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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Idioms

七転び八起き・Nanakorobiyaoki Do you know what that is? That’s one of the Japanese idioms. An idiom is an expression, quote, or phrase that usually brings up a figurative meaning that is not literal, that is connected to the phrase. It is often a customary turn of phrase that is only comprehensible because it is popular and used by most people. Anyone who is not used to the language will not know the idioms as it is often neglected in the process of learning, but is crucial to learning.  These idioms use typical words that have a special meaning to those in the know. 

Nanakorobiyaoki, You have probably heard of this phrase before in English. Fall down seven times, stand up eight. A simple phrase that actually has a deeper meaning. It means even if you keep failing at something, you don’t give up and that your perseverance will be rewarded eventually. Even if you get knocked down seven times, the eighth time you stand up is what truly matters and not the times you failed. Idioms are in almost every language and are a part of what makes that language special. 

Every country has its own funny wordings to express global experiences and sentiment. Japan uses many idioms in day-to-day conversations and it will definitely come in handy for you to know some so you can feel more connected with Japanese people and sound more fluent in Japanese. Check out the article,  Ultimate Guide to Japanese Conversation for more information. 

Sometimes they can be funny or sometimes strange, but they’re guaranteed to be fun to try and say to yourself! In this article, we’ll go over why you NEED Japanese idioms, English idiom you already know but in Japanese, differences between Japanese proverbs and idioms, kotowaza, and so many different types of Japanese idiom examples for every circumstance you can think of. 

This article is a part of our extensive series of articles on Self-studying Japanese.

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    This is why you need Japanese idioms

    Why would you need Japanese idioms anyways? Just learning your nouns and verbs isn’t enough, you’ve gotta know phrases that are commonly known in Japanese! You might be confused when a common Japanese idiom comes up in conversation. 

    The number one reason that you should know Japanese idioms is to have conversations in Japanese sounding like a native. They make boring conversations more lively and fun. Who wouldn’t want to throw in, イタチの最後っ屁・Itachi no saigo ppe‘A weasel’s last fart’ into conversation while at the same time sounding like you know Japanese? It actually means, someone’s last-ditch effort in a tough situation. With these idioms, they give you a new, creative way to convey yourself and a more complex and engrossing expression.

    Another purpose of learning Japanese Idioms is to understand Japan and its culture better. Many of these idioms are unique to Japan and express the way that the Japanese think. For every country, the focus on idioms is different and they may have varied types that reflect on their society. For example, in Japan, there are many life and nature-related idioms. This is because Japan, generally, the culture emphasizes harmony, humbleness, and appreciation of nature. A big factor may be because the main religions in the country are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto’s focal point is purity and optimism. It revolves around rituals to elude evil spirits and praying to the kami. Meanwhile, Buddhism stresses non-violence, karma, reincarnation, and personal spiritual growth. 

    To learn more about grammar in Japanese, check out Ultimate Guide to Japanese Adverbs.

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    Top 10 most common Japanese idioms used every day

    Now you must really want to know the most common Japanese idioms that are used most often in day-to-day conversations. So here are 10 of the most useful ones for you. Have these handy for the near future! 

    1. 腹八分に医者いらず・Hara hachi bunme ni ishairazu (Eight-tenths full keeps the doctor away) 

    • This one my Japanese mother says a lot, it means to eat only 80% of your stomach capacity so you don’t overindulge in food. 
    • For example, “腹八分目に医者いらずということを守っていれば、きっと胃腸を壊すことはないだろう。” Harahachibunme ni ishairazu to iu koto o mamotte ireba, kitto ichō o kowasu koto wanaidarou. (If you follow the rule that you don't need a doctor and you only have an eighth of your stomach, you will not hurt your stomach and intestines.)

    2. 猿も木から落ちる・Sarumo kikara ochiru (Even monkeys fall out of trees)

    • This means that an animal like the monkey who is born to climb trees and is expert maneuvering around them can fall too. Just like in life, no one is perfect and even the best make mistakes. This can be used to cheer up your friend who made a mistake.

    3. 自業自得・Jigō jitoku (You get what you give/what goes around comes around)

    • Just like how karma is a part of Buddhism, this means your actions have consequences. You get what you deserve, whether that be good or bad is up to you. 

    4. 弱肉強食・Jakuniku kyōshoku (Survival of the fittest)

    • Literally translated, it means that the weak are meat while the strong eat. Pretty straightforward and frank. 

    5. 知らぬが仏・Shiranuga hotoke (Not knowing is buddha)

    • You may have heard this in an anime before, this one is distinctly Japanese and it may not make sense at first glance but it means ignorance is bliss, not knowing is good. 

