Japanese Proverbs • 日本の諺

雲泥の差

うんでいのさ 
Translation: “the separation between clouds and mud”
Meaning: A vast difference between two things.

犬猿の仲

けんえんのなか
Translation: “the relationship of dogs and monkeys”
Meaning: A relationship of mutual hatred. Natural enemies.

為せば成る

なせばなる 
(Literal) Translation: “if you take action, it will become”
Meaning: You can do it if you try.

青天の霹靂

せいてんのへきれき 
Translation: A bolt (lit. thunder) out of the blue (sky).

鴨が葱をしょって来る

かもがねぎをしょってくる 
Translation: “a duck comes along carrying a leek on its back”
Meaning: A very convenient happening, a stroke of luck.
Explanation: The reason for this proverb is that duck soup is made with leek, so it’s as though the duck came along just asking you to eat it.
Note: This proverb has a short form for everyday usage, 鴨ネギ (kamonegi)

忙中閑あり

 ぼうちゅうかんあり 
Meaning: Even when you’re very busy, there’s occasionally time to take a rest.

初心忘るべからず

しょしんわするべからず 
Translation: We should not forget our beginner’s spirit. (the excitement/humility of starting something new)

頭隠して尻隠さず

あたまかくしてしりかくさず 
Translation: “hiding your head but not your butt”
Meaning: Failing to completely cover up your bad deeds.

沈む瀬あれば浮かぶ瀬あり

しずむせあればうかぶせあり 
Translation: “if the current sinks, it will rise (again)”
Meaning: Life has its ups and downs.

猫の首に鈴を付ける

ねこのくびにすずをつける 
Translation: “to put a bell around a cat’s neck”
Meaning: To discuss doing something that is nearly impossible to do.
Note: This proverb has its origin in one of Aesop’s fables.

長所は短所

ちょうしょはたんしょ 
Translation: “our strong points are our weak points”
Meaning: Over-reliance on our strengths leads to make careless mistakes.

起きて半畳,寝て一畳

 おきてはんじょう、ねていちじょう 
Translation: “(man needs just) half a tatami mat when awake, one tatami mat when asleep.”
Meaning: You need not be rich to live a satisfied life.

李下に冠を整さず

りかにかんむりをたださず 
Translation: “don’t straighten your crown under the plum tree”
Meaning: Don’t invite undue suspicion on yourself.
Note: Because if you’re fiddling with your crown under the plum tree, people might think you’re trying to steal plums.

猫を追うより皿を引け

ねこをおうよりさらをひけ 
Translation: “rather than chase the cat, take away the plate”
Meaning: Attack problems at their root.

 井の中の蛙大海を知らず

 いのなかのかわずたいかいをしらず 
Translation: “the frog in the well knows not of the great ocean”
Explanation: This proverb is a metaphor for being mentally trapped by a narrow understanding of things.
Note: kawazu is the old way to say “frog”, in modern Japanese they are called kaeru

多芸は無芸

たげいはむげい 
Translation: “many skills is no skill”
Meaning: a Jack of all trades is a master of none.

 盛年重ねて来らず

せいねんかさねてきたらず 
Translation: “the prime of your life does not come twice”
Meaning: You’re only young once.

 相槌を打つ

あいづちをうつ 
Translation: “striking the forge hammer”
Meaning: Giving verbal feedback while listening (eg. saying things like “yeah”, “uh-huh”, “I see”, etc)
Explanation: This proverb describes the rhythmic exchange of two smiths working on a katana.

天は自ら助くるものを助く

てんはみずからたすくるものをたすく
Translation: Heaven helps those who help themselves.

 元も子もない

もともこもない 
Meaning: Failure not only to make a profit (子 = 利益), but losing your investment (元 = 元金) too.

窮鼠 猫を噛む

きゅうそねこをかむ 
Translation: “a cornered rat will bite the cat”
Meaning: Left with no choice, even a relatively weak person/animal will fight back.

庇を貸して母家を取られる

ひさしをかしておもやをとられる 
Translation: “to lend the eaves and have the main house taken”
Meaning: Give an inch and they take a mile.

悪銭 身につかず

あくせんみにつかず 
Translation: Dirty money doesn’t stay with a person for long.

ただより高い物はない

ただよりたかいものはない 
Translation: “nothing is more expensive than free”
Meaning: Debts of money are more easily repaid than those of gratitude

毒を以て毒を制する

どくをもってどくをせいする 
Translation: “to use a poison to overcome a poison”
Meaning: Sometimes we need shady means to tackle shady problems

生兵法は大怪我の基

なまびょうほうはおおけがのもと 
Translation: Newly learned (unmastered) tactics are the origin of great blunders.

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