Famous Japanese Proverbs
Proverbs are called ことわざ Kotowaza in the Japanese language. There is also 四字熟語 Yojijukugo which is a four-character idiom containing kanji only. Yojijukugo can be used to express something very important clearly and precisely with just four letters. It is said that more than 4000 yojijukugo exist in the Japanese language. Most Japanese people have their favorite kotozawa and yojijukugo for personal development or self-discipline. It is common in Japan that candidates in job interviews are asked for their favorite motto, which could be a kotozawa or yojikukugo. [座右の銘は何ですか。Zayuu no mei wa nan desu ka. What is your personal motto?] Hence, it will be useful for people who want to learn Japanese for work to know some Japanese proverbs.
I will introduce you to eight famous Japanese kotozawa and yojijukugo。
Proverb: 失敗は成功の基。 Shippai wa seekoo no moto.
English translation: Failure is the foundation of success.
Situation: Tanaka-san lost a game and Satoo-san wanted to encourage him.
Tanaka: Shippai wa seekoo no moto dakara, tsugi ni ikaseba iiyo.
Satoo: Un, arigatoo.
Tanaka: Failure is the foundation of success so you can make use of your experience for the better next time.
Satoo: Yes, thank you.
Proverb: 百聞は一見に如かず。 Hyakubun wa ikken ni shikazu.
English translation: Seeing something once is better than hearing about it a hundred times.
Situation: Yamada-san wants to go abroad to study English. He is gathering information from Ogawa-san who has experience studying abroad.
Yamada: Kaigai-ryuugakutte yappari taihen kanaa.
Ogawa: Hyakubun wa ikken ni shikazu dayo. Itte mitara iiyo.
Yamada: Do you think studying abroad is tough?
Ogawa: Seeing something once is better than hearing about it a hundred times. Why don’t you give it a try?
Proverb: 思い立ったが吉日。 Omoitatta ga kichi-jitsu.
English translation: The day you come up with the idea is a fine day.
Situation: Mori-san and Miyazaki-san are at a cafe. Mori-san thinks she is getting fat.
Mori: Saikin futotte kita. Daietto shinakya.
Miyazaki: Omoitatta ga kichi-jitsu toiukotode sono keeki wa watashi ga taberuyo.
Mori: I’m getting fat recently. I have to go on diet.
Miyazaki: It is said, “Make hay while the sun shines.”, so I will eat that cake.
This proverb is similar to 鉄は熱いうちに打て Tetsu wa atsui uchi ni ute (Strike while the iron is hot).
Proverb: 笑う門には福来る。Warau kado niwa fuku kitaru.
English translation: Fortune comes to those who smile.
Situation: Sasaki-san and Mita-san are talking about Kuroki-san at the office.
Sasaki: Kuroki-santte itsumo egao dayone.
Mita: Sooieba Kuroki-san, raigetsu kekkon surundayo. Warau kado niwa fuku kitarutte hontoodane.
Sasaki: Kuroki-san always smiles, doesn’t she?
Mita: By the way, Kuroki-san is getting married. Fortune comes to those who smile seems true.
Note: 門 kado (usually pronounced “mon”) refers to “home/house”, not the original kanji meaning “gate”. However, in this this phrase the word is used not only for “home” but also for “people”.
Proverb: 案ずるより産むが易し。 Anzuru yori umu ga yasushi.
English translation: To give a birth is easier than to worry about it.
Situation: Shiraki-san and Oda-san are talking in the office about a presentation.
Shiraki: Purezen ga umaku ikuka shinpai datta kedo, iza yatte mitara umakuitta yo.
Oda: Masani anzuru yori umu ga yasushi dane.
Shiraki: I was worried about my presentation, but actually it went well.
Oda: It’s exactly “Fear is often worse than the danger itself.”
Proverb: 一期一会。Ichi go ichi e.
English translation: Once in a life time.
Situation: Sara was traveling in Japan and was having a drink with some new Japanese friends.
Sara: Ichi go ichi e no deai o taisetsu ni shitai desu ne.
Nihonjin no yuujin: Hontoo dane.
Sara: We want to treasure every encounter which is “Once in a lifetime opportunity”, don’t we?
Japanese friend: That’s true.
This proverb is originated from 茶道 Sadoo (Japanese tea ceremony). When a host had a tea ceremony, that opportunity would never come back so a host had to try his best and guests also had to show their sincerity.
Proverb: 七転八起。 Shichiten hakki.
Literal translation: Fall seven times, stand up eight times.
Situation: Uehara-san keeps failing job interviews and shares his disappointments with his former coworker Fujita-san.
Uehara: Mata ochimashiita.
Fujita : Sore wa kinodoku data ne.
Uehara: Shichiten hakki no seeshin de ganbari masu yo.
Uehara: I failed again.
Fujita: It’s such a shame.
Uehara: I will do my best next time bearing in mind the spirit of “Falling seven times, standing up seven times”.
Another similar proverb is 七転び八起き Nana-korobi ya-oki.
Proverb: 一生懸命。Isshoo kenmei.
English translation: With all one’s might.
Situation: Jack joined a Japanese company as a new team member. His boss introduced him to the team and Jack said the following.
Jack: Isshoo-kenmei ganbari-masu node yoroshiku onegai shimasu.
Jack: I will work hard. Nice to meet you. [I’m looking forward to working with you.]
This 四字熟語 comes from 一所懸命 Issho kenmei. 一所 means “one place”, 懸命 means “desperately”. A long time ago, Bushi (samurai) had a distributed territory, and they protected it and made a living by risking their life. The kanji 一所 (one place) has been changed to 一生 (one’s whole life).