japanese-idioms

19 Fun and Bizarre Japanese Idioms to Try On for Size

The cat’s out of the bag.

I spilled the beans.

And now here I am with my foot in my mouth.

And it tastes like…foot.

Once upon a time, while tutoring a fellow high school student in Japanese for an essay he had to write, I had to explain to him why literally translating “roller coaster ride of fun” would not be an effective literary device.

“But…do they not have roller coasters in Japan? Why wouldn’t they understand?” he asked me.

Idioms. It’s all about idioms and figurative speech.

Idioms can be frustrating when you’re learning Japanese, whether you’re doing it online, in a classroom or while traveling in Japan.

You finally feel like you grasp mechanics and grammatical rules, your vocabulary is swelling like biscuits in a hot oven and now you have to deal with figurative language? What the hell?

Don’t wet yourself just yet, though, because we’ve dug up 19 of the most amusing Japanese idioms we could find, and sources for learning more.
 


 
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What Are 慣用句 (かんようく) ?

慣用句 are, simply, idioms.

Now wasn’t that as easy as pie?

慣 (かん) means “custom” or “usual,” while 用 (よう) means “use” and 句 (く) means “phrase.” All together, they refer to expressions using commonly known concepts (food, animals, etc.) in figurative ways to describe commonly known conditions (personalities, emotions, behaviors, etc.).

Some English examples are:

It’s as easy as pie.

This is a piece of cake.

The early bird catches the worm.

It’s raining cats and dogs.

An idiom can be a ことわざ (proverb). In Japanese, there are also 四字熟語 (よじ じゅくご — four character phrases), and 言い習わし(いいならわし — habits of speech). The former are sets of four words combined into one phrase with idiomatic or proverbial meanings, and the latter are more literal than idioms, which are figurative and symbolic.

Idioms can take many different forms: verb phrases, nouns, noun phrases, adverbs, interjections, full expressions, adjectives and whatever else your mind can find. You use them just like any other part of speech. If it’s a verb phrase, just insert the idiom into a conversation whenever appropriate. If it’s a noun or noun phrase, use it to refer to someone (“he’s such a shark,” etc.). Some idioms are more natural and others are a little harder to use, but they all have the potential to be entertaining.

Below are 19 of the most amusing and interesting Japanese idioms I could find. Before we get started, just know that a few of the examples below may not be appropriate for younger readers, and that everyone else should prepare themselves for the onset of laughter. Enjoy!

19 Fun and Bizarre Japanese Idioms to Try On for Size

Nature and Weather

1. サクラ (さくら)

Literal: “cherry blossom”

Figurative: a plant, a confederate; a hired audience member, paid to act like they’re enjoying the production; decoy, fake

English equivalent: “plant,” “shill,” “laugh track”

Example: 

あいつしか映画を見て、ゲラゲラ笑ってないんだよね〜。サクラじゃん?(あいつ しか えいがをみて、げらげら わらって ないんだよね~。さくら じゃん?)

“That guy’s the only one laughing at the movie…perhaps he’s a shill/plant?”

2. 水商売 (みずしょうばい)

Literal: “water business”

Figurative: businesses with notoriously fluid, transient income levels, such as bars, clubs, brothels, etc.

English equivalent: “nightlife,” “entertainment industry” 

Example:

ママさんのスナックが先週、倒産しちゃったんだ。ここら辺は、水商売がいっぱいだからね。(ままさんの すなっくが せんしゅう、とうさんしちゃったんだ。ここらへんは、みずしょうばいが いっぱいだからね。)

“The proprietress’s hostess bar just went bankrupt last week, you know. This area is full of sketchy nightlife.”

3. 雨が降ろうと、槍が降ろうと (あめが ふろうと、やりがふろうと)

Literal: “even if rain or spears are falling”

Figurative: no matter what happens

English equivalent: “come hell or high water”

Example:

雨が降ろうと、槍が降ろうと、この残り一枚のクッキーを食べ切るぞ!(あめが ふろうと、やりが ふろうと、この のこり いちまいの くっきーをたべきるぞ!)

“Even if rain or spears are falling, by God I will finish this last cookie!”

4. 砂を噛むよう (すなをかむよう)

Literal: “like chewing on sand”

Figurative: dull, tedious, insipid, uninteresting, like chewing on sand day in and day out

English equivalent: “dry as dust,” “hum-drum,” “hard knock,” “mind-numbing,” “bland”

Example:

毎日毎日、この窓のそばに座って、何もやらない。この仕事は、砂を噛むようだ。(まいにち まいにち、この まどの そばに すわって、なにも やらない。この しごとは、すなをかむようだ。)

“I’ve been sitting by this window every single day, doing nothing. This job is mind-numbingly dull.”

