Every culture has its own unique idioms and proverbs and many can be taken to heart about that culture’s customs, beliefs, and ways of being. An idiom is a turn of a phrase that utilizes a figure of speech to make an exact point (e.g. “They really rubbed me the wrong way”), while a proverb is a brief and pithy saying that points to a rudimentary piece of advice (e.g. “Don’t cry over spilled milk”).
The Japanese culture contains some very colorful idioms thought to be conveyed by deities through oracles. It also has entertaining proverbs that hold a particularly significant place within Japanese culture, largely due to the belief that they were wisdom passed down through ancestors.
It is worth noting that there are many phrases in English that can be used as rough translations for these Japanese proverbs and idioms, but there is never a direct equivalent, due to the fact that these aphorisms are very culturally and contextually dependent.
As an example, the Japanese proverb “Nen ni wa nen o ireyo” has been translated into “Look before you leap,” but a more exact translation of the phrase is “Put care into care,” which is a considerably different meaning than the English translation.
Here are 11 sage Japanese translations that provide some meaningful everyday reminders:
1. Ganbatte Kudasai.
This is one of my favorites. Used figuratively as “Good luck,” it literally means “Persevere.”
2. Kuchi wa wazawai no moto.
A mouth causes trouble.
There are myriad Japanese idioms and proverbs that promote the power of silence and stillness, and this is one of them. This idiom roughly translates into “Silence is golden,” or that talking too much can often lead to trouble in certain situations.
3. Nana korobi ya oki.
Fall seven times, get up eight.
This Japanese proverb has been used and translated so extensively that it has become part of the English lexicon, the equivalent of “If at first you do not succeed, try and try again.” The saying stresses the importance of perseverance, ultimately bouncing back after any setbacks that occur on the path to success.
4. Hana yori dango.
Dumplings over flowers.
This saying is quite universal since it is extolling the virtues of a gift that is practical (we need to eat!), over a gift that is simply beautiful. Then again, if we were desperate, I guess we could eat flowers!
5. Minu ga hana.
Not seeing is a flower.
Roughly translated into English as “Reality is never as good as your imagination.” The point being that oftentimes, what we can envision in our minds is better than what we can actually see in the real world.
6. Derukui wa utareru.
The nail that sticks out is struck.
This strikes directly at a firm Japanese cultural belief that we should act as a group, instead of the typical Western logic of acting independently, for ourselves.
7. Ido no naka no kaeru wa umi o shiranai.
A frog in the well knows not the ocean.
Believed to be derived from an ancient Chinese fable about a frog who has lived its entire life in a well and is visited by a sea turtle from the ocean. The ultimate takeaway of this Japanese proverb is that we all have a limited view of the world, and there is always, invariably, more than we are able to see or experience.
8. Jigou jitoku.
You get what you deserve.
This very direct proverb is not dissimilar to the English version “You reap what you sow.” Specifically meaning you get out of life what you are willing to put into it, so be certain to live your life by giving openness, kindness, and generosity.
9. Makeru ga kachi.
To lose means to win.
This saying reveals quite a bit about Japanese cultural attitudes: The idea being that sometimes the best way to win is simply to walk away. Some situations simply are just not worth getting tangled up in.
10. Ai to seki o kakusu koto wa dekimasen.
Love and a cough cannot be hidden.
Meaning just as it is difficult to stifle a cough, it is practically impossible for you to hide your feelings when you love someone.
11. Nito wo ou mono wa itto mo ezu.
A man who chases two rabbits does not deserve one.
The English equivalent of course is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” In other words, if you get greedy, you may wind up with nothing.