30 Japanese Metaphors and Expressions That You Need to Know

Even if you speak Japanese pretty well, the English idioms that you want to use just won’t translate.

Conversely, a Japanese speaker might be saying words that you know very well, but in a way that completely baffles you.

How can you conquer these tricky situations? Enter Japanese metaphors and expressions!


Japanese Metaphors About the Body

A lot of Japanese idioms have something to do with body parts, which will make them a lot easier to remember! To start, here are a few common expressions that fit into this category.

1. 頭を冷やす (あたまを ひやす)

Meaning: To cool one’s head, calm down

(ちょっと いえにかえって あたまをひやしたら?)
How about going home and cooling your head?

2. 頭が硬い (あたまが かたい)

Literal Meaning: One’s head is stiff

Real Meaning: To be hard-headed, stubborn

(ちちは あたまが かたくて、かんたんに さんせいしない。)
My dad’s pretty stubborn, so I don’t think he’ll agree easily.

3. 頭に来る (あたまに くる)

Literal Meaning: To come to one’s head

Real Meaning: To become angry

(あんなことをしって あたまにくる。)
When I found that out, I got really angry.

4. 口が上手い (くちが うまい)

Literal Meaning: One’s mouth is skilled/good

Real Meaning: To be a really smooth talker

(かれは くちが うまいから じょせいに もてるね。)
He’s a really smooth talker, so he’s popular with girls.

5. 口を出す (くちを だす)

Literal Meaning: To stick out one’s mouth

Real Meaning: To stick one’s nose into something or interfere

(しらないひとだから くちをださないほうが いいと おもいます。)
We don’t know him very well, so I think it’s better not to interfere.

6. 顔を貸す (かおを かす)

Literal Meaning: Lend me your face

Real Meaning: To accompany someone somewhere

(ちょっと はなしが あるから、かおをかしてくれない?)
I’ve got to talk to you about something, could you come with me for a second?

7. 顔が広い (かおが ひろい)

Literal Meaning: One’s face is wide

Actual Meaning: To be very well-known

(じむは かおが ひろいから、いつもみちで しりあいに あいます。)
Jim’s very well-known, so he’ll always meet someone he knows on the street.

8. 暗い顔をする (くらい かおを する)

Literal Meaning: To make a dark, gloomy face

Actual Meaning: To make a long face

(わー、くらい かおをしてるね、なんか あった?)
Wow, that’s a gloomy face, did something happen?

9. 目が離せない (めが はなせない)

Literal Meaning: One’s eyes cannot let go of (something)

Actual Meaning: To not be able to take your eyes off someone

(むすこは ちょっと やんちゃだから めが はなせない。)
My son’s a bit naughty, so I can’t let him out of my sight.

10. 目がない (めが ない)

Literal Meaning: To have no eye (for anything other than something you love)

Actual Meaning: To be a sucker for something

(ごめん、わたしは らーめんに めが ない。)
Sorry, I’m a total sucker for ramen.

11. 腹が黒い (はらが くろい)

Literal Meaning: One’s stomach is black

Actual Meaning: To be mean-spirited by nature

(かのじょは かわいい いめーじがあるが、じつは はらが くろいこだ。)
She has a cute image, but she’s actually pretty mean-spirited.

12. 腹が立つ (はらが たつ)

Literal Meaning: One’s stomach is standing up

Actual Meaning: To be pissed off

(そのいいかたをきいて ちょっと はらがたつ。)
When I heard the way he said that, I got a little pissed off.

13. 腹を割って話す (はらを わって はなす)

Literal Meaning: Split open the stomach and speak

Actual Meaning: To speak openly and honestly

(これは むずかしいことだから、みんな、はらをわって はなそう。)
This is a difficult matter, so everyone speak honestly.

14. 胸を張って (むねを はって)

Literal Meaning: To puff one’s chest out

Actual Meaning: To be proud/hold one’s head high

(きょう すごいことが できたから、むねをはって かえろう!)
We did something great today, let’s go home with our head’s held high!

15. ゴマスリ (ごますり)

Literal Meaning: To grind sesame seeds

Actual Meaning: To “suck up to” someone

(ごますりおとこには かんしんできない。)
I can’t respect a suck-up.

Japanese Expressions with English Equivalents

The great thing about a lot of these Japanese expressions is they have similar, if not nearly identical counterparts in English.

As these are often, but not exclusively, used in writing, a lot of the examples below were taken from this great Japanese resource.

Here you can search words and phrases and get a slew of published Japanese quotes that use those same words and phrases. They’re all cited, and all from real Japanese sources, so you know they’re legit!

16. 四六時中 (しろくじちゅう)

Meaning: Round the clock

(ぎたーが だいすきだ。だから しろくじちゅう ひいても あきない。)
I love guitar. I could play round the clock and not get tired of it.

17. 弱肉強食 (じゃくにく きょうしょく)

Literal Meaning: The weak are meat, the strong eat

Actual Meaning: Survival of the fittest

(こうこうじだいは、じゃくにくきょうしょくの じゃんぐるである。)
High school is a survival-of-the-fittest jungle.