    6. 花より団子・Hana yori dango (Dumplings over flowers)

    • This means substance over style, although flowers are pretty, dumplings are more practical and useful because you can eat them. There was a popular drama and manga based on this phrase. 

    7. 相変わらず・Ai kawarazu (The same as ever)

    • As always. You could use them to say someone hasn’t changed, but sometimes can have a negative connotation depending on the context so watch out! 
    •  “相変わらずこの部屋は冷房の効きが悪い” Aikawarazu kono heya wa reibō no kiki ga warui (As usual, this room has poor air conditioning.)

    8. 朝飯前・Asameshi mae (Before breakfast)

    • That something is so easy it can be done before breakfast, so early.
    • For example, “これはなかなかなことだ、朝飯前とはいかないぞ。” Kore wa nakanakana kotoda, asameshimae to wa ikanai zo. (This is pretty hard, not like before breakfast.”一日一歩 ・Ichinichi ippo (One step, one day)
    • Means to take one day, one step at a time to work towards your objectives.

    9. 地獄に仏 ・Jigoku ni hotoke (My Buddha in hell)

    • Another Buddha-related one, he’s pretty popular! This one seems a bit aggressive but it means something or someone is like a savior in a terrible situation or environment. If someone helps you out in a pinch, you could use this. 
    • For example, “ひとりの登山者が現れたときには、地獄で仏にあったような思いだった。” Hitori no tozan-sha ga arawareta tokiniha, jigoku de Futsu ni atta yōna omoidatta. (When a climber appeared, I felt like it was my Buddha in hell.)

    10. 見ぬが花 ・ Minugahana (Ignorance is bliss)

    • A little similar to the phrase from earlier about Buddha, this one is also about how reality can’t compete with imagination.

    These can be heard often throughout conversations so don’t forget them!

    If  you want to learn more of these common idioms, check out 29 Genius Japanese Idioms That All Learners Should Know 

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    The English idioms you already know but in Japanese

    You’d be surprised that Japanese also has the same phrases you say all the time. Who knew? It might be surprised how they changed in translation. Let’s see if you recognize any of these.

    • 一石二鳥 ・Issekinichō (Two birds with one stone)
      • This one seems to be universal, so many countries have their own translation of this. In English it’s to kill two birds with one stone. Poor birds! It means to achieve two things by doing one action.
      • For example, “気分転換に髪の毛を切ったら、涼しいうえに髪の毛を乾かす時間も減り一石二鳥だ。” Kibun tenkan ni kaminoke o kittara, suzushī ue ni kaminoke o kawakasu jikan mo heri issekinichōda. (If you cut your hair for a change, it will be cooling and you will need less time to dry your hair, so it's two birds with one stone.
    • 氷山の一角・Hyōzan no ikkaku (The tip of the iceberg)
      • a small, visible part of a problem, but the total size of it is really much greater
      • For example, “今回の事件で逮捕された人たちは、氷山の一角であるという噂がある。” Konkai no jiken de taiho sa reta hito-tachi wa, hyōzan no ikkakudearu to iu uwasa ga aru. (There are rumors that the people arrested in this case are just the tip of the iceberg.)
    • 隣の芝生は青い・Tonarino shibafuha aoi (The grass is greener on the other side)
      • This is where you can see a cultural difference, even with the same phrase. Notice it’s 青い・Aoi (Blue) instead of green like in English. That’s because in the past, the Japanese used blue to describe something green, confusing right? But the word blue is used to describe a green light, 青信号・Aoshingō or green apple, 青りんご・Ao ringo
    • 必要悪 ・Hitsuyō aku (necessary evil) 
      • This means an evil that someone believes has to be done because it is needed to achieve a better result.
    • 時は金なり・Tokiha kanenari (time is money)
      • Time is just as valuable, if not more than money. 
      • For example, “時は金なりなのだから、若いうちはダラダラしないで勉強するべきではないのか。” Tokihakanenarina nodakara, wakai uchi wa daradara shinaide benkyō surubekide wa nai no ka. (Time is money, so shouldn't you study without messing around when you're young?)

    If you want to find out more of your favorite English idioms in Japanese, take a look at Idioms and Proverbs Common in Japanese and English

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    Idioms unique to Japan that we need in English

    You just learned the idioms in Japanese that are also in English but Japan has so many distinct idioms that can’t be fully translated into any other language. These truly show the uniqueness and essence of the language. 

