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Japanese is a difficult language, and even native speakers can sound awkward at times. This happened last month when 自民党 (Jimintō, Liberal Democratic Party) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai was asked to comment on a vote-buying scandal in his party.

党としても、他山の石として、しっかり対応していかなければ” (Tō to shite mo, tazan no ishi to shite, shikkari taiō shite-ikanakereba, The party must deal with this by letting it be an object lesson).

The term we want to look at here is 他山の石 (tazan no ishi), which means “object lesson” in context but can be translated literally as “a stone from another mountain.”

Its origins are from a Chinese proverb that goes, よその山から出た粗悪な石も自分の宝石を磨くのに利用できる (yoso no yama kara deta soakuna ishi mo jibun no hōseki o migaku no ni riyō dekiru, an inferior stone taken from another mountain can still be used to polish one’s jewelry).

Poetry aside, the term is nowadays used more commonly to mean 他人のつまらぬ言行も自分の人格を育てる助けとなる (tanin no tsumaranu genkō mo jibun no jinkaku o sodateru tasuke to naru, the trivial words and deeds of others can help one develop their own personality), which lines up a little more with the English definition of an object lesson: an example from real life that teaches a lesson or explains something.

The sentence structure for 他山の石 comes in two forms: It can be paired with the する (suru, to do) verb using the と (to) particle, or the なる (naru, to become) verb with the に (ni) particle. In Nikai’s comment, 他山の石 was paired with the conjugated form of suru, して (shite). If Nikai had chosen to use なる, his comment could have been: “今回の問題は、この党において他山の石になるだろう” (Konkai no mondai wa, kono tō ni oite tazan no ishi ni naru darō, This present problem will become an object lesson for the party).

Getting back to the original point, what made Nikai’s use of 他山の石 awkward had less to do with grammar and more to do with Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai — the couple at the center of the scandal — being members of the LDP. When Nikai referred to the scandal as a “stone from another mountain,” it made it seem as though he thought the issue was an individual one rather than institutional. His words implied that things could be solved by simply removing the Kawais.

Critics were quick to point out this turn of phrase. Opposition leader Yukio Edano of the 立憲民主党 (Rikkenminshutō, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan) was particularly scathing in his remarks: “日本語を理解されていないのか、ちょっと意味不明の発言であり、(事件は)自民党のど真ん中で起こった” (Nihongo o rikai sarete-inai no ka, chotto imifumei no hatsugen de ari, [jiken wa] Jimintō no domannaka de okotta, Perhaps he does not understand Japanese; his statement is a little nonsensical because [the incident] arose from the very center of the LDP).

Similarly, Tetsuro Fukuyama of the CDP said: “自民党(に取って河井夫妻の問題)は、他山じゃなくて、自山の石だと思います” (Jiminto [ni totte Kawai fusai no mondai] wa, tazan janakute, jizan no ishi da to omoimasu, For the Liberal Democratic Party, I think that [the problem with the Kawais] is not a different mountain but rather a stone from one’s own mountain).

Although the term 自山の石 (jizan no ishi) won’t come up in any dictionaries, you have to hand it to Fukuyama for coming up with a humorous expression that emphasizes how the vote-buying scandal is a “stone” that originated from Mount LDP itself. By switching 他山 (tazan) with 自山 (jizan), the proverb takes on a different meaning, where a lesson is to be learned not from the trivial words and actions of someone else, but from oneself.

It appears Nikai is not alone in his misunderstanding of 他山の石. The term is commonly misused to mean 自分が手本にしたい目上の人の良い行い (jibun ga tehon ni shitai meue no hito no yoi okonai, learning from the good actions of someone you look up to). The mistake here is in the fact that the original meaning of 他山の石 is to learn from the つまらぬ言行 (tsumaranu genkō, trivial words and deeds) of others, not their 良い行い (yoi okonai, good deeds). With this mistaken definition, of course, Nikai’s gaffe would have been even stranger.

Another proverb that deals with learning from the misfortunes of others is 人の振り見て我が振り直せ (hito no furi mite waga furi naose, literally: look at a person’s fault, fix your own fault). In English the phrase can be translated as “one person’s fault is another’s lesson.”

The four-kanji idiom 反面教師 (hanmen kyōshi) also has a similar meaning to 他山の石 and points out an example of how not to behave. The idea here is that there is a 反面 (hanmen, other/reverse side) that acts as a 教師 (kyōshi, teacher/instructor) to the person observing: 日本で撮影した動画を投稿した有名なユーチューバー、ローガン・ポールの行動は反面教師として自分が外国に行く時は礼儀をわきまえようと思いました (Nihon de satsuei shita dōga o tōkō shita yūchūbā, Rōgan Pōru no kōdō wa hanmen kyōshi to shite jibun ga gaikoku ni iku toki wa reigi o wakimaeyō to omoimashita, The video that famous YouTuber Logan Paul filmed in Japan and posted online was an example of what not to do, reminding me that I should act respectfully when going overseas).

Proverbs are great for when you want to sound smart — or for when you need a good soundbite for the news — but you have to watch they don’t get thrown back in your face. I was curious as to whether or not there would be a different proverb or idiom that Nikai could have used, and I came up with 対岸の火事 (taigan no kaji, a fire on the opposite shore).

If creating distance was his intention, the imagery is strong with 対岸の火事. The term is used to convey the idea that you experience no pain from a particular issue because it is irrelevant to you: 外国の問題はいつも対岸の火事と思われている (gaikoku no mondai wa itsumo taigan no kaji to omowarete-iru, problems overseas are always thought of as having nothing to do with us).

Perhaps what makes this proverb even more fitting is how 他山の石 and 対岸の火事 are sometimes mistaken as being interchangeable. But it’s important to remember that they express very different attitudes: with the former, you observe and learn, but with the latter, you simply look away.

Now that Katsuyuki Kawai has resigned from the Diet, the LDP seems keen on shifting its focus to the Tokyo Olympics and the 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus), especially now since we are in the middle of a リバウンド (ribaundo, rebound) and a 第4派 (dai yon-pa, fourth wave).

However, even though experts fear the Games could become a superspreader event, there’s no sign of Japan changing course. If I can follow the lead of the CDP’s Fukuyama, perhaps we’ll soon be pointing to an 沿岸の火事 (engan no kaji, fire on these shores).


Terminology takeaways

  • 他山の石 (tazan no ishi): A term that comes from a Chinese proverb meaning “another mountain’s stone.” Nowadays, it’s usually translated as “object lesson.”
  • 反面教師 (hanmen kyōshi): This is a 四字熟語 (yoji jukugo, four-kanji idiom) that literally means “teacher of the other side” but points out an example of what not to do.
  • 対岸の火事 (taigan no kaji): Literally meaning a “fire on the opposite shore,” it is used to describe a far-away problem that the speaker believes has nothing to do with them.

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