- a short saying (言い習わし iinarawashi),
- an idiomatic phrase (慣用句 kan'yōku), or
- a four-character idiom (四字熟語 yojijukugo).
Although "proverb" and "saying" are practically synonymous, the same cannot be said about "idiomatic phrase" and "four-character idiom". Not all kan'yōku and yojijukugo are proverbial. For instance, the kan'yōku 狐の嫁入り kitsune no yomeiri (Literally: a fox's wedding. Meaning: a sun-shower) and the yojijukugo 小春日和 koharubiyori (Literally: small spring weather. Meaning: Indian summer – warm spring-like weather in early winter) are not proverbs. To be considered a proverb, a word or phrase must express a common truth or wisdom; it cannot be a mere noun.
The Japanese commonly use proverbs, often citing just the first part of common phrases for brevity. For example, one might say I no naka no kawazu (井の中の蛙 a frog in a well?) to refer to the proverb I no naka no kawazu, taikai o shirazu (井の中の蛙、大海を知らず a frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean?). Whereas proverbs in English are typically multi-worded phrases ("kill two birds with one stone"), Japanese yojijyukugo (四字熟語?) borrows from Chinese and compactly conveys the concept in one word Isseki nichou (一石二鳥 one stone two birds?).
Because traditional Japanese culture was tied to agriculture, many Japanese proverbs are derived from agricultural customs and practices. Some are from the Go game (e.g., fuseki o utsu 布石を打つ), the tea ceremony (e.g. ichi go ichi e 一期一会), and Buddhism. Many four-character idioms are from Chinese philosophy written in Classical Chinese, in particular "The Analects" by Confucius. (a frog in a well (井の中の蛙?) is Classical Chinese, from Zhuangzi.)
Examples of Japanese proverbs
- Anzuru yori umu ga yasushi.
- Literally: Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.
- Meaning: Fear is greater than the danger. / An attempt is sometimes easier than expected.
- Deru kui wa utareru.
- Literally: The stake that sticks up gets hammered down.
- Meaning: If you stand out, you will be subject to criticism.
- Shiranu ga hotoke.
- Literally: Not knowing is Buddha.
- Meaning: Ignorance is bliss. / What you don't know can't hurt you.
- Minu ga hana.
- Literally: Not seeing is a flower.
- Meaning: Reality can't compete with imagination.
- Neko ni koban
- Literally: Gold coins to cat.
- Meaning: Casting pearls before swine / Giving something of value to a recipient that does not value it.
- Nanakorobi yaoki
- Literally: Fall seven times and stand up eight
- Meaning: When life knocks you down, stand back up / Keep trying.
- Hana yori dango
- Literally: Dumplings rather than flowers
- Meaning: To prefer substance over style, as in to prefer to be given functional, useful items (such as dumplings) instead of merely decorative items (such as flowers).
- jūnin toiro
- Literally: ten persons, ten colors
- Meaning: To each his own. / Different strokes for different folks.
- jaku niku kyō shoku
- Literally: The weak are meat; the strong eat.
- Meaning: Survival of the fittest.
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