Have you ever come across an odd Japanese phrase that just makes… no sense whatsoever?
You think you understand what all the individual words in the phrase mean—but that meaning doesn’t seem to mean anything.
When watching a movie, anime or dorama with English subtitles, the completely untranslatable phrase is translated literally into English, leaving us scratching our heads and thinking, “what was that supposed to be about?”
What you’ve just read or heard was probably a 諺 (ことわざ), which is a Japanese idiom or proverb.
Many 諺 are quite ancient and haven’t changed since historical times. For this reason, many are inspired by nature and agriculture, and they often use very beautiful imagery to express an idea or philosophy.
Why Learn Japanese Idioms?
Japanese is a remarkably concise language. Japanese speakers use 諺 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 fluent when you throw out a few bites of time-honored wisdom!
諺 are scattered throughout Japanese 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 諺 can help us gain a little more insight into the Japanese culture and mindset from feudal times to the modern day.
If you want to practice correct pronunciation of Japanese idioms and proverbs, check out this playlist of videos on YouTube, which breaks down the pronunciation and explains the meanings of phrases in clear detail.
29 Japanese Idioms That Tell It Like It Is
言い習わし are a type of 諺 which are short phrases, usually using some kind of allegorical example from daily life, nature or agriculture to pass on some wisdom or philosophy.
1. 出る杭は打たれる (でるくいはうたれる)
English translation: The nail that sticks up will be hammered down
The most commonly-known 言い習わし outside of Japan is probably 出る杭は打たれる, which means that by standing out, you invite criticism.
2. 案ずるより産むが易し (あんずるよりうむがやすし)
English translation: 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.
3. 知らぬが仏 (しらぬがほとけ)
English translation: 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.
4. 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず (こけつにいらずんばこじをえず)
English translation: 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.
5. 井の中の蛙大海を知らず (いのなかのかわずたいかいをしらず)
English translation: 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.
6. 鯛も一人はうまからず (たいもひとりはうまからず)
English translation: Eaten alone, even sea bream loses its flavor
This is another one of my favorites.
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.
7. 腹八分に医者いらず (はらはちぶにいしゃいらず)
English translation: 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 諺 expresses the cultural taboo of excess in Japan.
8. 明日のことを言うと天井のネズミが笑う (あしたのことをいうとてんじょうのねずみがわらう)
English translation: 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.”
9. 明日は明日の風が吹く (あしたは あしたのかぜがふく)
English translation: 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.”
10. 雨降って地固まる (あめふってじかたまる)
English translation: 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”—but I personally like the Japanese version much better.
These 諺 are a little shorter than 言い習わし, but also often use images from nature and agriculture to express their meaning. If you want to learn some more 慣用句, check out ten more in this article from Japanese Words.
11. 花より団子 (はなよりだんご)
English translation: Dumplings over flowers
Everyone’s favorite dorama actually uses a 慣用句 to create the title: “花より男子” (or “Boys Over Flowers” in English). This is a play on the phrase presented above, 花より団子, 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 dorama “花より男子,” Domyouji falls in love with Makino precisely because she’s resourceful and practical rather than superficial.
12. 相変わらず (あいかわらず)
English translation: The same as ever
13. 猿も木から落ちる (さるもきからおちる)
English translation: Even monkeys fall out of trees
We all make mistakes! Comfort your Japanese friends after a blunder by saying this cute phrase.
14. 朝飯前 (あさめしまえ)
English translation: I’ll do it before I eat breakfast
This has the same meaning as “a piece of cake” in English.
15. 見ぬが花 (みぬがはな)
English translation: Not seeing is a flower
This another gorgeous one, meaning that reality can’t compete with imagination.
16. 天下り (あまくだり)
English translation: 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.
17. 猫に小判 (ねこにこばん)
English translation: Like gold coins to a cat
This is like the English “casting pearls before swine,” but uses “like gold coins to a cat” to express the folly of wasting beauty or quality on somebody who doesn’t appreciate it.
18. 七転び八起き (ななころびやおき)
English translation: Fall seven times, stand up eight
Motivate yourself through tough times with this idiom. It translates as “fall seven times, stand up eight,” and it’s a reminder that when life knocks you down, all you’ve got to do is stand back up. That eight time standing up is what counts in the end—not the seven falls.
19. 口が滑る (くちがすべる)
English translation: 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.
四字熟語 are the shortest 諺, and really show how concise Japanese can be. They’re made up of four kanji characters and are basically untranslatable, as the characters don’t necessarily represent the meaning of the idiom.
You can learn more 四字熟語 and read about their origins in China in this Tofugu article.
20. 因果応報 (いんがおおほう)
English translation: Bad causes, bad results
This emphasizes the Buddhist philosophy of karmic retribution. The English equivalent is “what goes around comes around.”
21. 自業自得 (じごうじとく)
English translation: One’s act/one’s profit
This is like the English “you reap what you sow.”
22. 一期一会 (いちごいちえ)
English translation: One opportunity, one encounter
This expresses how every encounter we have is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 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 四字熟語 are derived from Chinese four-character idioms (known as chengyu), but this is an example of an indigenous Japanese idiom.
23. 十人十色 (じゅうにんといろ)
English translation: Ten people, ten colors
This is just like “to each his own.”
24. 起死回生 (きしかいせい)
English translation: Wake from death and turn to life
I like this one because while it’s optimistic, and it’s used to encourage others to turn a bad situation into a success, it really highlights how terrible it can feel to be in a bad situation.
25. 花鳥風月 (かちょうふうげつ)
English translation: 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.”
26. 一石二鳥 (いっせきにちょう)
English translation: One stone, two birds
This is exactly like the English “to kill two birds with one stone,” but it’s a little more concise. It simply reads “one stone, two birds.”
27. 一日一歩 (いちにちいっぽ)
English translation: One day one step
This is the kanji for “one day one step,” and it encourages us to take one step a day toward our goals.
28. 温故知新 (おんこちしん)
English translation: Review past, know future
This is to look back at the past and learn from it, and to take that knowledge into the future. It’s a little bit similar to our English, “history repeats itself,” as it implies that your knowledge of the past will help you know what can happen in future situations.
29. 異体同心 (いたいどうしん)
English translation: Two bodies, one heart
This expresses the harmony of mind between two people as “two bodies, one heart.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, don’t you think?
So, do you feel wiser now?
Closer to the Japanese mindset than ever before?
Or maybe you’re just relieved to finally understand what “Boys Over Flowers” was supposed to mean as a dorama title!
Many 諺 express ideas or wisdom that we can apply to our own lives—which is the immersive style of learning that really sticks.
So, add these to your flashcards, and you’ll be speaking with genuine fluency—and the wisdom of a monk—before you know it!
And One More Thing…
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