On my first trip to the former Soviet Union in 1964, I heard the Russian proverb, “A word is not a sparrow. Having flown out, you cannot catch it.”
Some years later in Japan, someone remarked to me, Haita tsuba wa nomenai (You can’t swallow saliva you’ve already spit out.) While not quite as pretty as the Russian expression, the Japanese one carries the same meaning: Once you have said something, it’s too late to retract it.
I realized then that, given slight differences in wording, languages often had similar sayings and saws and that these can be full of color and wisdom. English and Japanese are troves of wise sayings, and the logic, if not the metaphors, in them may be strikingly alike.
When you tell someone “okado chigai o shiteiru,” this literally means that they are going to the wrong gate or door. But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the meaning: They are, in effect, barking up the wrong tree. They may have gone there of their own accord, or they may have hanazura o hiki-mawasareta, both literally and figuratively “been led by the nose.”
I am sure there are clever expressions in most languages dealing with money, especially when you consider the fact that wherever you go, Kane wa tenka no mawari mono (Money never stays long in the same hands) — to wit, “Easy come, easy go.” But some people are laughing all the way to the bank, although in Japanese sound is not laughter but unari, or groaning: Unaru hodo kane o motteiru (literally, “to have so much money you’re groaning” or, more naturally, “to have enough money to burn a hole in your pocket.”)
Yet in most people’s book, before money must come love. My father used to say, “Money isn’t everything. Love is the other 2 percent.” I have yet to find a Japanese equivalent of this sad little phrase, but it is certain that all over the world, love is blind. For the Japanese, this is a matter of thinking that the pockmarks on your beloved’s face are dimples. In Japanese, this is abata mo ekubo, or “even pockmarks [look like] dimples.”
After money and love, politics, I guess, brings up the rear. I am always struck by the unfathomably deep emotions expressed by the president of the United States, George W. Bush. The president is particularly moved, occasionally to tears, when referring to the soldiers he has put in harm’s way. Some weeks ago, when I detected tears trickling down the president’s left cheek, I was reminded of the ancient belief that the crocodile wept in order to lure people to their deaths. Considering those “presidential tears,” perhaps it is appropriate here to quote the wise Japanese saying denoting crocodile tears, Oni no me ni mo namida (Even the devil weeps).
The president often assures his “fellow Americans” that he is a straight-talkin’, hip-shootin’, decision-maker who pulls no punches, minces no words. Well, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not a word mincer either. It can surely be said about him, Ha ni kinu kisenu monoii (He doesn’t wear clothes on his teeth.)
It seems an arduous task to find a good politician in Japan these days. They all seem to be cut from the same square piece of cloth. Looking for a politician of stature is, in Japanese, like comparing the size of acorns, or donguri no sei kurabe. Much of a muchness. Slim pickings.
And politicians in Japan require a lot of money just to be politicians. Fortunately, there are quite a few people willing to place wads of money at their feet to prop them up.
Lately, however, some politicians have been obliged to resign for taking bribes. As a result, the bribers were just throwing good money after bad. To quote the colorful Japanese phrase for this, Nusutto ni oisen (Giving extra money to the person who robbed you).
It appears that in most countries it’s money that makes the world go round. The Japanese put it succinctly: Jigoku no sata mo kane shidai (Even in hell, money talks).
Many of my Japanese friends who are writers, journalists, filmmakers, and the like, are not presently optimistic about the future of this country. Some of them have thrown down the spoon (saji o nageta), the equivalent of throwing in the towel. (This saying, by the way, originated with doctors who threw down the spoon when all hope was lost.)
But I would like to believe that Japanese creativity and ingenuity will someday thrive again in the arts, in education, and in science; and that we will see the rebirth of the fair society.
If nothing else, it will prove that kono kuni ni wa mada myaku ga aru — this country “still has a pulse.” In other words, Japan ain’t dead yet.