Animals

5. 猫も杓子も (ねこもしゃくしも)

Literal: “even cats and rice ladles”

Figurative: everyone you can think of, a lot of people, almost seemingly everyone possible

English equivalent: “everybody and their mother”

Example:

猫も杓子もデートをしたいほど、彼はカッコいいわ。(ねこも しゃくしも でーとをしたい ほど、かれは かっこいいわ。)

“He’s so hot, everybody and their mother wants to date him.”

6. ごまめの歯ぎしり (ごまめのはぎしり)

Literal: “little fish grinding their teeth”

Figurative: trivial, of no consequence; tiny fish grinding their teeth have no power or produce no effect

English equivalent: “a whisper in the wind,” “there are bigger fish to fry”

Example: 

なんでいつも彼の文句を言うの?それはごまめの歯ぎしりだよ。自分のことを気にした方がいいよ。(なんで いつも かれの もんくをいうの?それは ごまめの はぎしり だよ。じぶんのことをきにしたほうが いいよ。)

“Why are you complaining about him? He’s inconsequential. You need to focus on yourself.”

7. 月とすっぽん (つきとすっぽん)

Literal: “the moon and a soft-shell turtle”

Figurative: as different as the moon and a turtle

English equivalent: “apples and oranges,” “night and day”

Example:

アメリカの政府とイギリスのシステムは、月とすっぽんだ。アメリカには女王さえいないよ。(あめりかの せいふと いぎりすの しすてむは、つきと すっぽんだ。あめりかには じょおうさえ いないよ。)

“The American government and the British system are like night and day. The United States doesn’t even have a queen!”

8. イタチの最後っ屁 (いたちのさいごっぺ)

Literal: “a weasel’s last fart”

Figurative: the last thing someone can do when they’re cornered

English equivalent: “last resort,” “rally,” “final measure,” “one last push,” “last ditch effort”

Example:

この試験、きっと赤点だ。イタチの最後っ屁で、残りの問題は当てずっぽうで答えよう。(この しけん、きっと あかてんだ。いたちの さいごっぺで、のこりの もんだいは あてずっぽうで こたえよう。)

“Surely I’m going to fail this test. It’s a last ditch effort, but I’m going to guess on the rest of the questions.”

Food

9. 寿司詰め (すしづめ)

Literal: “packed like sushi”

Figurative: squeezed together tightly, in a small space

English equivalent: “packed like sardines”

Example:

ラッシュアワーの池袋行きの山手線は、乗客が寿司詰めの電車に押し入れられるんだ。(らっしゅあわーの いけぶくろ いきの やまてせんは、じょうきゃくが すしづめの でんしゃに おしいれられるんだ。)

“Passengers taking the Yamanote Line to Ikebukuro during rush hour are shoved onto a train packed like a can of sardines.”

10. 朝飯前 (あさめしまえ)

Literal: “before the morning meal”

Figurative: a task that can easily be accomplished before breakfast

English equivalent: “a piece of cake”

Example:

「時々、六つのことも朝飯前に想像するんだよ。想像は朝飯前のことなんだ」とチェシャにゃんこちゃんが言った。(ときどき、むっつのことも あさめしまえにそうぞうするんだよ。そうぞうは あさめしまえのことなんだ」とちぇしゃにゃんこちゃんが いった。)

“‘Sometimes, I imagine as many as six things before breakfast. Imagination is a piece of cake, you know,'” said the Cheshire cat.”

11. 花より団子 (はなよりだんご)

Literal: “dumplings over flowers”

Figurative: the practical (food) is preferred over the aesthetic (flowers)

English equivalent: “quality over quantity,” “substance over style”

Example: 

彼はとってもカッコいいけど、性格が悪い。彼の弟は顔はまあまあだけど、性格が良い。花より団子だね。(かれはとってもかっこいいけど、せいかくが わるい。かれの おとうとは かおはまあまあだけど、せいかくがいい。はなよりだんごだね。)

“He’s very attractive, but his personality is crap. His little brother is only so-so, but he’s a good guy, and personality trumps looks, you know.”

People

12. 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない (ばかはしななきゃなおらない)

Literal: “only death can cure an idiot”

Figurative: ignorance can’t be cured, you can’t help someone who’s ignorant or stupid

English equivalent: “you can’t fix stupid,” “once an idiot, always an idiot”

Example:

ひろき君に、コンロが点いている時は触らないように教えた。でも相変わらず熱いコンロを触って、手を火傷している。馬鹿は死ななきゃ、治らないんだろうね〜。(ひろきくんに、こんろがついているときはさわらないように おしえた。でもあいかわらずあついこんろをさわって、てをやけどしている。ばかはしななきゃ、なおらないんだろうね~。)

“I tried teaching Hiroki-kun not to touch a stove when it’s turned on. Yet, as usual, he keeps touching a hot stove and burning his hand. I guess you can’t cure stupid.”

13. 窓際族 (まどぎわぞく)

Literal: “the window tribe”*

Figurative: people promoted beyond their peers but who must still sit among them, usually at a window-side desk, rather than in their own offices like those in top managerial positions

English equivalent: “suits,” “drones,” “seat warmers”

*This is a little morsel of Japanese business culture, which may not translate well into English.

