Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute

24 Japanese Idioms Related to Nature

Idioms are fun! There's nothing like a picturesque, idiomatic phrase to capture the true essence of a society. Authors Michael and Senko Maynard give the example of the Japanese idiom, "It was packed like sushi" (sushizume) to describe the morning train rush. It comes, as they say, "directly from the culture."

A mastery of Japanese idioms will help you understand the culture and speak a more authentic style of Japanese. Using idioms such as sushizume among your Japanese friends, colleagues, and business associates will create emotional bonds that bring you closer to their culture.

Add the authors, "Since the Japanese are conditioned to believe that no people outside of the Japanese islands really know or care deeply about their culture, your use of a Japanese idiom in the appropriate context will both astound and delight them.

"More important, your command of Japanese idioms can lead to a deeper understanding of the Japanese people."

Here's the Maynards' list of 24 Japanese idioms related to nature.

"Blossoms bring storms."
(hana ni arashi)

(life often brings misfortune at the time of great happiness)

This fatalistic insight is a shortened version of tsuki ni muragumo, hana ni arashi, which is literally translated, "Clouds over the moon, storm over blossoms." It often seems that misfortune looms behind even the happiest moments.

"Sweets are preferred to flowers."
(hana yori dango)

(the practical is preferred over the aesthetic)

Every spring on the day of "flower viewing," Japanese traditionally travel to the countryside or visit parks to appreciate the beauty of nature. Yet human nature being what it is, people seem to show considerably more interest in the food than in the flowers.

"Sesame grinding."

(ingratiating oneself, apple-polishing, overtly flattering, toadying, sucking up to one's superiors)

When a person makes an overtly ingratiating remark, he or she is "grinding sesame seeds." Others call attention to the gomasuri either by saying the word, by making motions with the fist over the palm of the other hand (simulating the grinding of roasted sesame seeds with a pestle and mortar), or by doing both. Like the messy sesame seeds ground up in the mortar, the person seeking favor is sticking to everything.

"Like washing [a bucketful of] potatoes."
(imo [no ko] o arau yoona)

(so crowded you can hardly turn around, jam-packed, mobbed with people)

Summer weekends at the beach in Japan are impossible. The beaches are so crowded that you can hardly make space for your beach mat. When hordes of people play in the waist-deep ocean waters, wave after wave jostles them into each other. This commotion resembles a wooden bucketful of potatoes sloshing around while being washed by the agitator. Usage is restricted to water-related scenes.

"Not saying is the flower."
(iwanu go hana)

(some things are better left unsaid; silence is golden)

Since one can never really "take back" what one says, there is a high premium on thinking things through before opening one's mouth. Much harm and nonsense can result from ill-chosen words. Thus the philosophical observation that "Not saying is the flower."

"A stone that rolls gathers no moss."
(korogaru ishi ni koke musazu)

(perseverance pays off; patience is a virtue)

For the Japanese, moss is something to be admired. Associated with beauty, moss grows on rocks and in pathways of old temples in places like Kyoto. Yet the stone that continues to tumble will never have moss. So this expression is often used to admonish others to stay put, to continue on in the same job. Ironically, this expression is also used by some Japanese to mean the very opposite, i.e.: the meaning understood by Americans: keep moving or you'll get old.

"The mature rice plant lowers its head."
(minoru hodo atama no sagaru inaho kana)

(maturity brings humility and respect for others)

When rice is mature and ready to harvest, the heaviness at the top of the plant pulls it down low to the ground. Japanese see this as analogous to how the wisdom of years fills a man with humility and causes his head to bow heavily in his deep respect for life and nature.

"Preparing the roots for transplanting."

(informally securing prior approval, checking with everyone who counts before formal presentation, covering all the bases)

Nemawashi now is used worldwide to characterize the consensus-building nature of Japanese business practices. Literally, nemawashi means cutting off excess roots and wrapping the remaining roots with a straw mat for protection when transplanting the tree. In business terms, it means an informal solicitation of agreement before formal submission of approval at a meeting.

"Without roots or leaves."
(ne mo ha mo nai)

(groundless, unsubstantiated)

Roots give support to a tree much as facts give support to claims and allegations. Leaves validate the health of a tree, proving its life and vitality. With neither support (roots) nor evidence (leaves), the (tree) allegation cannot stand.

Cherry blossom (sakura)

"Cherry blossom."

(a shill, a plant, a confederate)

This expression originates from the Edo period. A paid audience hired to applaud and cheer the show was seated in the section of the theater called "sakura."

