When I was a wee lad of 4 or 5, I would sneak up on a chair and explore my grandfather’s desk, atop of which was situated a curious object: a paperweight featuring the famous three wise monkeys of Nikko. At its base was inscribed the warning: Don’t monkey with anything on this desk.
This was one of millions of similar novelties sold in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. And while some of their owners might have been aware those monkeys came from Japan, I suppose very few knew their real names — 見ざる (Mizaru), 聞かざる (Kikazaru) and 言ざる (Iwazaru) — which are rendered into English as “see no evil,” “hear no evil” and “speak no evil.”
Not until several decades later did I behold the carvings of the original 三猿 (san’en or sanzaru, three monkeys) at the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. But it took me even longer to obtain a grasp of their nuances. The monkeys are said to symbolize a passage from 論語 (Rongo, the Analects of Confucius), in which China’s ancient sage advised, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.”
Confucius clearly made no references to monkeys (or any other animals) in his original text. So how did Japanese get involved in all this monkey business? Credit the negative verb inflexion -zaru, which happens to be a homonym for saru (monkey).
The suffix -zaru also appears in the often-used phrase that ends ざるを得ない (-zaru wo enai), used to express when something cannot be helped.
Another negative suffix widely used in both speech and writing is, -zu, as in やむをえず (yamu wo ezu, to be unavoidable). It is used repetitively for emphasis in the somewhat disparaging observation about Japanese civil servants that goes 休まず遅れず働かず (yasumazu, okurezu, hatarakazu, [they] don’t take time off, [they're] never late and [they] don’t do any work).
The -zu suffix also functions to form the nominative, as can be seen in the brand of rat poison called 猫要らず (neko-irazu, don’t need a cat); 土踏まず (tsuchi fumazu, does not touch the earth, i.e., the arch of the foot); 親知らず (oya shirazu, not knowing one’s parents, wisdom molars) — so said because in olden days, by the time they grew in, one’s parents had already passed away. It can also be found in such pejoratives a ならず者 (narazu-mono, a rogue or a person who will amount to nothing), and 分からず屋 (wakarazu-ya, an obstinate person or a blockhead).
In the old saying that goes 虎穴に入らずんば虎児を得ず (koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu, if you don’t enter the tiger’s lair, you won’t catch a tiger cub — equivalent to “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and another import from China), the -zu suffix inflects to express the conditional voice.
Obscure words also find their way into some funny puns.
Sen, a negative form of the verb する (suru, to do), which is less commonly used in modern Japanese, can be humorously applied to the corporate title 専務 (senmu, used variously as vice-president or managing director). Just precede it with 何も (nanimo) to give 何も専務 (nanimo-senmu, “he doesn’t do anything”) — the implication here being that the seniority system enables managers at some companies to be “kicked upstairs” into do-nothing jobs, as a reward for years of faithful service.
Another way to downgrade an honorific through a well-timed pun is 御前様 (gozensama, my lord or my honorable master, which was used in premodern times). The characters literally mean the honorable person before me. But by changing the first character it becomes 午前様 (gozen-sama), and humorously used to refer to a husband in the habit carousing into the late hours and staggering home after midnight, i.e., gozen (the a.m.).
The old system for telling time utilized the cycle of 12 animals of the Asian Zodiac, with 午の刻 (uma no koku, the hour of the horse) corresponding to the hours from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. So 午前 (gozen, a.m.) and 午後 (gogo, p.m.), literally mean “before the horse” and “after the horse.”
And as long as we’re on the subject of titles, did you know that “tycoon,” meaning a business magnate in contemporary English usage, derives from the Japanese 大君 (taikun)? It means “Great Lord” or “Supreme Commander,” and was used in pre-modern times to refer to a ruler, such as the Shogun, who did not have imperial lineage.