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Some four-kanji idioms are even officially child’s play

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Now that summer fireworks have ended and beach toys have been stored away, it’s time for jukensei (受験生 entrance examination-takers) throughout the land to burn the midnight oil in earnest. High school seniors and third-year junior high students moving on to higher education — as well as elementary school sixth-graders who aspire to private junior high schools — must prepare to take rigorous late-winter entrance exams. Among other subjects, jukensei will be tested on Japanese (国語 kokugo, “national language”), including knowledge of four-kanji idioms (四字熟語, yojijukugo).

The ability to effortlessly inject more than 1,000 commonly used yojijukugo into spoken and written communication is one of the marks of a well-educated Japanese. With origins lying in classical Chinese literature, Buddhist philosophy and Japanese history, yojijukugo succinctly and elegantly describe various aspects of the human condition. They can be intimidating to foreign learners of Japanese, but a surprising number of yojijukugo have relatively transparent meanings. Today, let’s nail 20 of the ones most commonly appearing on junior high school entrance exams — all are comprised of elementary school level kanji.

弱肉強食 (jyaku niku kyō shoku, weak/meat/strong/eat) means “survival of the fittest” (e.g., the weak become meat for the strong who eat them) and 異口同音 (i ku dō on, different/mouths/one/sound) is “united with one voice.”

Take a look at how the meanings of the constituent kanji in the following yojijukugo logically combine to produce their overall meaning:

• 完全無欠 (kan zen mu ketsu, complete/whole/without/lack) = flawless. E.g., 完全無欠な人間などいるはずがない。Kanzenmuketsu na ningen nado iru hazu ga nai. There is no such thing as a flawless human being.

• 右往左往 (u ō sa ō, left/proceed/right/proceed) = move about in a state of confusion. E.g., 財布を電車の中に忘れてきてしまい、ホームで右往左往してしまった。Saifu o densha no naka ni wasurete kite shimai, hōmu de uōsaō shite shimatta. I ran around pell-mell on the platform after leaving my wallet on the train.

• 起死回生 (ki shi kai sei, rise/death/come round/life) = recovering from a hopeless situation. E.g., 九回裏にイチローが起死回生の同点ホームランを打った (Kyūkaiura ni Ichiro ga kishikaisei no dōten hōmuran o utta. Ichiro hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game).

• 有名無実 (yū mei mu jitsu, possess/reputation/without/reality) = in name only, not in substance. E.g., 彼は有名無実の学者だ (Kare wa yūmeimujitsu no gakushya da. He is a scholar in name only).

• 一進一退 (isshin ittai, one/advance/one/retreat) meaning “ebb and flow,” is similar in construction to 一長一短 (icchō ittan, one/long/one/short, pluses and minuses) and 一朝一夕 (icchō isseki, one/morning/one/evening, in a brief space of time).

Quiz

Match each of the following four-kanji idioms with its meaning and pronunciation below.

1. 再三再四 (again/three/again/four)

2. 言語道断 (words/speak/way/cut off)

3. 自給自足(one’s own/salary/one’s own/ adequacy)

4. 南船北馬 (south/boat/north/horse)

5. 多種多様 (many/varieties/many/appearances)

6. 公平無私 (public/equal/without/personal)

a. constant travel (nan sen hoku ba)

b. infinite variety (ta shu ta yō)

c. self-sufficiency (ji kyū ji soku )

d. preposterous (gon go dō dan)

e. repeatedly (sai san sai shi)

f. fair and unprejudiced (kō hei mu shi)

Other beginning level yojijukugo with repeating kanji in the first and third positions are 独立独歩 (doku ritsu dop po, alone/stand/alone/walk, self-reliance) and 半信半疑 (han shin han gi, half/believe/half/doubt, incredulous).

Two others express all-inclusiveness: 老若男女 (rō nyaku nan nyo, elderly/young/male/female, men and women of all ages) and 古今東西 (ko kon tō zai, old/now/east/west, all times and places).

The first yojijukugo I heard after arriving in Japan was 以心伝心 (i shin den shin, by means of/heart/ transmitted by/heart, telepathy). A colleague introduced it to me when we tried to telephone each other at exactly the same moment to commisserate about a problem at work, and I have never forgotten it.

At those moments when you despair of ever sounding adult-like in your target language, I encourage you to master a few basic yojijukugo. While textbooks for foreign learners of Japanese give short shrift to four-kanji idioms, paperbacks designed to prepare sixth-graders for yojijukugo questions on junior high school entrance exams serve as excellent learning tools, and are widely available in Japanese bookstores.

Learn more about yojijukugo at www.kanjiclinic.com/kc37final.htm

Answers

1.e 2.d 3.c 4.a 5.b 6.f