Proverbs are a showcase of lessons people of a cultural group have learned through their history, passed on across generations. Some proverbs have equivalents across cultures, which suggests that people around the world share many aspects of life and philosophies too.
The ones that are still learned in school and seen in literature today not only have killer messages, but also are easily remembered because of the superiority in wit and rhythmic flow they carry. Japanese proverbs are no exception.
So here, I’ve translated 10 well-known Japanese proverbs and kept their poetic wordings and rhythms as much as I can. Check them out, and hopefully many will stick in your mind, and help you make good life decisions. At least I have been spared from making a few poor life decisions.
- 1. 立つ鳥跡を濁さず – The water stands still after a bird takes flight
- 2. 風が吹けば桶屋が儲かる – When the wind blows, bucket sales aren’t slow
- 3. 女心と秋の空 – The minds of women and the autumn sky
- 4. 果報は寝て待て – Wait for good news in bed
- 5. かわいい子には旅をさせよ – Let your dearest travel afar
- 6. 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず – Chase two hares, end up with neither
- 7. 桃栗三年柿八年 – Peaches and chestnuts take three good years, persimmons take eight
- 8. 金の切れ目が縁の切れ目 – When cash is gone so is the bond
- 9. 火のないところに煙は立たぬ – There’s no smoke where there’s no fire
- 10. 罪を憎んで人を憎まず – Detest what was done and not who did it
1. 立つ鳥跡を濁さず – The water stands still after a bird takes flight
/Tatsu tori ato wo nigosazu/
The proverb metaphorically refers to a virtue in Japanese culture: proper gentlemen and ladies don’t leave shit behind. They elegantly leave a place as if it was not visited at all.
Public places belong to everyone. Coffee spills and bread crumbs should be wiped off the table clean and chairs should be tucked in so that the next person will not feel disturbed in any way. In Japan, people who can be just a little considerate about the people around them are respected, and those who cannot are frowned upon.
If you’re a street smoker AKA jerk who inflicts secondhand smoke onto others, that’s already something to be ashamed of. If you go further as to litter a cigarette butt on the street, you should be ashamed to have not been born with enough brain cells to think about others, from Japanese standards.
2. 風が吹けば桶屋が儲かる – When the wind blows, bucket sales aren’t slow
/Kaze ga hukeba oke-ya ga moukaru/
The proverb can mean two things:
- A similar idea as the Butterfly effect, which refers to something seemingly petty or unrelated eventually leads to bigger events that are impactful or relevant. When the wind blows, dust gets into eyes and there will be more blind people. Blind people in Japan used to make a living playing the Shamisen (a Japanese guitar) so the demand for Shamisens would increase, and therefore more cats will have to be killed to supply skin to make the body of the Shamisen (cat skin is no longer used to make Shamisens now, FYI). With less cats, there will be more rats which will chew on wooden buckets and make them useless. People need to buy new buckets, and therefore bucket shops will see higher sales.
- Ridiculing people who have unrealistic expectations, such as the one mentioned right above.
3. 女心と秋の空 – The minds of women and the autumn sky
/Onna gokoro to akino sora/
“Don’t call me anymore!” by day. “Why didn’t you call me!?” by night. Women’s emotions and minds can change dramatically, quickly, and often.
This proverb analogizes this commonly-considered-true phenomenon with the Japanese autumn weather. In autumn, a clear sky may suddenly turn into a thunderstorm. Japanese men, for ages, have accepted the rapid shifts of emotions as an integral part of their loved ones, and whenever they encountered such moments, uttered this proverb with a sigh.
The lesson we should learn here is that whenever there is something we cannot expect to change, accept it and move on.
What’s funny is that there is a male version of this proverb: 男心と秋の空 /Otoko gokoro to aki no sora/ – The minds of men and the autumn sky.
4. 果報は寝て待て – Wait for good news in bed
/Kahou wa nete mate/
You’re waiting to hear the results of your trial for the varsity team. You’re praying to pass the job interview you came back from, and you can’t sleep.
After you have put in your best, what more can you do? Luck is out of your control. If the timing’s right stars align in your favor, things will end up well. If not, again, there is nothing more you can do about it. So forget about your worries and go to bed.
5. かわいい子には旅をさせよ – Let your dearest travel afar
/Kawaii ko niwa tabiwo saseyo/
Parents all know being overprotective of their children does more harm than good. But even so, we tend to want to keep our kids close to keep an eye on them.
But if you do really love your children, set them free to see the world for themselves, instead of confining them within your reach; let them take risks and make mistakes, is the message from our Japanese ancestors.
6. 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず – Chase two hares, end up with neither
/Nito wo ou mono itto wo mo ezu/
Pursuing two careers at once, two girls at once, two anything at once, is the way to lose both.
Having multiple professions seems to be the trend nowadays and thanks to technological advances, it’s now possible for us to take on more than one job. But we should know where our passion lies, and prioritize accordingly.
7. 桃栗三年柿八年 – Peaches and chestnuts take three good years, persimmons take eight
/Momokuri sannen kaki hachinen/
We are becoming less and less patient with waiting for results living in our fast-moving modern-day world, and craving for instant success can easily mislead us to try to convey our originality through posting half-naked selfies on Instagram.
Try growing a peach tree from a little seed and you’ll see it takes 3 years to harvest the first of its fruits. We all need this advice to keep in mind that loads of the success stories we see on the Internet are results of putting in years, maybe decades of work and preparation.
8. 金の切れ目が縁の切れ目 – When cash is gone so is the bond
/Kane no kireme ga en no kireme/
Japan had “gentlemen’s clubs” in the 17th and 18th century where upper class males would go to have a good time with the most beautiful and educated ladies of the time. For a hefty fee, men could enjoy a temporary dream of falling in love with and being treated like the only man on Earth by these ideal women.
These professional lovers were so skilled that their customers didn’t realize that it was money, not love, that kept their relationship together until money actually ran out. This was occurring in such frequency that the above proverb came about.
But the reason the proverb has survived until now is because the phenomenon doesn’t limit itself to the red light district – it happens in any relationship – business, dating, and even family. Money cannot buy you a soulmate.
9. 火のないところに煙は立たぬ – There’s no smoke where there’s no fire
/Hino nai tokoroni kemuri wa tatanu/
Gossips do harm to relationships and reputations, and so everyone needs to be careful not to jump to conclusions. But this proverb is to say that smoke doesn’t just start from thin air.
While we should not judge anyone from ungrounded rumors, it might also be wise to look into why someone gets so much attention.
10. 罪を憎んで人を憎まず – Detest what was done and not who did it
/Tsumi wo nikunde hito wo nikumazu/
This word of wisdom seems to make it into almost all languages, and so did it make it into the Japanese world.
If your sister has gone out for a party and she had left two blissful servings of custard pudding and nobody’s watching, anyone would think your sister may not mind giving up one since she must be having a good time, and besides if she is drunk, she may conveniently forget that she had two in the fridge.
It’s always the circumstances or environment that corners people into wrongdoing. This proverb promoting the idea that we should not forgive crime but forgive the person who committed it is proof that humanity is something us human beings share across cultures and time.