Like every oral tradition, there’s always a point of wisdom in sayings and proverbs, most originating from ancient times. And in Japan, proverbs aren’t casual hearsay but an actual collection of words with profound wisdom.
Ideally, Japan uses these saying as subtle ways of indirectly passing morals and teachings from generation to generation, thus preserving culture. Here are 25 Japanese proverbs to gain wisdom and understand the Japanese way of thinking as well.
• Proverbs about love
1. 惚れた病に薬なし – horeta yamai ni kusuri nashi
Translation: There’s no remedy for falling in love
This saying roots its foundations in love and asserts that once someone falls in love, there’s no convincing them to look back. It connotes that love is beyond what we can touch or see but something we feel with our hearts.
This way, there’s no cure for feeling profound affection for someone. If love comes knocking in, it’s prudent to allow it because resisting it won’t do any good.
2. 酒は本心を表す – sake wa honshin wo arawasu
Translation: Sake denotes genuine feelings
It’s not every day that someone mumbles something affectionate under their breath for the heck of it. It doesn’t matter how drenched in sleep they are or are still sobering up from a drink; there must be true intent when they say that they love you.
Sometimes, a person may lack the resolve to say it straightforwardly and will prey on any chance that gives them comfort saying it. People may not take a drunkard’s words seriously in Japan, but what if the words express deep feelings? – It always has deeper intent.
3. 恋とせきとは隠されぬ – koi to seki to wa kakusarenu
Translation: Love and a cough cannot be hidden
Ahem! Ahem! It’s all obvious. You can’t put it in a bag to conceal it or mistake it for something else – love. Like a cough, it eventually lets you give in and will show up even for the blind to see.
Love is strong, and suppressing it will frustrate you because you can’t conceal it. You may find ways to keep love off, which will work in a short time but will come back too strong to hide it.
4. 以心伝心 – ishindenshin
Translation: Heart to heart
Mouths communicate through words, but hearts do it through feelings and emotions. It’s typical to carry this emotion in your heart, and you can only use it to connect with someone else who feels the same. This form of emotional communication is always candid, intimate, and unreserved and connects people with like resolve.
Sharing your genuine heart’s emotions is the only language that connects you with another person in profound love.
5. 異体同心 – Itai doushin
Translation: Two bodies, one heart
This saying describes the facet of love and denotes a profound union between two people in love. Like a married couple, when they finally exchange their vows, they tear out from their skins and unite to be one body, soul, and spirit.
Likewise to soul mates, it’s typical to feel this connection and therefore ascribes to the doctrine of love – a union between two.
• Proverbs about Life
6. 水に流す – mizu ni nagasu
Translation: The water flows.
This saying teaches about forgiveness and holds on to the principle of forgiving and forgetting. Like water under the bridge, it usually bears no sense to hold onto past misfortunes as it doesn’t revert anything. If someone wrongs you, holding on to this negative energy will devour you from inside.
Consequently, bitterness and resentment will reign supreme, only to defect you from what’s positive in life. It’s prudent to forgive and forget and let the hut drift away no matter how hard that feels.
7. 井の中の蛙大海を知らず – i no naka no kawuzu taikai wo shirazu
Translation: A frog in a well knows nothing of the sea
There are bigger things to see than what meets the eye. Like a frog in a well, it’s challenging to see what’s beyond the holes. Since the spectrum of vision is barred within the immediate surroundings, the mind likewise doesn’t think beyond.
The ocean is vast and covers umpteen mysteries that can be bard to jump into. Of course, a frog in a well is always quick to judge the fish in the ocean, a metaphorical similarity with people with limited perspectives.
They’ll be rushy to put you down with judgment from their diminished perspective, oblivious of the facts, reasons, and intentions from your far-reaching vision.
8. 花より団子 – hana yori dango
Translation: Dumplings over flowers
Would you rather dumplings over flowers? Anyone who prefers value would opt for the former because the latter only perfectly meets the eye but can’t be savored. Dumplings and flowers as metaphors mean substance and style, respectively.
While flowers are only good to please the eye, dumplings give you satisfaction, boosting your chances of taking the day with rejuvenated energy. Someone who prefers dumplings is more practical and pragmatic, while that who sees beauty is more gullible to fall into short-term pleasure.
9. 猫に小判 – Neko ni koban
Translation: Gold coins to a cat
Why would you show value to someone who doesn’t even see it? No matter how hard you do it, it would be too naïve to assume that they’ll at least pick a clue of it.
A cat doesn’t see colors and certainly won’t see the difference between a gold coin and a round metal. This Japanese saying uses wit to describe someone trying to show others their value or, instead, giving it to them while they take it for granted.
10. 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず。- nito wo oumono wa itto wo mo ezu
Translation: Those who chase two hares won’t even catch one
It’s always good to focus on a single target in life rather than chasing two at once. Every step at a time, that’s how Romans built Rome. Like chasing two hares at once, you’re likely to miss both.
Nevertheless, focusing your attention on one bolsters your chances of laying a meal on the dinner table. This Japanese saying has been teaching generations to always have a clear target in life and channel their full attention, rather than diverting it.
Eventually, it becomes easier to achieve crucial goals in life.
• Sayings about Friendship
11. 八方美人 – happou bijin
Translation: Everybody’s a friend
No, don’t take this saying’s words for it. It’s only satirical and doesn’t necessarily mean that you should go ahead fist-bumping and embracing everyone.
