests a lack of one thing needful. Another proverb of Chinese origin runs: One fails to get the credit of having completed an artificial hill of nine jin (one fin — about eight feet) for lack of one basketful of earth (Kyujin no ko o ikki ni kaku).
Hyakubun wa ikken ni shikazu.
Hearing a hundred times is not so good as seeing once. “Seeing is believing.”
There are more than eighty sayings in Japanese that begin with the word, hyaku, hundred, many of which are of Chinese origin. One other example may suffice. “Hyakunen kasei o matsu gotoshi” (It is like waiting for one hundred years for the waters of the Yellow River to become clear). The Yellow River is perpetually turbid: you might as well wait for the Greek calends to come as expect the Yellow River to become clear. “It is as likely as to see a pig fly.”
Hyotan kara koma ga deru.
Out of a gourd comes a pony.
The hard-shelled fruit of a plant called bottle gourd are dried, varnished, and used as bottles for sake, rice wine. Such bottles, as well as the fruit themselves, are called hyotan in Japanese. This proverb is often quoted when a most unexpected thing happens, or when a truth comes out of what has been said in jest. “There’s many a true word said in jest.” Another “hyotan” proverb is: Hyotan namazu (It’s like trying to catch a namazu, or catfish, with a gourd). This is an expression meaning (1) “as slippery as an eel” and (2) vague, non-committal.
I no naka no kawazu taikai o shirazu.
The frog in the well knows no ocean.
“The Japanese peasant has a narrow horizon. ‘The frog in the well’ says his proverb, ‘knows nothing of the great ocean.’ ” (This passage is quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs from Arthur Lloyd’s Everyday Japan.)
Ichi o kiite ju o shiru.
To learn one and infer ten.
A universal truism applicable to an intelligent person capable of inferring the whole from a part.
“A word is enough to the wise.”
Another proverbial expression beginning with ichi (one) is the equivalent of the English expression, “sink or swim,” or “win or lose;” namely, Ichi ka bachi ka, an expression presumably derived from gambling. (A synonymous expression: Noru ka soru ka, is used to the same effect.) Note that the Japanese phrases are expressed in rhyme, and the English phrase, “sink or swim,” in alliteration. Still another ichi proverb is: Ichiji ga banji (One thing is everything). The meaning is that this case will serve as a yardstick for all the rest.
First a girl, then a boy.
The word, hime, means a princess, a young lady of birth, and by extension, a daughter. Taro is a very common name given to a first-born son. Here in Japan “first a girl, then a boy” is considered the ideal order of children’s births in a family.
Ichi-mon oshimi no hyaku shirazu.
He who is stingy with one mon does not know the loss of 100 mon.
A miser who is sparing in spending a dime will lose a great deal in the long run. Stint a brass piece, and you
will lose a hundred. “Penny wise and pound foolish.”
Ichi-nen no kei wa gantan ni ari.
A year’s plan is to be made on New Year’s Day.
The Japanese people make much of the new year and celebrate it more elaborately than Western people. The Japanese people consider it to be a favorable omen to make their plan for the year on New Year’s Day.
Iki-uma no me o nuku.
To pluck out the eyes of a live horse.
Said of a very shrewd person. A bumpkin intending to visit a busy city like Tokyo for the first time is advised to be on the look-out for the many sharks, for shrewd fellows sharp enough to “catch weasels asleep.”
Inochi atte no mono-dane.
Life is the source of things.
A: “It’s all very fine to talk about staking your life on
such an issue, but you must remember the Japanese proverb referring to the value we must set on life, Inochi atte no mono-dane.”
B: “You mean the proverb corresponding to the Eng
lish, ‘While there is life, there is hope/ don’t you?”
Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru.
Even a dog will come across a stick when he walks about.
This popular iroha-card proverb is usually interpreted in two ways: (1) Misfortune will befall a mortal sooner or later; and (2) Fortune may visit one unexpectedly during life’s journey. Benham’s Book of Quotations has “Even the street-dog has his lucky days” as a Japanese proverb.
“Every dog has his day.” “A sleeping fox catches no poultry.”
Referring to the respective characteristics of dogs and cats is this saying, Inu wa hito ni tsuki, neko wa ie ni tsuku (The dog goes with the family; the cat remains at the house), said of the instinctive attitudes of these two domestic animals, at the time of the removal of their owner’s family to other quarters.
Ishi no ue nimo sannen.
Three years’ sitting even on a stone.
This is one of the proverbs inculcating a cheerful endurance of the ills of life. Even a cold stone will get warm from being sat upon for a long time. Perseverance prevails, and patience may wear out a stone.
“If money comes in slowly at first, do not be discouraged; it is a long lane which has no turning.” —Lord Avebury.
Ishi-bashi o tataite wataru.
To cross a stone bridge by sounding it.
Anybody who is cautious even to timidity is often described as the sort of person who makes it a rule to cross even a stone bridge only after sounding it. One cannot be too careful.
Ishoku tarite reisetsu o shiru.
When one has enough food and clothing, one comes to know what decorum is.
According to this saying of Chinese origin, it is when they are in affluent circumstances that people develop a sense of propriety. “Well fed, well bred.” “It is hard for an empty sack to stand straight.”
I so gab a maw are.
If you are in a hurry, make a detour.
This good motto has quite a number of corresponding expressions in English. “Make haste slowly.” Don’t go too fast, for “haste is waste.” “A short cut is often a wrong cut.” “The longest way round is the shortest way there.”
Issun no mushi nimo gobu no tamashii.
Even an inch-long worm has a half-inch soul.
The humblest will resent extreme ill-treatment. “Even a worm will turn/’ “A Hy hath a spleen.”
Issun saki wa yami.
An inch ahead is all darkness.
Who can foretell the future with accuracy? The future is a sealed book. Such is life. “Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what the day may bring forth.”
Itsubo no arasoi wa gyofu no ri.
A fight between a snipe and a mussel benefits a fisherman.
A clam and a snipe locked in a life-or-death battle. They are doomed to fall into the hands of a third party, a fisherman.
This is in reference to a fable found in a Chinese classic. While a bird and a shellfish are locked in a life-or-death struggle, a fisherman comes along and catches them both. It is a case of “two dogs striving for a bone and a third running away with it.” Hence, the still more commonly used expression: “Gyofu no ri o shimeru” (To have the advantage of a fisherman; that is, to fish in troubled waters; play off one person against another. Cf. 1 o motte i o seisuru referred to under “Doku o motte doku o seisuru.”)
[More Japanese Proverbs]
“Abata mo ekubo” “Aita kuchi ga fusagaranai” “Akete kuyashii tamate bako”
“Atarazu to iedomo tokarazu” “A to no matsuri” “Atsui samui mo higan made”
“AO WA AI YORI IDETE AI YORI AOSHI” “ASAMESHI MAE NO SHIGOTO” “ASA OKI WA SAN MON NO TOKU”
“Boro kite mo kokoro wa nishiki.” “Deru kugi wa utareru.”
’’DOBYO AI AWAREMU’’ ’’DOKU O MOTTE DOKU O SEISURU’’ ’’FUKURO-NO-NEZUMI’’
“GADEN-INSUI’’ ’’GEI WA MI O TASUKERU’’ ETC..
“Hinsureba donsuru” “Hisashi o kashite omoya o torareru” “Hito no furi mite waga furi naose”