The Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs

Dec 2, 2020Blog, Language Study

The Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs

Proverbs are indigenous to all cultures, and often expose the deeper roots of the philosophy and psychology of a society.

Japanese culture is especially rich in kotowaza or proverbs, as Japanese culture is ancient and has been highly sophisticated for a very very  long time. 

Furthermore, the richness of Japanese proverbs stems from the influence of Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism, all of which one believes are much more philosophically and metaphysically profound than much younger and more immature religions, such as Christianity.

Nonetheless, the more profound proverbs can be found in virtually all old cultures, which is an obvious sign of the universality of humanity, despite racial and cultural differences. 

Here some Japanese proverbs and some food for thought along the way.

(1) 実るほど頭を垂れる稲穂かな (minoru hodo kobe wo tareru inaho kana)

The more respectable a person is, the more humble they are

As the rice grows, it bears fruit, and the more rice, the lower the it bows, which means that the more respectable a person is, the lower his or her head is, the more humble he or she is.

Sitting at the counter, with my very good doctor friend in a delicious sashimi specialty store, in the countryside of Japan, there were three men sitting along side of us. As the sake flowed we started to chitchat with them,  as we did the two younger ones seemed slightly arrogant, and little full of themselves, while the older gentleman displayed a more humble mannerism. During the conversation, the name cards came out and lo-and-behold, the cards indicated the two younger braggarts as low level bureaucrats, while the name cards of the other gentleman, you guessed it, held an important high level position in the city government of this particular country town. After they departed the shop, my very good doctor friend taught me this important proverb. Thank you Dr. Yuki for your friendship and wisdom.

Rice Stalk

(2) 七転び八起き (nana korobi ya oki) 

Life is full of ups and downs

Everyone without exception, everyone experiences the tides of life. This proverb holds special meaning for me after seeing my father get  sued by a major oil corporation,   and losing all his material goods including his house in his 60s. As devastating as this would have been to others, my father got back up, brushed himself off, and never lost his sense of humour. Not only that, my father brought himself out of poverty and made an extraordinary life for his family, for which I am eternal grateful. If one is ever wondering what to do after a devastating set-back, the answer is to get back up again and move toward one’s own vision; this makes life meaningful.

By the way, my father celebrated his 85th birthday in 2020 (read about my fathers hat coming back to Japan after several decades here)

Life's Ups and Downs

(3)千里の道も一歩から (senri no michi ha ippo kara)

Every thousand mile journey starts with the first step

Starting is hard. The road in front of one is uncertain, and there are dead-ends and danger lurking here, there, and everywhere. There are also extraordinary experiences, teachers, and countless gods, saints,  and angels helping one along one’s the way, yet one may not even know their names. So why would one not take the first step? Believing in oneself and having the courage to take the first step on an uncharted road is really the essence of a life well lived, it not?

Every thousand mile journey starts with the first step

(4) 親孝行をしたいときに親は無し (oya koko o shitai toki oya wa nashi)

By the time children realize the virtue of their parents, and the obligation they owe to them, they are already gone

The Japanese are born into obligation, and none of these obligations is more important than oyakoko (filial piety). Rooted in Confucius principals, one believes it is significantly important to honour one’s parents. I can not imagine those who came before, and the hard roads that they were obliged to hoe. Traditional families who work to build a reputable house with an honourable legacy are to be venerated. 

filial piety

(5) 災いを転じて福となす (wazawai wo tenjite fuku to nasu)

Turning disaster into good fortune

Japan is known as the country of disasters. In light of all of the typhoons (recently known as megaphoons), volcanos, and frequent earthquakes, one would have to say this unfortunate label is probably well deserved. The Japanese are a resilient and stoic people, who have accepted disasters are a normal course of the human experience. I have always been impressed by the Japanese how they come together in times of disaster, not only to repair the damage, but to support each other in these time of crises. 

Good Fortune

There are countless of these philosophical and meaningful proverbs in Japanese, and once one internalizes the lessons lurking inside of them, another dimension opens its door, one from which you can never exit again, as the depth of the Japanese language will take one into a sublime world, unlike any other.