I remember the first kanji I ever wrote. In fact, I still have them — a Chinese aphorism roughly equivalent to “seeing is believing.” In 1964, I awkwardly copied them out of a book on linguistics from my high school library in North Carolina. I was about to turn 17 and could not possibly have imagined that within 12 months I would be living in Okinawa.

While recently rummaging through a box left in storage several decades ago, I found myself peering into an old notebook, and there were the kanji — 百聞不如一見 — I had transcribed 40 years earlier. The Chinese saying is familiar to virtually all Japanese as 「百聞は一見に如かず」 (“Hyakubun wa ikken ni shikazu“) — literally, “One hundred hearings are not equal to seeing once.”

In the long process of acquiring spoken and written Japanese, you can expect to encounter dozens, perhaps hundreds, of kotowaza (ことわざ, aphorisms), seigo (成語, set phrases), koji (故事, fables), meigen (名言, famous quotations) and kanyo-ku (慣用句, idioms), which pop up regularly in news articles, books and everyday conversation.

There’s a useful expression to suit practically any situation. Consider some recent sports headlines. The downfall of Mongolian sumo grand champion Asashoryu was described by some pundits as 自業自得 (jigō jitoku, own act, own result, i.e., the natural consequences of his own deeds). The philandering by American golf pro Tiger Woods warranted another famous saying that goes “eiyu- wa iro wo konomu” (「英雄は色を好む」, “great men are susceptible to feminine charm”). “Iro” literally means “color” but is used figuratively to apply to amorous encounters.

Many short expressions that arise in daily conversation are condensed forms of longer ones. For example, the Japanese version of “too little, too late” (「泥縄式だ」 “Doro nawa shiki da“) is a truncation of 「泥棒を捕えて繩をなう」 (“Dorobō wo toraete nawa wo nau,” “to start braiding the rope after capturing the thief”). And if you’re advising someone to let sleeping dogs lie and not get involved, you can say “yabu hebi da” (「やぶ蛇だ」, “a snake in the bush”), a short form of “yabu wo tsutsuite hebi wo dasu” (「薮をつついて蛇を出す」, “to poke at a bush and drive out the snake”).

These expressions range from traditional folk sayings of unknown origin to extracts from the book “Rongo” (論語) the “Analects” of the Chinese sage Confucius (which is the Latin name for “the Master Kong”). The way to say “Confucius said” in Japanese, by the way, is “Kōshi iwaku” (「孔子曰く」). The character 曰く (iwaku) looks almost identical to 日 (nichi or hi, the sun) but is shorter and wider.

Thousands of noteworthy events in Chinese history have been uniformly condensed to four-character aphorisms, called yoji jukugo (四字熟語). The following two are virtually identical to English and are probably foreign imports. First is “isseki nichō” (「一石二鳥」, “one stone, two birds”), which means “to kill two birds with one stone.” The second is “shiko-sakugo” (「試行錯誤」, “trial and error”).

Popular aphorisms

「支離滅裂」, “shirimetsuretsu,” “things are all messed up”
「亭主関白」 “teishu kanpaku,” “a husband who wears the pants in the family”
「優柔不断」, “yu-ju-fudan,” “indecisiveness”
「八方美人」, “happo- bijin,” “a flunky who tries to please everyone”
「危機一髪」, “kiki ippatsu,” “a close call”
「油断大敵」, “yudan taiteki,” “a small slip can cause great trouble”

For brevity’s sake, some four-character sayings can even be whittled down to two. A Chinese aphorism that goes “gada tensoku” (「画蛇添足」, “drawing a snake and adding feet”) — “gilding the lily,” if you prefer — is typically shortened to “dasoku” (「蛇足 」, “legs on a snake”) when referring to something superfluous or redundant.

In Japan, you can get a history lesson from a four-character saying used in a newspaper. Take a recent article that described a merger between two electronics companies as a case of “goetsu dōshu” (「呉越同舟」, “Go and Etsu on the same boat”). The phrase, meaning an alliance between bitter enemies to fight off an even greater threat, refers to the states of Go (Wu) and Etsu (Yue) during China’s Spring and Autumn Period of 2,500 years ago.

So why not resolve to brush up your vocabulary (and knowledge) by studying these fascinating old expressions? Stick with it and I guarantee nobody will accuse you of being a person with no will power, or as Japanese would say, “mikka bōzu” (「三日坊主」, “a monk for three days”). Or as the saying goes, “ishi no ue ni mo sannen” (「石の上にも三年」, “even if you must spend three years atop a rock”), persistence definitely pays off!

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.