The early bird gets the proverb


A good beginning makes a good ending; that’s my philosophy.

So in a new English class I often start by instructing each student to ask me a question, ANY question. After all, time may be money, but talk is cheap, and I am always eager to see how deep run the still waters before me.

But if curiosity killed the cat, most Japanese English students abide in quiet safety. However, I have — on more than one occasion — run into the following somewhat puzzling consideration.

“What’s your favorite proverb?”

The words always strike me dumb, for a pair of reasons.

First, I do not have a favorite proverb — called “kotowaza” in Japanese. The question thus leaves me at a proverbial loss. I tug on my lip for a bit and then — better late than never — mew something silly like, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” . . . And then I change the topic.

The second reason relates to my surprise at how much value proverbs have in Japan. Birds of a feather flock together, and here the entire population practices such sayings much more than enough to make perfect. I suppose there is no accounting for taste.

For back home in the West, people who spout overworn maxims tend to stick out for the wrong reasons. They are pegged as old-fashioned or bookish or just plain goofy. If on a bus, for example, the fellow next to you suddenly yells, “Hey, driver! Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it!” you do not introduce the man to your sister. Rather, you change seats.

But in Japan, when someone pops out a proverb, the more common reaction is to nod with solemn respect. All eyes seem to sparkle with thoughts like “How true!” or “I wish I’d said that!” or “An adage a day keeps the doctor away,” etc.

In fact, in Japan it is deemed a neat literary two-step to begin a story or an essay with a pithy proverb. Readers relate immediately, and the writer is considered not only profound but stylish. Yet, if William F. Buckley were to start his columns with truisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” he might end up peddling newspapers rather than writing for them.

That all Japanese seem to be on the same page proverb-wise is one of those truths stranger than fiction. Perhaps this is because all have played and replayed the same “karuta” card games (some versions of which are based on kotowaza) or have had the same axioms origamied into their heads by overzealous schoolteachers and parents. They have also had their proverb plates heaped aplenty with the ancient learnings of not only Japan but also of China and the West as well.

Fill a room with Japanese and shout, “Even a monkey . . .” and the instant choral response will be, “can fall from a tree.” Americans, on the other hand, can typically do this only with the best-known sayings, and a lead of “Even a monkey . . .” will more likely produce an answer of “couldn’t fall from a Segway.”

My problem with Japanese proverbs is not only that they are known by everyone instantly with no footnotes attached, but also that they can be so teeth-gnashingly hard for the rest of us to make sense of. Take for example, “Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru,” which translates neatly as “If a dog walks around, it’ll bump into a post.”

My own dog does this all the time, having, it seems, inherited coordination from its master. But what does the saying mean? Where is the wisdom? I call upon my wife to instruct.

She sighs and says, “A woman’s work is never done.”

“A word to the wise,” I tell her. “Enough is enough. Just explain the proverb.”

She hesitates, as if unsure I am ready. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

“So is a frustrated husband! And don’t tell me all things come to those who wait!”

“You know,” she teases, “when people ask why I married you, I just say, ‘Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki.’ “

It takes two to tango, so I feel compelled to ask, “OK. What does THAT mean?”

“Either that some bugs will even eat nettles, or that half a loaf is better than none. I’ve forgotten which.”

I point at her. “You’d better look before you leap!”

She wrinkles her nose. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers!”

“Teach me about the dog! OK? And there’s no time like the present!”

“Haste makes waste!”

I throw up my hands. It seems it never rains but it pours. “Just tell me about the damned dog!”

“Um, I think it means if you keep plugging away, you’re bound to achieve success. For example, if you keep churning out proverbs, sooner or later you’ll find one that fits.”

I might accept this twisted version of “every dog has its day,” except for one thing.

“What about the post? It makes no sense. Why not say the dog bumps into a fire hydrant or a T-bone or even a cat?”

“Who cares? When in Japan, say what the Japanese say!”

Hmm. Somehow I feel I may have hit upon the source of so-called Japanese inscrutability.

“Ishi no ue ni mo sannen,” she offers. “Three years upon a rock!”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I cannot help but ask, “And the meaning?”

“Effort produces results. Younger Japanese have trouble with kotowaza too. But keep trying. One day they will all make sense.”

I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you have to walk before you can run. So I decide to concede.

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Only to find she has the perfect proverb to match. Which is (what else?):

“All’s well that ends well.”