Understand 13 great Japanese proverbs, sayings and idioms

Check out other posts in this series exploring proverbs in German, Hungarian, Italian, English, Russian and Estonian.

 

Japanese proverbs are both a reflection of the culture and an instructive guide to life. They have been passed down orally from generation to generation with few changes, as well as being documented in writing.

They can also be used to illustrate the importance of not letting one’s ambition get in the way of complying with social norms, as this will ultimately result in failure.

This article will explore some of these famous Japanese proverbs and their meanings.

1. Anzuru yori umu ga yasashii (案ずるより産むが易しい。)

Translation: Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.

Meaning: When you have a child, your worries about them become more than just thoughts.

This proverb warns not to worry too much because it will only make the situation worse and cause undue stress on yourself. It is better to be proactive in solving problems before they arise rather than waiting until something happens.

2. Deru kugi wa utareru. (出る杭は打たれる。)

Translation: The stake that sticks up gets hammered down.

Meaning: This proverb warns against sticking out or being too noticeable. When you stand out, there is a chance of others not liking the attention and taking action to stop it.

3.Shiranu ga hotoke. (知らぬが仏。)

Translation: Not knowing is Buddha.

Meaning: This proverb means that if you do not know, there is no need to worry or be anxious. Ignorance can sometimes also mean being peaceful because it removes the burden of knowledge and responsibility for something.

4.Minu ga hana. (見ぬが花。)

Translation: Not seeing is a flower.

Meaning: This proverb means that not seeing is the same as beauty. When you do not see something, it can be looked at in a different way and seen with new eyes.

5.Hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi. (花は桜木人は武士)

Translation: Of flowers, the cherry blossom; of men, the warrior.

Meaning: This proverb is used to say that the cherry blossom represents beauty and bravery while the warrior symbolizes strength. Flowers are like a cherry tree, people are warriors.

6.Neko ni koban (猫に小判)

Translation: Gold coins to a cat.

Meaning: The idea of giving something of value to someone who finds it worthless. It’s a common Japanese phrase meaning “it doesn’t matter”. A cat can be given gold coins, but it probably won’t care about them because they don’t have any real value to the animal.

7.Nanakorobi yaoki (七転び八起き)

Translation: Fall seven times and stand up eight.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means if one fails many times, they will eventually succeed. It represents perseverance and resilience. The more you try to stand up after falling down, the easier it will be for you to successfully do so in the future as long as you don’t give up too soon.

8.Saru mo ki kara ochiru (猿も木から落ちる)

Translation: Even monkeys fall from trees.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means that even the most talented or experienced people make mistakes. It’s reassuring for those who have no experience to know they will eventually learn from their failures, instead of being discouraged by them. Sometimes when you focus on one thing and neglect all others, you may lose sight of what really matters in life.

9.Hana yori dango (花より団子)

Translation: Dumplings rather than flowers.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means people prefer practical things like food, shelter and money over more abstract or intangible items like love.

10.Jūnin toiro (十人十色)

Translation: Ten persons, ten colors.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means everyone has their own opinions, so it’s difficult to judge if someone was right or wrong. This reflects the diversity of perspectives in life and emphasizes how we cannot decide who is correct due to this difference because everyone sees.

11.Inga ōhō (因果応報)

Translation: Bad causes bring bad results.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means consequences of actions are directly tied to their origins.

12.Kimi no tame ni ikiru (きみのために生きる)

Translation: Living for you.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means living out of selflessness and putting oneself at risk to ensure another’s well-being and safety. This expresses the deep love and feeling like one has to put themselves in harm’s way for the person they love.

13.Jaku niku kyō shoku (弱肉強食)

Translation: The weak are meat; the strong eat.

Meaning: This is a Japanese proverb that means survival of the fittest. It can be interpreted as saying those who are weaker should get out of the way and avoid being hurt because they will simply be food for those with more power, or it can mean “those at the top have all-encompassing power”.

Learn about more interesting Japanese proverbs in these videos