    • 武士は食わねど高楊枝・Bushi ha kuwa nedo taka yōji (A Samurai pretends, even when he is hungry, by holding a toothpick between his teeth.)
      • Now this one is very Japanesque. It means when you don’t want to let other people see your pain because you are too proud.
    •  雨が降ろうと、槍が降ろうと ・Ame ga furou to, yari ga furou to (Whether it rains or spears)
      •  No matter what happens, or how difficult it may be, it will happen and will be dealt with.
      • For example, “雨が降ろうが槍が降ろうが、あなたが困っているときには必ず駆けつけるから安心して。” Amegafurōga yarigafurōga, anata ga komatte iru toki ni wa kanarazu kaketsukeru kara anshin shite (Whether it rains or spears, rest assured that I will always rush to you when you're in trouble) 
    •  砂を噛むよう・Sunawo kamuyō (Like chewing sand)
      • It means something is boring or monotonous. 
      • For example, “食欲が感じられないため、せっかくの好物も、砂を噛むような思いで食べた。” Shoku yoku ga kanji rare nai tame, sek kaku no kō butsu mo, sunawo kamu yōna omoi de tabeta. I  didn’t have an appetite, so I ate my favorite food as if I was chewing on sand.

    Get to know more super Japanese idioms that’ll make you really wish you had in English here 69 Wonderful Japanese Idioms 

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    The weirdest Japanese idioms you’ll ever hear 

    Some of the idioms you learned up till now may have seemed strange but surprisingly, there are many more odd ones that you should know about.

    • 爪の垢を煎じて飲む・Tsume no aka o senjite nomu (Brew and drink the dirt from under someone’s fingernails)
      • Wait what? Apparently this is not to be taken literally because it’s saying, if you admire someone and want to use them as an example or an idol for self improvement, you should brew the dirt under their fingernails and drink it as a tea so their good traits could be given to you. Oddly specific but okay.
    • 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない・Baka ha shina nakya nao ranai (Unless an idiot dies, he won’t be cured.)
      • This means that there is no cure for ignorance and stupidity. Nothing can help them. Harsh!
    • 喉から手が出る・Nodo kara tega deru (Hands come out of my throat)
      • This is when you want something so badly.
      • For example, “自分を陥れたやつらの情報が喉から手が出るほど欲しかった。” Jibun o otoshī reta yatsu-ra no jōhō ga nodo kara tega deru hodo hoshi katta. (I wanted the information of those who had betrayed me so much that I could get out of my throat.)
    • ごまめの歯ぎしり ・Goma meno hagishiri (Little fish grinding their teeth)
      • Something insignificant and has no consequence. When little fishes grind their teeth, it has little to no effect.
      • For example, “言いたくなる気持ちも分かるが、ごまめの歯ぎしりはみっともないぞ。” Iitaku naru kimochi mo wakaru ga, goma meno hagi shiri wa mitto monai zo. (I know what you want to say, but the goma meno hagishiri is terrible.)
    • 小便横町 ・Shōben yokochō (Urine alley).
      • Narrow streets that are dirty and smelly. Often, dirty public streets and alleys have urine in them.

    If your craving more strange and funny Japanese idioms, check out 10 Japanese expressions that sound delightfully strange and funny when translated

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    Japanese proverbs or kotowaza

    Now that you know a lot about Japanese idioms and examples of them, there are other similar types of phrases in Japanese that you should know. There is, even more, to learn about the culture in Japan, this article A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Culture will help you find out more.

    Difference between Japanese proverbs and idioms 

    Proverbs are really similar to idioms and are a part of them but here are the key differences.

    • An idiom is a fixed phrase with a figurative meaning. 
    • Phrases, not complete sentences and may not make sense unless familiar with it. 
    • Proverb is a short, famous saying containing advice. Sentences. Have moral or advice based on truth. Can be understood for the first time. 
    • Proverbs are typically four characters 
    • The Japanese proverb can be in the shape of a short phrase, an idiomatic phrase, or a four-character idiom. Even though "proverb" and "saying" are practically synonymous, it is not the same as "idiomatic phrase" and "four-character idiom". 
    • Some examples of proverbs are: 
      • 三日坊主・mikka bouzu (A monk for 3 days)
        • This describes someone who is inconsistent and lacks the resolve to see something through. For example, they exercise for 3 days but then give up. 
        • For example, “私は何をやっても長く続かない三日坊主です。”Watashi wa nani o yatte mo nagaku tsudzu kanai mikka bōzudesu. (I'm a three-day priest who doesn't last long no matter what I do.)
      • 四面楚歌・shimen soka (Surrounded by enemies)
        • It means everyone around you is betraying you and is untrustworthy. 
        • For example, “人の悪口ばかり言うと、みんなに嫌われて四面楚歌になってしまうよ。” Hito no waru guchi bakari iu to, min'na ni kirawa rete shimen soka ni natte shimau yo. If you say bad things about people, everyone will hate you and you will end up with a shimen soka.
      • 危機一髪・kiki ippatsu (close call)
        • For example, if you run into a train at the last second and almost didn’t make it in.

