30 Metaphoric Japanese Expressions That You Need to Know

In an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” titled “Darmok,” Captain Picard finds himself on a planet with another captain from an alien race who speaks a strange kind of English.

After some trial and error, Picard figures out that the man communicates solely in metaphors from his home planet, and without knowing the origins of the metaphors, Picard had a hard time understanding the context.

Relating this scenario to Japanese, this is like when you speak Japanese pretty well, but 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 expressions!


Why Tackle Japanese 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 the collection of words to describe people and feelings that you’ll find below, you’ll be able to share in 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.

Now who’s ready to become a wordsmith beyond their wildest dreams?

(My hand’s raised too!)

30 Japanese Expressions for Showing Sage-like Wisdom

Describe the Complex People Around You

Pro Tip: 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

ちょっと家に帰って頭を冷やしたら? (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

父は頭が硬くて、簡単に賛成しない。 (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

あんなことを知って頭にくる。 (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

彼は口が上手いから女性にもてるね。 (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

知らない人だから口を出さない方がいいと思います。 (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

ちょっと話があるから、顔を貸してくれない? (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

ジムは顔が広いから、いつも道で知り合いに会います。 (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、暗い顔をしてるね、なんかあった?(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

息子はちょっとやんちゃだから目が離せない。 (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、私はラーメンに目がない。 (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

彼女は可愛いイメージがあるが、実は腹が黒い子だ。 (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

その言い方を聞いてちょっと腹が立つ。 (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

これは難しいことだから、みんな、腹を割って話そう。 (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

今日すごいことができたから、胸を張って帰ろう! (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

ゴマスリ男には感心できない。(ごますりおとこには かんしんできない。)
I can’t respect a suck-up.

Wax Intellectual About Life with Longer Metaphors

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

ギターが大好きだ。だから四六時中弾いても飽きない。 (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

高校時代は、弱肉強食のジャングルである。 (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

こうして一石二鳥を狙って、再びアプローチして来たのである。 (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

ニューヨークの地下鉄ではないが、電車に乗れば、周りは一期一会ばかりである。 (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

夕食までにはまだ時間があるし、部屋に戻って一息つく事にしよう。 (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

新聞にも出ましたが、こういうのは氷山の一角でしてね。 (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

彼は頭がいいので、そんなことは彼にとって朝飯前の仕事だ。 (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”

一日中悩んだ後、結局匙を投げてしまった。(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

どこかで堪忍袋の緒が切れそうな不安があった。(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.

Perfectly 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

Still Hungry for More?

I know these are all going to be just the 氷山の一角 (ひょうざんの いっかく – tip of the iceberg!) in your newfound thirst for Japanese expressions, so if you’re getting on a roll, check out these epic resources:

  • Language Realm — A very comprehensive collection of proverbs spanning from literary to almost obsolete.
  • NihonShock — A collection of tweeted proverbs from a writer on this site, compiled neatly for your easy viewing.
  • FluentU — A language learning program that uses authentic videos to teach Japanese in context. FluentU’s library has clips from real media sources, so you can look at useful proverbs and expressions in context, and use them to improve your conversational Japanese. FluentU’s videos come from movie trailers, music videos, commercials and other real media, and each video has interactive subtitles and personalized quizzes to help you retain the information. 
  • Matadornetwork — Here are 20 of the most amusing Japanese expressions translated into English—a great reference with a few laughs!
  • 101 Common Japanese Idioms (e-book) — This resource is unfortunately not free, but is a downloadable e-book for less than five bucks with a ton of very useful everyday idioms.
  • Yourei.jp — This is the resource I used above for the metaphor examples, and it’s an exceptional resource for sentence mining.

You now have the resources to become an exceptional speaker.

Make it so, number 1.

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