Colorful proverbs capture a peculiar sensibility


Every language has a vast number of proverbs, mottos and saws, and native speakers often quote them to express a feeling or to prove a point. The fact is that you can “prove” almost anything with a colorful turn of phrase as practically every proverb has an equal and opposite proverb.

A person might well claim that “He who hesitates is lost,” while another could refute this with “Look before you leap.” This latter saying has a fine Japanese equivalent in ishibashi o tataite wataru (tap the stones of the bridge before you cross it).

Japanese abounds in wise and wonderful proverbs. Here are a few that I feel express the Japanese sensibility particularly well.

Asu ni wa asu no kaze ga fuku (tomorrow’s wind will blow tomorrow) corresponds to “Tomorrow is another day.” It contains an optimistic judgment, but I suggest you don’t proffer it to someone whose house has just been blown down in a typhoon.

Another one to avoid when speaking with victims of natural disasters is ato wa no to nare yama to nare (what follows will be just fields and mountains). This is the equivalent of the English saying “Apres moi le deluge,” which just goes to show you that some of the wisest English statements aren’t English at all.

Steeped in Buddhist faith

Many kotowaza (proverbs) originate in Buddhist thought and practice. Take atsusa samusa mo higan made (heat and cold last only until the equinoxes). This is an apt appraisal of Japanese stoicism. All you have to do is patiently wait and “Everything will pass.” Incidentally, prayers for the dead are read during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Perhaps my favorite Japanese proverb of all, and one that is steeped in Buddhist faith, is sode suriau mo tasho no en (when the sleeves of two people brush against each other it was fated to happen from another life). This means “People who meet are destined to do so.” The key is in the word tasho, which does not mean, as many Japanese people apparently assume, “to a certain degree,” but rather “from another life.” The notion that nothing happens due to pure chance is deeply rooted in traditional Japanese thought.

Now what if you do something mildly wrong or sinful and decide that you may as well go the whole hog and commit a doozy? You would say in Japanese doku o kurawaba sara made (if you’re going to eat poison, you may as well eat the plate as well). There is a well-known English proverb that expresses this admirably: “You may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.” It’s interesting that the English proverb mentions meat and the Japanese one, poison, proving that, if you will once again pardon my French, “One man’s meat is another’s poisson.”

There are many people who are lacking in personality. Well, the Japanese have an expression that covers them: nakute nanakuse (Having no [bad] habits is the same as having seven). This means that “Everyone has their faults,” and that the wishy-washy can be as insipid and pushy as anyone.

Marital quarrels

Some proverbs tell us much about personal relationships. One that may crop up in a marriage is mekuso hana kuso wo warau (eye mucus laughs at nasal mucus). That’s right, you guessed it (or did you?): It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. It’s easy to imagine a husband and wife hauling out just this eye and nasal mucus before throwing a pot or kettle at each other.

And speaking of marital quarrels, in Japanese even a dog won’t take a bite out of one: Fufu genka wa inu mo kuwanu. Basically the meaning is “When a married couple is fighting, leave well enough alone.” In other words, let them work it out for themselves, because in any case there’s no one who would be able to stop it and it will probably be the husband who ends up in the dog house anyway. Maybe that’s why the dog (inu) is there, to lead the poor schnook away until he can return with his tail between his legs — the husband, that is, not the dog.

Well, perhaps it is best here for me to heed the wisdom of “Make do with what you’ve got.” In Japanese, this entails a trip to the mountains to see trees at the height of their beauty. But when you get there, the trees are withered or dead. Still, you’ve made the trip so why not enjoy it? Kareki mo yama no nigiwai (even withered trees bring a good turnout to the mountains).

In other words, “Whatever, enjoy.”