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Working from home has its merits, but a lot of people I know have recently started complaining about its ill-effects, specifically around the 肩 (kata, shoulders) and 腰 (koshi, lower back).

When people were told to work remotely due to the コロナ禍 (korona-ka, coronavirus pandemic), not everyone had set up their own home office. That means, people working from spots like their kitchen tables or living room sofas, with 肩凝り (katakori, shoulder aches) and 腰痛 (yōtsū, lower back pain) as the result.

If you feel a 刺すような痛み (sasu yōna itami, stabbing pain) then move away from your computer and do some stretches. Or, better yet, make an appointment with a 整体師 (seitaishi, bodywork therapist) and deal with the problem before things get really bad.

For now, though, get comfortable with with your dictionary because 肩 and 腰 show up quite often in the Japanese language by way of idioms and other turns of phrase.

One such timely term is 肩慣らし (katanarashi, warm-up), which a friend of mine used in regard to returning to her old routines: “肩慣らしのためにちょっと会社に行ってみた” (Katararashi no tame ni chotto kaisha ni itte-mita, I tried going to the office for a bit as a warm-up [to getting back into things]). Or, perhaps in returning to in-person dance lessons, your teacher may suggest, “肩慣らしにやってみたらどう?” (Katanarashi ni yatte-mitara dō?, How about trying to do a warm-up?)

When someone feels out of place or uncomfortable in a group situation, you may hear the term 肩身が狭い (katami ga semai), which literally means the space your shoulders and body take up is narrow. The opposite of that is 肩身が広い (katami ga hiroi, to feel confident) and it seems like the shoulders can be a source of pride in Japanese. The term 肩で風を切る (kata de kaze o kiru) means to have such a swagger that you cut the wind with your shoulders, and 肩肘を張る (katahiji o haru), which literally translates as tensing your shoulders and elbows, means to try to look tough … kind of like puffing out your chest in English. 肩肘を張る can also be used to express the idea of acting stiffly or formally, as in: 肩肘を張るパーティーだったから疲れちゃった (Katahiji o haru pātī datta kara tsukarechatta, The party was so stiff and formal that I’m exhausted). In more normal times, that may be the way people would describe their end-of-year work parties with all the formalities you need to adhere to when partying with your elderly and old-fashioned boss.

Getting a 肩たたき (katatataki), literally a tap on the shoulder, could figuratively signal that your boss wants you to hand in your resignation, which is a stressful situation indeed. Since we tend to carry so much stress in our shoulders, though, it’s not surprising that, just as in English, Japanese tend to 肩に担ぐ (kata ni katsugu, to shoulder a burden) and, when we’re relieved of that burden, 肩の荷が下りる (kata no ni ga oriru, the weight [or a load] is taken off one’s shoulders): 大きなプロジェクトが終わったのでようやく肩の荷が下りた (Ōkina purojekuto ga owatta node yōyaku kata no ni ga orita, That huge project is finished and it feels like a weight has finally been taken off my shoulders.)

A physical therapist I know is convinced that women carry their woes in their shoulders and men carry it in their lower backs. This is perhaps why men tend to suffer from ぎっくり腰 (gikkurigoshi, a slipped disc) more frequently than women. It’s said that in some regions people use びっくり (bikkuri, surprise) instead of ぎっくり, which may also explain why 腰を抜かす (koshi o nukasu, to dislocate one’s back) can also be used to express being paralyzed with fear: 娘の突然の結婚宣言に父親は腰を抜かした (Musume no totsuzen no kekkon sengen ni chichioya wa koshi o nukashita, The father became frozen with fear when his daughter suddenly told him she was getting married).

The truly scary thing here, however, is 腰痛, but it can still be a real pain if you don’t know your 腰 idioms in a conversation.

A person who is slow to do something could be described as a 腰が重い人 (koshi ga omoi hito), while a 腰の据わった人 (koshi no suwatta hito) is a person who inspires confidence with their stability and immovability.

腰を入れる (koshi o ireru) means to put your back and effort into something: 次の試験は腰を入れて勉強しよう (Tsugi no shiken wa koshi o irete benkyō shiyō, I’ll put more effort into studying for the next exam). If you want to emphasize the effort, try using 本腰を入れる (hongoshi o ireru). It is similar in meaning, but with extra emphasis on the effort: 受験まであと3カ月なので、本腰を入れて勉強する (Juken made ato san-kagetsu nanode, hongoshi o irete benkyō suru, As the university entrance exam is approaching in three months, I’ll put all of my effort into studying).

There are plenty of other 肩 and 腰 idioms, so put your back into it and start studying.

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