It warns you to stop being gullible to looks and personality because most aren’t that genuine. A smile is a sheer revelation of a set of teeth which are simple white bones.
These smiles usually don’t mean good, and falling for them by mistaking them for warmth and friendship should be unthinkable to you.
12. 友達と一緒に道が長すぎることはありませ – Tomodachi to issho ni michi ga naga sugiru koto wa arimasen
Translation: The road is never too long with friends
No matter how tiring and cumbersome something is, it would be easygoing if you had your real friends by your side. It bears a similar meaning to the saying that two hands are better than one, or two wheels go faster than one.
The key lesson is that you should always work in the company of others since solely relying on your abilities and strength would only take you half a step forward. Although there’s nothing wrong with working alone, always find extra support in others.
13. 頭のいい人は友達を見つけることができません。– Atamanoī hito wa tomodachi o mitsukeru koto ga dekimasen.
Translation: Smart people can’t find friends
This Japanese saying relays a stark warning to people who claim to know everything such that it disintegrates the fabric of friendship. The relationship between friends is built on naivety, and the less intelligent you act, the more attractive you become.
People hate being around an all-knowing person, such that every meet-up or fun time becomes a practical lesson about the things you know the most. Even though you’re knowledge drenched in the brain, don’t openly show it. Instead, hold it back and act naïve for better relationships with friends.
14. 私には友達がいない;私は私の心を私の友達にします。– Watashiniha Tomodachi ga inai; Watashi wa Watashi no Kokoro o watashinotomodachi ni shimasu.
Translation: I have no friends; I make my heart my friend
This Japanese proverb sounds lonely, but it profoundly focuses on the peace of heart when they disassociate with toxic people. Friends can sometimes be disappointing and may throw off balance.
Avoiding them altogether and instead concentrate on what matters can be the wisest decision you can make.
• Sayings about Perseverance
15. 三日坊主 – Mikka bouzu
Translation: A monk for three days
Hard work needs perseverance and doesn’t last for a day or two, but long enough to see you through. This Japanese saying mocks people who only endure for a short time before giving and quitting if the going gets tough.
It compares the hard work monks put, but still persevere, unlike others who give up the hard work after a short time.
16. 七転び八起き – nana korobi ya oki
Translation: Fall seven times, get up eight
It’s never easy to get through an obstacle but, why would you give it up just like that? This famous Japanese proverb is a perfect embodiment of perseverance and urges those determined to reach their goals to keep on.
Giving up isn’t an option, but falling seven times is worth it – you’ll get up on the eighth one.
17. 雨降って地固まる – ame futte chikatamaru
Translation: Adversity builds character
Adversity is a sharpening stone to getting what’s good on the other side of the struggle. This Japanese proverb urges people to find comfort in hardship and get through – with better character and results. If it calls for it, savor the sweat and blood if what you’re fighting for feels worth the struggle.
18. 継続は力なり – keizoku wa chikara nari
Translation: Don’t give up
If the going gets tough, moving forward is your only option. Never look back no matter how hard it gets, and instead, continue with the journey – it’ll be worth it in the end.
19. 弱肉強食– jaku niku kyō shoku
Translation: The weak are the meal; the strong eat
This proverb is shared among the Yakuza, and they use it to mean survival for the fittest. It means that anyone who doesn’t cut it among the competitive world ceases to prosper – or at all, exist. It calls for strength and perseverance and the wit to survive, or else, you become the meat.
20. 洞窟に入らなければトラの子を捕まえることはできません– Dōkutsu ni hairanakereba tora no ko o tsukamaeru koto wa dekimasen
Translation: You won’t catch a tiger’s cub if you don’t enter its cave
This proverb encourages people to be daring if they want to get something. Taking the cub symbolizes the risk that comes with it, because it’s daring to snatch it from its mother.
If you manage to, then you’ve taken a risk worth a tremendous reward.
• Proverbs about Death
21. 安心して死ねる – anshin shite shineru
Translation: Die in peace
The Japanese people usually utter this proverb to show relief after completing a challenging task or succeeding at something that has strained them.
22. 死人に口なし – shinin ni kuchinashi
Translation: Dead men tell no tales
This proverb implies that people who don’t breathe can’t get the energy to breathe out words of deeper secrets. In ancient times, people protected secrets by killing their consigners once they felt they would let the cat out of the basket. Thus, dead men tell no tales.
23. 九死一生 – kyuushin iishou
Translation: Nine deaths, one life
This proverb implies a person coming into a close shave with death, such that they feel lucky to be alive. If someone escapes a gruesome accident or a close call to death, they would say they had a near-death experience.
24. 自ら墓穴を掘る – mizukara boketsu wo horu
Translation: Dig your own grave
Of course, if you’re eating poison, you’re digging your own grave, or instead, if you do something harmful with a high-risk potential, you’re jeopardizing your safety or putting your future in the balance.
25. 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない。- Bakahashinanakyanaoranai
Translation: An idiot can’t heal unless he dies
A gullible person always remains the same and won’t change no matter what. Such a person would take his chances at jumping into an abyss without a second thought if convinced he’d crop up wings mid-flight. Talk about idiocy!
Every language has numerous sayings deeply rooted within to entertain and teach valuable life lessons. Some come as stark warnings, while others are simple statements but with utter conviction.
The Japanese people aren’t left behind either and have a deep and rich proverbial culture. We hope these Japanese proverbs will also give you valuable insights and entertain you and possibly teach a lesson.