"Japanese peppers are hot, though small."
(sanshoo wa kotsubu de mo karai)

(groundless, unsubstantiated)

Despite the small size of the Japanese pepper, it packs a powerful, spicy punch. The phrase suggests that size isn't the only determinant of strength or ability.

"Flower on a high peak."
(takane no hana)

(unrealizable desire, an unobtainable object, something out of one's reach)

Wistfully, a prize you can see but simply cannot reach. The beautiful flower is so far away that there is no real hope of picking it. Used to describe an object of desire which is completely out of reach.

"As clean as a split bamboo."
(take o watta yoona)

(honest, frank, decisive, a straight-shooter)

When a bamboo pole is split lengthwise, the cut is true and straight—a clean split. Take o watta yoo describes a frank, decisive, and morally righteous person—usually in reference to a man, but sometimes in reference to a woman.

"Two halves of a cucumber."
(uri futatsu)

(two peas in a pod, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, frick and frack)

Nature provides ample evidence of perfect symmetry. Split lengthwise, the two halves of a fruit or vegetable are perfectly identical. When two people are so much alike in appearance, they are uri futatsu.

"[Seek shelter in] the shade of a big tree."
(yoraba taiju no kage)

(choose secure and solid protection)

Shade is figurative for protection. The tree you choose should be important and highly placed within your organization or in society in general. This expression is close in nuance to, "It never hurts to have friends in high places."

"Even if rain falls or spears fall."
(ame ga furoo to yari ga furoo to)

(no matter what, under any circumstances)

This expression reflects the firm determination Japanese are expected to have toward achieving their goal. Once the objective is set, after extensive deliberation and consideration, "come hell or high water," the project will be brought to a successful conclusion.

"Rain firms the ground."
(ame futte ji katamaru)

(adversity builds character; the more challenges successfully met, the stronger one or a relationship becomes)

Ame futte ji katamaru is often said to the bride and groom on their wedding day. In addition to meaning that bad experiences may actually be good, the expression admonishes young newlyweds that, for better or for worse, the ties that bind are strengthened through tough times.

"Message carried on the wind."
(kaze no tayori)

(a rumor, a story without source)

A letter delivered from the God of the Wind. Used to suggest news from an unnamed or an easily forgotten source. No direct line of communication exists. This expression compares with "a little birdie told me."

"Like grasping a cloud."
(kumo o tsukamu yoona)

(wishful thinking, impossible dream)

Since nobody can actually grasp a cloud, the expression denotes impossibility. From afar, a cloud has shape and form. Close-up, its gossamer essence dissipates at the touch. So when a not-so-talented sixteen-year-old declares that she's going to be a movie star, you can respond by saying it's a kumo o tsukamu yoona dream—a mild warning that the ambition or goal is highly unlikely to be realized.

"To set things adrift."
(mizu ni nagashite)

(to forgive and forget, to let bygones be bygones)

A river carries bad memories away. By setting adrift the pain of a romantic breakup or the betrayal by a once-trusted friend, you start things anew. Once into the river's flow, the thing-to-forget heads downstream, never to return.

"Bubbles on the water."
(mizu no awa)

(all for nothing, effort in vain)

Stopping by a brook and observing water bubbles forming and disappearing, a Japanese may associate those bubbles with the transient nature of life. Used poetically to acknowledge that a great effort was in vain and now has vanished like bubbles on the water.

"As if after scattered water."
(mizu o utta yoona)

(so quiet you could hear a pin drop, dead silence)

When performing the Tea Ceremony, it's customary to scatter water along the entrance path. This ritual indicates preparation. The water cleans; it moistens the soil to contain the dust. It also deadens the sound.

"Water business."
(mizu shoobai)

(entertainment business, a chancy trade)

Running water is not thought of as having a fixed rate of flow. Sometimes the water comes out strong, sometimes weak. Such is the "fluid" nature of the income levels for certain businesses. Mizu shoobai includes a variety of entertainment businesses—tea houses, entertainment spots, bars, massage parlors, and houses of prostitution. According to another etymological source, these businesses were situated along river banks, and thus the "water business."

"Water on a red-hot stone."
(yakeishi ni mizu)

(a drop in the bucket, completely ineffective)

A drop of water thrown on a red-hot stone is of no consequence. Instead of cooling the stone, the drop of water evaporates in an instant. Yakeishi ni mizu expresses a grossly inadequate remedy to a problem.

Further reading

Wed 03 Jul 24

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