A Japanese proverb (諺, ことわざ, kotowaza) may take the form of:
- 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 kitsune no yomeiri (狐の嫁入り, literally 'a fox's wedding', meaning "a sunshower") and the yojijukugo koharubiyori (小春日和, 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.
Numerous Asian proverbs, including Japanese, appear to be derived from older Chinese proverbs, although it often is impossible to be completely sure about the direction of cultural influences (and hence, the origins of a particular proverb or idiomatic phrase).
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. (I no naka no kawazu (井の中の蛙, 'a frog in a well') is Classical Chinese, from the Zhuangzi.)
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 (e.g. "kill two birds with one stone"), Japanese yojijukugo borrow from Chinese and compactly convey the concept in one compound word (e.g., isseki nichō (一石二鳥, 'one stone two birds')).
- Anzuru yori umu ga yasashii.
- 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.
- Hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi.
- Literally: Of flowers, the cherry blossom; of men, the warrior.
- Meaning: As the cherry blossom is considered foremost among flowers, so the warrior is foremost among men.
- Neko ni koban
- Literally: Gold coins to a 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; What matters is not the bad that happened, but what one does after.
- Hana yori dango
- Literally: Dumplings rather than flowers
- Meaning: To prefer substance over form, 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.
- inga ōhō
- Literally: Cause bring result / bad causes bring bad results
- Meaning: what goes around comes around
- Note: this is a Buddhist sentiment that emphasizes the idea of karmic retribution.
- jaku niku kyō shoku
- Literally: The weak are meat; the strong eat.
- Meaning: Survival of the fittest.