Example:

サラは昇進した後、窓際族になってしまい、何もせず、ただ窓のそばのデスクに座っている。それは砂を噛むような生活に違いない。(さらは しょうしんしたあと、まどぎわぞくに なってしまい、なにもせず、ただ まどのそばの ですくに すわっている。それは すなをかむような せいかつに ちがいない。)

“Ever since Sara was promoted, she’s become a member of the window tribe and does nothing but sit at a desk by the window. It must be so dull, like chewing on sand.”

14. 地獄に仏 (じごくにほとけ)

Literal: “my Buddha in hell”

Figurative: someone helpful in a bad situation or place

English equivalent: “my savior,” “my personal Jesus,” “a saving grace,” “my light in a dark place”

Example: 

八木先生の教室は、すごく臭い。私の隣の席に座っている友達は毎日コロンをつけているから、地獄に仏だ。その香りが臭い匂いを消してくれる。(やぎせんせいの きょうしつ は、すごく くさい。わたしの となりの せきに すわっている ともだちは まいにち ころんをつけているから、じごくに ほとけだ。そのかおりが くさい においをけしてくれる。)

“Mr. Yagi’s classroom is so rancid. My friend who sits next to me wears cologne every day, though, and he’s my savior. The scent almost overpowers the room’s stench.”

15. 内弁慶 (うちべんけい)

Literal: “a warlord at home”

Figurative: braggart, someone boisterous and boastful in private but meek in public

English equivalent: “lion at home, mouse abroad,” “all bark and no bite”

Example:

お兄ちゃんは、家ではうるさくて意地悪だ。でも外へ出たとたん、ネズミみたく、大人しくて恥ずかしがり屋になる。お兄ちゃんは本物の内弁慶なんだ。(おにいちゃんは、いえではうるさくていじわるだ。でもそとへでたとたん、ねずみみたく、おとなしくてはずかしがりやになる。おにいちゃんはほんもののうちべんけいなんだ。)

“Big brother is so loud and mean at home, but as soon as we step outside, he’s like a mouse. He’s quiet and shy, but a real warlord at home.”

Miscellaneous

16. ちゃんぽん

Literal: “ching-boom,” “chanpon”

Figurative: mixing things that shouldn’t go together; an onomatopoeia based on the sound of your head hitting the table; a mixed dish of noodles, seafood and vegetables

English equivalent: “mish-mash”

Example:

昨日の夜、ちほさんがビール、ワイン、ウィスキーを全部混ぜて、ちゃんぽんしちゃったわ!(きのうのよる、ちほさんが びーる、わいん、うぃすきーをぜんぶ まぜて、ちゃんぽんしちゃったわ!)

“Last night, Chiho mixed beer, wine and whiskey all together, then boom! She was out like a light!”

17. 知らぬが仏 (しらぬがほとけ)

Literal: “not knowing is Buddha”

Figurative: not knowing or thinking about something worrisome makes you more relaxed; what you don’t know doesn’t stress you out

English equivalent: “ignorance is bliss,” “what you don’t know won’t hurt you”

Example:

もし夫が居酒屋で馬鹿なことをするんだったら、知りたくないわ。知らぬが仏だから。(もしおっとがいざかやでばかなことをするんだったら、しりたくないわ。しらぬがほとけだから。)

“If my husband does something stupid at the bar, I don’t want to know about it. Not knowing is bliss.”

18. 暖簾に腕押し (のれんにうでおし)

Literal: “pushing shop curtains with arms”

Figurative: a useless, ineffective action, wasted effort, like wrestling or pushing against something that hangs passively

English equivalent: “mountains out of molehills,” “p**sing in the wind,” “haste makes waste”

Example:

ひろきさんはとても頑固なので、彼と言い争うのはまるで暖簾に腕押しだ。(ひろきさんは とても がんこなので、かれと いいあらそうのは まるで のれんに うでおしだ。)

“Hiroki is so stubborn, arguing with him is like p**sing in the wind.”

19. 小便横町 (しょうべんよこちょう/しょんべんよこちょう)

Literal: “urine alleys/streets”

Figurative: small city streets, alleyways that are dirty and smelly

English equivalent: “back alleys” “p**s alley”

Example:

こんな汚い小便横町には、水商売の店がたくさん立ち並んでいるに違いない。(こんな きたないしょうべんよこちょうには、みずしょうばいの みせがたくさん たちならんでいるにちがいない。)

“In such a dirty back alley like this, there are bound to be a lot of entertainment businesses.”

Did anyone else laugh so hard their butts fell off? No? Only me?

If you want to learn more turns of phrase, try “Listen & Learn: 101 Japanese Idioms,” by Michael L. and Senko K. Maynard.

Japanese idioms are the bee’s knees.

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