18. 一石二鳥 (いっせき にちょう)

Literal Meaning: One stone, two birds

Actual Meaning: To kill two birds with one stone

(こうして いっせきにちょうをねらって、ふたたび あぷろーち してきたのである。)
In this way we can take a two-birds-one-stone approach again.

19. 一期一会 (いちご いちえ)

Literal Meaning: One time, one meeting

Actual Meaning: A once-in-a-lifetime encounter

(にゅーよーくの ちかてつ ではないが、でんしゃに のれば、まわりは いちごいちえ ばかりである。)
It’s no New York City subway, but if you ride the train, you’re surrounded by once-in-a-lifetime encounters.

20. 以心伝心 (いしん でんしん)

Literal Meaning: Communion of mind with mind

Actual Meaning: Non-verbal communication

いくら離れていても、以心伝心というものがあると言います。 (いくら はなれていても、いしんでんしん というものが あるといいます。)
It’s said that no matter how far away you are from someone, non-verbal communication prevails.

21. 一息つく (ひといき つく)

Meaning: To take a breather

(ゆうしょくまでには まだじかんが あるし、へやに もどって ひといき つくことに しよう。)
There’s still time before dinner, so let’s head back to the room and take a breather.

22. 氷山の一角 (ひょうざんの いっかく)

Meaning: Tip of the iceberg

(しんぶんに でましたが、こういうのは ひょうざんの いっかくでしてね。)
Although it appeared in the newspaper, this sort of thing was only the tip of the iceberg, huh?

23. 朝飯前 (あさめし まえ)

Literal Meaning: (To be able to do) before breakfast

Actual Meaning: A piece of cake

(かれは あたまが いいので、そんなことは かれにとって あさめしまえの しごとだ。)
Since he’s smart, this kind of job is a piece of cake for him.

24. 匙を投げる (さじを なげる)

Literal Meaning: To throw away the spoon

Actual Meaning: To throw in the towel or give up

(いちにちじゅう なやんだあと、けっきょく さじをなげてしまった。)
After worrying about it all day, I ended up throwing in the towel.

25. 堪忍袋の緒が切れる (かんにんぶくろの おが きれる)

Literal Meaning: To break the strings on your tolerance bag

Actual Meaning: To lose one’s patience

(どこかで かんにんぶくろの おが きれそうな ふあんが あった。)
An unease was present, like somewhere the string on a tolerance bag was about to snap.

Japanese Expressions to Sum Up Situations with a Few Words

If you find yourself in a situation where you actually get to use one of these gems, I envy you, you lucky scholar!

Especially because you can essentially just end any of these proverbs with 「ってことですね。。。」(translates as “…is that kind of thing, isn’t it?”) and then look off pensively while your peers stand in awe of your Japanese prowess…or giggle uncontrollably and ask where the hell you learned that.

26. 善は急げ (ぜんは いそげ)

Literal Meaning: To hurry is good

Actual Meaning: Strike while the iron is hot

27. ペンは剣よりも強し (ぺんは けんより つよし)

Meaning: The pen is mightier than the sword

28. 前門の虎、後門の狼 (ぜんもんの とら、こうもんの おおかみ)

Literal Meaning: Tiger at the front gate, wolf at the rear

Actual Meaning: Out of the frying pan, into the fire

29. 七転び八起き (ななころび やおき)

Literal Meaning: Fall seven times, get up eight

Actual Meaning: Never give up, persevere

30. 知らぬが仏 (しらぬが ほとけ)

Literal Meaning: Not knowing is Buddha

Actual Meaning: Ignorance is bliss

Why Tackle Japanese Metaphors and Expressions?

Add Depth to Your Conversations

While strictly literal conversation is all well and good, eventually you’ll find that you want to express something a little more subtle, which the words that you know just won’t cover.

As long as you have a nice handful of useful expressions at your disposal, you’ll likely be able to get on the same page with someone much quicker than if you’d tried to translate the English word-for-word in your head.

And with this collection of words to describe people and feelings, you’ll be able to share in a mutual understanding of what it is to be human! (Was that a bit exaggerated? Ah well…)

Speak More Succinctly

As you’ve definitely found in your attempts to master casual Japanese speech, Japanese speakers will drop a lot of unnecessary words (i.e. pronouns) in the interest of being more succinct and functional in their everyday interactions.

Similarly with Japanese expressions, if you’re able to sum up a situation using a well-known proverb or idiom, that saves a whole lot of struggling to find the right word (which you may or may not know).

Show a Clearer Understanding of Japanese Culture

Especially with proverbs, but just as much with any expression that’s specific to Japanese, you’ll find a linguistic history of each one stemming from the unique Japanese experience.

If you pull out an absolute gem like 以心伝心 (いしんでんしん, tacit understanding through non-verbal communication), it’s bound to be well-received, as this particular expression is a concept that Japanese in general have a hard time explaining, but which is a very important aspect of the culture.

Resources for More Japanese Metaphors

What we covered above is just the 氷山の一角 (ひょうざんの いっか, tip of the iceberg)! So if you have a newfound thirst for more Japanese expressions, check out these epic resources:


You now have the resources to become an exceptional speaker.

Make sure you practice these metaphors and expressions so that your spoken Japanese will be one step closer to fluency!

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