42 Japanese Idioms, Quotes and Proverbs to Help You Sound Wise in Japanese
If you ever heard an odd, nonsensical Japanese phrase, it may have been a 諺 (ことわざ) — a Japanese idiom or proverb.
Idioms are used so commonly in Japanese that you can hear them in everything from casual conversations to news and cultural programs.
In this post, we’ll get to know 42 Japanese idioms and proverbs that you might encounter on your Japanese learning journey.
- Japanese Idioms: Kanyouku
- Japanese nature idioms
- Japanese animal idioms
- 4. 猿も木から落ちる – Even monkeys fall out of trees
- 5. 明日のことを言うと天井のネズミが笑う – If you speak of tomorrow, the rats in the ceiling will laugh
- 6. 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず – If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you can’t catch its cub
- 7. 井の中の蛙大海を知らず – A frog in a well does not know the great sea
- 8. 月とすっぽん – The moon and a soft-shell turtle
- 9. 猫に小判 – Like gold coins to a cat
- 10. 猫も杓子も – Even cats and rice ladles
- 11. ごまめの歯ぎしり – Little fish grinding their teeth
- 12. イタチの最後っ屁 – A weasel’s last fart
- Japanese idioms about people
- Japanese Habits of Speech: Iinarawashi
- Japanese sayings about human nature
- 16. 内弁慶 – A warlord at home
- 17. 口が滑る – A slip of the mouth
- 18. 暖簾に腕押し – To push noren (Japanese hanging curtains) with arms
- 19. 七転び八起き – Fall seven times, stand up eight
- 20. 案ずるより産むが易し – Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it
- 21. 知らぬが仏 – Not knowing is Buddha
- 22. 見ぬが花 – Not seeing is a flower
- 23. 地獄に仏 – My Buddha in Hell
- Japanese food sayings
- Sayings about Japanese culture
- Japanese Four Character Phrases: Yojijukugo
- Common four character phrases
- 34. 十人十色 – Ten people, ten colors
- 35. 起死回生 – Wake from death and turn to life
- 36. 一日一歩 – One day one step
- 37. 一期一会 – One opportunity, one encounter
- 38. 因果応報 – Bad causes, bad results
- 39. 自業自得 – One’s act, one’s profit
- 40. 温故知新 – Review past, know future
- 41. 一石二鳥 – One stone, two birds
- 42. 花鳥風月 – Flower, bird, wind, moon
- Why Learn Japanese Idioms?
Japanese Idioms: Kanyouku
慣用句 (かんようく, kanyouku) are idioms.
慣 (かん) means “custom” or “usual,” while 用 (よう) means “use” and 句 (く) means “phrase.”
In other words, Japanese idioms use familiar things to create figurative descriptions.
These are idiomatic phrases that often draw from nature or general wisdom and tend to be more on the figurative side.
Japanese nature idioms
1. 明日には明日の風が吹く – Tomorrow’s winds will blow tomorrow
Now, this is a truly beautiful proverb. It’s a hopeful phrase that means “tomorrow is a new day.”
2. 雨降って地固まる – After rain falls, the ground hardens
This is yet another beautiful phrase coming straight from nature, with the same idea as in the English, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
3. 雨が降ろうと、槍が降ろうと – Even if it rains, or if spears fall
Hiragana: あめが ふろうと、やりがふろうと
This alarming phrase indicates that even rain or spears falling from the sky can’t stop something. Use the idiom to mean “no matter what happens,” similar to the English phrase “come Hell or high water.”
Japanese animal idioms
4. 猿も木から落ちる – Even monkeys fall out of trees
We all make mistakes! Comfort your Japanese friends after a blunder by saying this cute phrase.
5. 明日のことを言うと天井のネズミが笑う – If you speak of tomorrow, the rats in the ceiling will laugh
This is one of the less concise idioms in Japanese, being a quite convoluted way to express a universal truth: The future is unpredictable. This is similar to the English saying, “we make our plans, and God laughs.”
6. 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず – If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you can’t catch its cub
This has to be one of my favorites. It expresses the same sentiment as “nothing ventured, nothing gained” in English, but literally translates as a perilous adventure with tigers and cubs—which I think paints a great picture of both the risk and the reward.
7. 井の中の蛙大海を知らず – A frog in a well does not know the great sea
This a wonderful way to express the idea of a person who’s satisfied to judge everything by their own narrow experience, remaining ignorant of the wide world outside.
8. 月とすっぽん – The moon and a soft-shell turtle
While Americans compare apples to oranges, Japanese speakers compare the moon and a turtle. However, while apples and oranges are more or less on equal footing, the moon is the clearly superior option. So this phrase is used to compare two very different things, where one option is clearly the better option.
9. 猫に小判 – Like gold coins to a cat
This is like the English “casting pearls before swine,” but with cats and gold, instead. It’s used to express the folly of wasting resources, beauty or quality on somebody who doesn’t appreciate it.
