Five Insightful Japanese Proverbs (Kotowaza)

Photo: Atsushi Boulder on Flickr

Five Insightful Japanese Proverbs (Kotowaza)

Peter Leonard

Okay, hands up: who likes a good proverb? Those delightful sentence-long nuggets of wisdom that find a clever way to sum up a big, complicated idea in a pithy number of words. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” for example.

They also say a lot about the culture they originate from. True, some proverbs translate directly from one language to another (did you know that “two birds with one stone” is also used in Japanese? It is isseki nichou (一石二鳥)), but some turns of phrases are unique to the land. So here, then, are five Japanese proverbs (known as ‘kotowaza’ or in kanji form ‘’) with what they mean and what they say about Japan.


  • 出る杭は打たれる: Deru Kui wa utareru (The Stake That Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down)

This is probably the most well known of Japanese proverbs, and for good reason: it speaks volumes about Japan’s culture of group conformity and not standing out for fear of disappointing others.

It's usually used in a negative context, but it can work both ways: it's not just for pushing the exceptional and unusual back into line, but it's also about helping those who struggle to keep up with the rest of the group stay involved.

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  • 猿も木から落ちる: Saru mo ki kara ochiru (Even Monkeys Fall From Trees)

It's comforting to know that for a culture so keen on perfection and attention to detail that this kotowaza exists. As you've already guessed, it means, “Nobody’s perfect”, that even the experts and naturally skilled can make mistakes and it's OK to do so. In this proverb, the expert is a monkey (a staple character in Japanese mythology), and even he will tumble out of the canopy from time to time.

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  • 知らぬが仏: Shiranu ga hotoke (Not knowing is Buddha)

Oooh, now how's this for an eastern-flavored kotowaza? Our closest English equivalent to this would be ‘ignorance is bliss’, but the Japanese version is less derogatory. Emptiness is a central pillar of the teachings of Buddhism, and ‘not knowing’ is considered a fine achievement for those seeking enlightenment, hence this phrase.

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  • 二階から目薬: Nikai kara megusuri (eye medicine is on the second floor)

This is a fun one, and it generally means ‘something that is useless’. Now you might be wondering how they went from a drug-store situation to uselessness, but if you think about it, someone who is seeking eye medicine is going to have a hard time traveling up to the second floor to get it! Our nearest English equivalent of this would be the ‘chocolate teapot’.

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  • 鴨がネギを背負って来る: Kamo ga negi wo shotte kuru (a duck with a leek on its back comes)

Woah! What could this bizarre kotowaza possibly mean? Well for the answer, you need to look to one of Japan’s culinary delights: duck and leek soup. So if a duck carrying a leek on its back were to wander up to you, it's basically a free meal offering itself up - very lucky indeed! And that’s the meaning of this one: a sudden windfall of good luck.

Japanese kotowaza are delightful and provide a piercing insight into the mindset and culture. There are hundreds more besides the ones on this list: go and check them out!