    Need a refresher on Japanese verbs? This article Guide to Japanese Verbs will show you everything you need to know.

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    Famous kotowaza

    Proverbs are called kotowaza and these are the famous ones. 

    • 覆水盆に返らず・Fukusui bon'ni kaerazu (Do not return to the water basin
      • This means the same as, don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t be down about something from the past you can’t change. 
      • For example, “失敗して初めて、覆水盆に返らずの意味を痛感する事となりました。” Shippai shite hajimete, fukusui bon' nikaerazu no imi o tsūkan suru koto to nari mashita. It was not until I failed that I became keenly aware of the meaning of not returning to the water basin)
    • 猫に小判・Neko ni koban (Gold coins to a cat)
      • This means to not spend a lot of money on a gift that won’t be appreciated by the recipient. Don’t waste your time on people who won’t appreciate it. 
      • Fore example, “どんなに価値のある歴史的建造物でも、その価値をわかっていない人が管理者では猫に小判だ。” Don' nani kachino aru rekishi teki kenzō butsu demo, sono kachi o wakatte inai hito ga kanri shade wa nekoni kobanda. (No matter how valuable a historic building is, those who don't know its value by the administrator is neko ni koban.)
    • 蛙の子は蛙・Kaeruno koha kaeru (The frog’s child is a frog)
      • Like father, like son. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. 
      • For example, “小さい頃は才能があるように見えたけど、やっぱり蛙の子は蛙だったね。 “小さい頃は才能があるように見えたけど、やっぱり蛙の子は蛙だったね。” Chīsai koro wa sainō ga aru yō ni mieta kedo, yap pari kaeru no koha kaeru datta ne. “When I was little, I seemed to be talented, but after all the frog cub was a frog.”

    If you want to learn conjugation, check out this article Guide to Japanese Conjugation

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    Japanese sayings and quotes about life 

    In Japan, there are many inspirational quotes about life that may help motivate you. Using these and reflecting is not a bad idea. 

    水に流す・mizu ni nagasu (The water flows) 

    • Water under the bridge, to forgive and forget, and let it go.
    • For example, “さっきの喧嘩は水に流そう。 ”  Sakki no kenka wa mizu ni nagasou. (Let's flush the quarrel.)
    • 花鳥風月 ・Kachō fūgetsu (beauties of nature)
    • Each kanji translated in order is flower, bird, wind, and moon. This means that there is beauty in everything around us. It is a suggestion to enjoy mother nature.
    • For example, “花鳥風月に親しむ毎日だ。” Kachō fūgetsu ni shita shimu mainichida. (Every day I get to know Kacho Fugetsu.)

    二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず・Nitowo oumo noha ittowo moezu (Those who chase two rabbits do not get one) 

    • This means to not be greedy and try to go for multiple things at once. Also, trying to complete multiple tasks at once is not as good as focusing on one and doing it well.
    • For example, “そんなに欲張ったら、二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ずで結局なにひとつ自分のものにならないよ。” Son'nani yoku battara, nito wo oumono ha ittowo moezu de kek kyoku nani hitotsu jibun no mono ni nara nai yo. (If they’re so greedy, those who chase two rabbits won't get a single rabbit and in the end nothing will be their own.)

     明日は明日の風が吹く・Ashita ha ashita no kazega fuku (Tomorrow’s winds will blow tomorrow)

    • It means, tomorrow is another day. Even if today was not good, there’s a whole new start tomorrow. 
    • For example, “明日は明日の風が吹くの精神で頑張ろう”・Ashitaha ashitano kaze gafuku no seishin de gan barou (Let's do our best tomorrow with the spirit of tomorrow's wind)

    There are even more proverbs you can learn at 47 Japanese Proverbs about Life, Love, and Wisdom to Inspire You (with English translations) 

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    Conclusion

    There you have it, we introduced so many new Japanese idioms as well as proverbs and kotowaza. Did you learn something new? Hopefully, you did find some of these phrases and expressions useful. In the future, look out for these idioms in conversations or in movies and tv shows. It’ll be fun to recognize them and know the real meanings behind them. Practice saying them out loud and get the flow down. Study them with flashcards or practice with a friend.  Don’t forget to try and use them yourself. If you are wanting to get better at Japanese, go to the Japan Switch website!

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