10. 猫も杓子も – Even cats and rice ladles
This odd combination of items is used to indicate anyone and everyone, or suggest the idea of a whole lot of people. Similar phrases in English are “every Tom, Dick and Harry,” or “everybody and their mother.”
11. ごまめの歯ぎしり – Little fish grinding their teeth
The thought of little fish grinding their teeth doesn’t exactly instill terror in a person. This idiom means that something is trivial or of no consequence, producing no effect. The phrase is often used to refer to a small person going up against a larger force, like a powerful corporation—no matter how much you yell, it’s likely to have little to no effect.
12. イタチの最後っ屁 – A weasel’s last fart
When you’re cornered and out of options, you may have to rely on the weasel’s last fart. This is your last ditch effort to do something in a desperate situation.
Japanese idioms about people
13. 天下り – To command or dictate, or to descend from Heaven
There’s a practice in Japan so common that it has its own idiomatic name, where bureaucrats are often able to find high-ranking jobs in private firms after retirement. In a way, they’re descending from the heavens to grace us mere mortals with their presence.
14. 出る杭は打たれる – The nail that sticks up will be hammered down
The most commonly-known idiom outside of Japan is probably this one, which means that by standing out, you invite criticism.
15. 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない – Only death can cure an idiot
Ignorance can’t be cured, according to this idiom. Once an idiot, always an idiot.
Japanese Habits of Speech: Iinarawashi
言い習わし (いいならわし, Iinarawashi) are referred to as Habits of Speech. They’re sayings that are often more literal and less figurative than an idiom, akin to a proverb.
They’re usually short and always share some bit of wisdom or truth.
Japanese sayings about human nature
16. 内弁慶 – A warlord at home
Someone who’s a warlord at home toots his own horn to excess. This person is a braggart, someone who is boisterous and boastful in private but meek in public. They’re “all bark and no bite”!
17. 口が滑る – A slip of the mouth
This is just like the English idiom “the cat’s out of the bag” or “spill the beans,” as it means to let out a secret.
18. 暖簾に腕押し – To push noren (Japanese hanging curtains) with arms
You can push at the curtains all you want, and not get anywhere. This idiom refers to a useless, ineffective action, like wrestling or pushing against something that hangs passively.
19. 七転び八起き – Fall seven times, stand up eight
Motivate yourself through tough times with this idiom. It’s a reminder that when life knocks you down, all you’ve got to do is stand back up. That eighth time standing up is what counts in the end—not the seven falls.
20. 案ずるより産むが易し – Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it
This is used as a reminder that often our fear is worse than the actual threat of danger.
21. 知らぬが仏 – Not knowing is Buddha
The best English meaning I can assign to this is “ignorance is bliss,” with bliss being Buddha in the Japanese version. Basically, not knowing or thinking about something worrisome makes you more relaxed.
22. 見ぬが花 – Not seeing is a flower
This gorgeous Japanese idiom means that reality can’t compete with imagination, and that life doesn’t always look the way you expected it to.
23. 地獄に仏 – My Buddha in Hell
We all know that one person who’ll reach through the flaming wreckage of your life and pull you out. A Buddha in Hell is your savior, someone helpful in a bad situation or place.
Japanese food sayings
24. 朝飯前 – Before the morning meal
Want to indicate that a task is super easy? Use this phrase to say that it’s so easy, you could have it done before breakfast. To take it to dessert, it’s “a piece of cake”!
25. 花より団子 – Dumplings over flowers
One popular Japanese drama actually uses an idiom for its title: “花より男子” (or “Boys Over Flowers” in English). This is a play on the phrase presented above, which translates as “dumplings over flowers” and indicates that one should value substance over form, or that useful items have more value than purely decorative ones.
So in the timeless classic drama “Boys Over Flowers,” Domyouji falls in love with Makino precisely because she’s resourceful and practical rather than superficial.
26. 寿司詰め – Packed like sushi
Similar to the English phrase “packed like sardines,” this delicious analogy means being squeezed together tightly in a small space. I guess that makes Japan’s professional train pushers more like sushi chefs, right?
27. 腹八分に医者いらず – Eight-tenths full keeps the doctor away
This is just like our “an apple a day” saying, but I’d say the Japanese version is a little more helpful for long-term health. Beyond the simple mantra about eating in moderation, this Japanese idiom expresses the cultural taboo of excess in Japan. The idiom is a more complicated way to say “don’t eat too much!”
28. 砂を噛むよう – Like chewing on sand
If a mouthful of sand doesn’t sound pleasant to you, you’re not alone: This phrase is used to refer to something incredibly dull, tedious or uninteresting.
Sayings about Japanese culture
29. 鯛も一人はうまからず – Eaten alone, even sea bream loses its flavor
Even in modern Japanese, it’s believed that a significant part of the pleasure of eating is to sit around the table to share a meal with loved ones. This philosophy of hospitality, family time and shared meals takes on even more significance in our busy modern lives. When you’re eating alone, even a delicious meal can lose its appeal.
