50 Inspirational Japanese Proverbs, Quotes and Sayings That Are Full of Wisdom
Japanese is a language renowned for its short but highly meaningful quotes, proverbs and sayings. In fact, it’s sometimes said that all of Japanese culture can be found within them.
So in order to really understand the language, the culture and the Japanese people, it’s important to learn the quintessential Japanese quotes, Japanese proverbs and Japanese sayings.
They provide timeless wisdom and insight into life, love, money and work—all the big issues.
And Japanese proverbs, or kotowaza, 諺 (ことわざ), are used all the time in Japanese. There are three main types of kotowaza:
- Iinarawashi — 言い習わし (いいならわし) — short proverbs
- Yojijukugo — 四字熟語 (よじじゅくご) — four-character sayings
- Kanyouku — (慣用句 (かんようく) — idiomatic phrases
We include the most well known of all three of these categories. Read on to learn the best 50 Japanese quotes, proverbs and sayings to help you understand Japanese culture better today.
- The Most Important Japanese Quotes and Sayings (Kanyouku)
- Most Well Known Japanese Proverbs (Iinarawashi)
- Inspirational Japanese Four-character Sayings (Yojijukugo)
- Why Study Japanese Quotes, Proverbs and Sayings?
- And One More Thing...
The Most Important Japanese Quotes and Sayings (Kanyouku)
Japan is an old country. Legend has it that the country was founded in 600 B.C. by Emperor Jimmu. So, of course, during this 2600 years, you’d be correct to assume that Japanese culture has acquired a lot of wisdom.
Much of this wisdom is contained in various quotes, proverbs and sayings. We’ll start here with the very most famous quotes and sayings from Japanese culture.
1. 石の上にも三年 — Three years on a rock
Patience and perseverance lead to success; good things take time. So that three boring years on a rock could actually be a good thing.
2. 天に唾する — Spitting at the sky
Engaging in futile or foolish actions; doing something pointless. This one reminds me of the famous Spanish novel “Don Quixote,” where the book’s title character has “battles” with windmills.
3. 出る杭は打たれる — The nail that sticks out gets hammered down
Conformity is valued in Japanese society; standing out may bring criticism. Seems almost the opposite of “ten people, ten colors,” right? Well, wisdom is like that. Sometimes, two things can be true at the same time.
4. 七転び八起き — Fall seven times, get up eight
Perseverance is key; no matter how many times you fall, always rise and try again.
5. 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.
6. 知恵は磨けば光る — Wisdom shines when polished
Continuous learning and effort enhance one’s wisdom and knowledge. And wisdom is especially valued in Japanese society.
7. 水は水 — Water is water
Accept things as they are; a reminder to acknowledge simplicity and truth.
8. 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず — If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you won’t catch its cub
No risk, no reward; taking risks leads to success.
9. 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.
10. 出る釘は打たれる — The nail that sticks out gets hammered down
Conformity is valued in Japanese society; standing out may bring criticism.
11. 口は災いの元 — The tongue is the source of calamity
Be cautious with your words; speaking carelessly can lead to trouble.
12. 瓜の蔓に茄子はならぬ — An eggplant doesn’t grow on a melon vine
Things are as they are; different things cannot coexist in the same environment.
13. 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず — One who chases two rabbits catches neither
Focusing on too many things at once may result in achieving none. This proverb reminds me of a Taylor Swift lyric: “Chase two girls, lose the one.”
14. 一寸先は闇 — Darkness is just one inch away
Be cautious, as danger may be very close. Perhaps this is rooted in Japan’s long history with earthquakes?
15. 目から鱗 — A fish from the eyes
Something unexpected or surprising; like a fish appearing from someone’s eyes. Creepy, right?
Most Well Known Japanese Proverbs (Iinarawashi)
言い習わし (いいならわし) Iinarawashi are referred to as habits of speech. These proverbs are sayings that are often more literal and less figurative than idioms.
They’re usually short and always share a bit of wisdom or truth.
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.
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. 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?
26. 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 polite way to say “don’t eat too much!”
27. 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.
