Japanese is a language filled with a ton of ことわざ (諺), or “kotowaza”, meaning “proverbs”. They can take on different forms– some are 四字熟語 (よじじゅくご) or “Yojijukugo”, which translates to “four character idiom”, while others are expressions. I thought I should write about some of these kotowaza you might stumble across or hear while studying Japanese. I included some common ones, and also a few I particularly like.
Here are 17 Japanese proverbs
Even monkeys fall from trees.
Even the monkey who is a master of climbing will from time to time fail; everybody makes mistakes.
Weak meat, strong eat.
In other words: “survival of the fittest”.
A talented falcon keeps it’s claws concealed.
A person of talent doesn’t (shouldn’t) boast about everything they can do. Brilliant graphic by nobuopower, they put a spin on the kotowaza and used the kanji for “brain” instead of “talent”, which is also pronounced のう. Notice how ツメ (爪) is highlighted in the kanji for brain (脳).
Hearing 100 times doesn’t compare to seeing once.
This is similar to the English expression “seeing is believing”.
Nothing will become except the way it will become.
Everything works out the way it works out. This reminds me of the expression “仕方ない”, and is sort of like the English expression “whatever will be, will be” or “whatever happens, happens”.
Dango instead of flowers; More than flowers, dango.
This expression indicates going for practicality over aesthetics, to go for the dango (a sustenance), over flowers (beauty).
Don’t forget the original spirit you had (when you began something).
Everyone is always excited when they embark on something new, and sometimes that feeling may eventually fade. You should remind yourself of the high feelings you had when you began something, and never lose sight of them.
One stone, two birds.
Just like the proverb in English but backwards, “two birds with one stone”.
⑨ 猫に小判 （ねこにこばん）
Coins to a cat.
The koban is an old Japanese coin currency, so this one translates to “coins to a cat”. It indicates how some things may be useless to one who doesn’t know it’s true value. I believe the Pokemon character “ニャース” was designed after this kotowaza. (Yes, I played Pokemon as a kid…)
The stake that sticks out gets hammered down.
I think this might speak for itself. Japan is a conformist society, and this is an expression to remind that sticking out could lead to bad results, like the stake that is sticking out slightly higher, which is the one the hammer will strike.
Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
As the image above indicates, it’s not actually possible to stand up eight times if you’ve only fallen seven, but whatever, it sounds more powerful with eight. This is much like the English proverb “If you fall off your horse get right back on”.
（にどあることはさんどある）What happens two times will happen three.
This is a lot like the English expression “history repeats itself”.
Even the unskilled gun will hit the mark with enough shots.
With enough tries regardless of skill, you will succeed.
More than learning, become accustomed.
It’s best to learn from actual experience; practice makes perfect.
This one’s not exactly a kotowaza, but is a 四字熟語. It was originally spelled (and still can be) 一所懸命（いっしょけんめい）, and means to try your very hardest.
If dust piles up it becomes a mountain.
Every little bit counts; a bit like the English proverb “a penny saved is a penny earned”.
If you talk about next year, a demon laughs.
No one can predict the future.
Write and learn all the words used (and the proverbs themselves) on Skritter: https://skritter.com/vocablists/view/5472582707576832