30. 窓際族 – The window tribe
This is a little morsel of Japanese business culture, which refers to employees who don’t do much work (basically, sit and gaze out of the window all day), but are too difficult to fire because of Japanese labor laws and societal restraints. These window gazers, or “seat warmers,” are typically ignored and given little to no work rather than being fired. In recent years, this problem has both gotten better thanks to the introduction of a voluntary retirement system, and worse since employees who don’t take the offer to retire are banished to a room to spend their time away from others with nothing to do.
31. 偽客 – Cherry blossom
You probably know the word 桜 (さくら), as in the ephemeral pink blossoms. But when spelled with the kanji for “false” (偽) and “customers,” (客), the word takes on a different meaning altogether. This kind of sakura is a fake, someone hired by an individual, a business or a production to be a decoy. Sakuras pretend to be an audience member, a customer or a mourner—whatever the situation calls for. The word is also often spelled with katakana, サクラ, to indicate this alternate meaning.
32. 水商売 – Water business
Customers and employees flow through one of these like water. The water business is a business with notoriously fluid, transient employees and revenue. These include businesses with high turnover rates and uncertain profits like the entertainment industry and nightlife, including bars, host clubs, etc.
33. 相変わらず – The same as ever
The English translation is pretty on-point for this one: This one means that something hasn’t changed at all.
Japanese Four Character Phrases: Yojijukugo
四字熟語 (よじ じゅくご) are Four Character Phrases, sets of four words combined into one phrase with idiomatic or proverbial meanings.
They’re made up of four kanji characters, and often come from Chinese proverbs. As such, they can use different readings and meanings of kanji than you might be used to, and can sometimes be difficult for learners to grasp.
Common four character phrases
34. 十人十色 – Ten people, ten colors
This four-character idiom is the equivalent of the English “to each his own.”
35. 起死回生 – Wake from death and turn to life
As dark as this one sounds, it’s an optimistic saying that’s generally used to encourage others to turn a bad situation into a success.
36. 一日一歩 – One day one step
This Japanese idiom encourages us to take one step a day toward our goals.
37. 一期一会 – One opportunity, one encounter
This expresses how every encounter we have is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—the present moment will never happen again after it passes. In modern Japan, it’s sometimes used a little differently, to say that “you only have one life”—a little more poetic than #YOLO!
Many Japanese four-character idioms are derived from Chinese ones (known as chengyu), but this is an example of an indigenous Japanese idiom, derived from the Japanese tea ceremony.
38. 因果応報 – Bad causes, bad results
This emphasizes the Buddhist philosophy of karmic retribution. The English equivalent is “what goes around comes around.”
39. 自業自得 – One’s act, one’s profit
This is like the English “you reap what you sow”—you get what you deserve.
40. 温故知新 – Review past, know future
This phrase asks us to look back at the past and learn from it, and to take that knowledge into the future. It’s similar to the English, “history repeats itself,” as it implies that your knowledge of the past will help you know what can happen in future situations.
41. 一石二鳥 – One stone, two birds
This is exactly like the English “to kill two birds with one stone,” but it’s a little more concise.
42. 花鳥風月 – Flower, bird, wind, moon
This is a poetic phrase that doesn’t have any sort of direct translation, but instead concisely expresses the beauty of nature by listing the kanji for “flower, bird, wind, moon.”
Why Learn Japanese Idioms?
Japanese is a remarkably concise language. Japanese speakers use idioms to express quite complex ideas in a very simple and memorable way. Through idioms, you can both familiarize yourself with the concise nature of Japanese and get on the fast track to speaking like a native.
You’ll sound more fluent when you throw out a few bites of time-honored wisdom!
Japanese idioms are scattered throughout pop culture. Because pop culture is usually produced with a native Japanese audience in mind, idioms can be used in a wide range of contexts. Knowing a few common idioms can really help you to make sense of what you’re reading or watching.
Proverbs and idioms are an integral part of all languages and cultures, and they play a significant role in Japan. Parents school their children using these phrases and they’re used in all areas of public life in Japan, so Japanese people are intimately familiar with them.
Learning idioms and sayings can help us gain a little more insight into the Japanese culture and mindset from feudal times to the modern day.
Many Japanese idioms express ideas or wisdom that we can apply to our own lives—which is the immersive style of learning that really sticks.
If you want to practice correct pronunciation of Japanese idioms and proverbs, check out The Japan Shop’s video playlist YouTube, which breaks down the pronunciation and explains the meanings of phrases in clear detail.
For additional pronunciation practice, Japanese movies and series are great for shadowing, pausing the video and echoing back any idioms as they pop up.
So, add these Japanese idioms to your flashcards and you’ll be on your way to speaking with genuine fluency—and wisdom—before you know it!