28. 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.
29. 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.
30. 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.
31. 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.
32. 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.
Inspirational Japanese Four-character Sayings (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.
33. 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.
34. 一日一歩 — One day one step
This Japanese idiom encourages us to take one step a day toward our goals.
35. 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.”
37. 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.
38. 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.
39. 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.”
It demonstrates the Japanese love and admiration for nature.
40. 一日千秋 — One day, a thousand autumns
Waiting for something eagerly can make time seem to pass very slowly, so it’s best to slow down. This one reminds me of the English idiom, “a watched pot never boils.”
41. 十人十色 — Ten people, ten colors
Everyone is unique, with their own individuality and preferences. This four-character quote is the equivalent of the English “to each his own.”
42. 天真爛漫 — Innocent and lively like the sky
This describes someone who is cheerful and carefree, or someone with an open and straightforward personality. It’s the kind of person we’d all like to have as a good friend.
43. 前途有望 — A promising future lies ahead
A positive outlook for the future; a bright prospect. Even though many of these proverbs are about being careful and considered, there is indeed room for hope, too.
44. 自画自賛 — Self-praise
Boasting about oneself, too much self-admiration, or blowing one’s own horn is looked down upon in Japanese proverbs.
45. 意気揚々, 大器晩成 — High-spirited, great talents mature late
This means being full of enthusiasm is great, but real talent takes a while to develop, so don’t rush it. The concept of being in the moment and not rushing things comes up a lot in Japanese proverbs.
46. 不眠不休, 因果応報 — Sleepless nights, tireless days; retribution for one’s deeds
Working hard without rest is good, but karma will eventually catch up. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for work or studying, you’ll relate to this one. I know I do.
47. 危機一髪 — A hair’s breadth from crisis
This one means that you’re on the verge of a crisis, or have experienced a very close call. I always think of the frequency of natural disasters in Japan when I read this type of proverb.
48. 自業自得 — One’s own doing, one’s own getting
This wise quote means reaping what one has sown, and knowing the consequences of one’s own actions. This is a popular theme in Japanese proverbs, where self-reliance is often spoken about.
49. 盛者必衰, 八方美人 — Success will not last forever
Success may not last forever, and people tend to befriend the successful. But you know who your real friends are when you’re down on your luck, right?
50. 石橋を叩いて渡る — Hitting a stone bridge before crossing it
This one means that being cautious and prepared for challenges before facing them. So, you’ll want to check that the stone bridge you’re about to cross is sturdy.
You can find these Japanese quotes, proverbs and sayings used in context in the video library of FluentU:
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Why Study Japanese Quotes, Proverbs and Sayings?
Japanese people are seldom straightforward. Because of their culture’s preference for politeness, they often say things in an indirect way, and sometimes they even answer a question with a Japanese proverb or saying.
Because of this, as a Japanese learner, you need to learn these popular sayings, too. They contain thousands of years of wisdom, so it’s definitely not a waste of time.
Here are the main ways studying Japanese proverbs, quotes and sayings can help your learning journey:
- Cultural insight: Proverbs reflect cultural values, providing a deeper understanding of Japanese society.
- Language mastery: Proverbs offer unique expressions, expanding vocabulary and enhancing language skills.
- Contextual usage: Learners grasp nuances and use expressions effectively in diverse situations.
- Memory aid: Memorizing idioms aids vocabulary retention and recall.
- Cultural sensitivity: Knowing proverbs demonstrates cultural awareness and fosters positive interactions.
- Literary appreciation: Sayings enrich literary understanding, contributing to poetry and traditional arts appreciation.
- Critical thinking: Analyzing Japanese quotes fosters critical thinking and understanding of human nature.
- Self-expression: Japanese proverbs enable nuanced and expressive communication.
- Cultural integration: Using proverbs builds connections and rapport, aiding integration into Japanese-speaking communities.
So there you have it. I hope you’ve gained some insights from these ancient Japanese proverbs, quotes and sayings. I also hope you’ll have a chance to hear one in real life, or better yet, use one. It’s always a good idea to sound wise!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)