Six Insightful Japanese Proverbs (Kotowaza): Part Two

Six Insightful Japanese Proverbs (Kotowaza): Part Two

Peter Leonard

Last year, I shared five Japanese ‘Kotowaza’ proverbs, their translations and their meaning. Not only are proverbs simply fascinating nuggets of life advice, but they also provide valuable windows into the cultures and languages that gave birth to such turns of phrases. Let’s take a look at six more, shall we?


十人十色: Juunin Toiro (Ten people, ten colors)


It’s oddly reassuring to know that a nation as homogenous as Japan has long-established proverbs such as this. As you may have guessed, this one simply means “everybody is different”: ie. if you meet ten people, you meet ten different colors of personality.

 


井の中の蛙大海を知らず: I no naka no kaeru taikai wo shirazu: (A frog in the well knows nothing of the great sea)


This sounds like it could be a haiku from Basho himself, doesn’t it? While it doesn’t quite bear that distinction, it’s worth noting that we don’t really have an English version of this proverb, which is unusual because it would seem so useful to describe somebody who has a narrow view of the world based only on their own surroundings and experiences. It also follows a theme of many Japanese kotowaza: whereas English tends to use objects and ideas in proverbs, in Japanese animals and items of nature are more common.

 


一寸先は闇: Issun saki wa yami (Just ahead is darkness)


Now this is the proverb you’d whip out at parties to sound cool! Despite the slightly grim sounding translation, the meaning of it is quite simple: that the future is unknown, and to expect the unexpected. But that doesn’t sound quite as enigmatic, does it?

 


虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず: Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu (if you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you won’t catch it’s cub)


This one just raises all sorts of questions. First, whoever this is being spoken to is going to have a difficult time catching a tiger, because they aren’t native to Japan. Second, tiger’s don’t even use caves! All jokes aside, this is a pretty colorful proverb, with the English equivalent being “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

 


毒食わば皿まで: doku kuwaba sara made (when poisoned, eat the plate)


Yikes. Whoever came up with this one must have been a little paranoid (or a picky eater). But again, the meaning is a little more innocuous: when something bad happens to you, you might as well see it through to the end - or in this case, eat the plate. While there’s no straight English equivalent of this proverb, the nearest equivalent would be this famous quote from Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

 


二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず: Nito wo oumono ha itto wo moezu (He who catches two rabbits catches neither)


This one speaks for itself! If you try to do two things at once, you’ll succeed in doing neither. Naturally, there’s lots of different English versions of this: “burning a candle at both ends”, or “Biting off more than one can chew”, for example. But it is interesting how once again the Japanese version opts for using animals and nature to convey its meaning.

Just like any other language, proverbs offer a rich vein of insight into the traditional mindset of the people who created them, and there are many more besides these shared here!