Kolowaza: Japanese proverbs

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
14 Jul 2015

Proverbs have been handed down over generations, often for centuries. They have served to pass wisdom and common truths from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters; that's what makes sayings proverbs. They can function to give counsel and advice and sometimes, even to chastise. Looking at proverbs indigenous to a country can uncloak some deep-seated traditions and attitudes toward life of the culture. As we look at some Japanese proverbs (kolowaza) by categories, you may even find one that particularly resonates with you. You could put it on a t-shirt, refrigerator magnet or perhaps even render in calligraphy for framing or directly on a wall or in a tattoo. That could be a real conversation piece!

Other proverbs may be familiar to you, as we have similar English sayings. I'll list the proverbs and their literal translations as well as the symbolic meaning. Those meanings are my takes on what wisdom the proverbs are trying to pass down to the next generations, but you certainly could have your own interpretations that differ from mine—and they may be much better, perhaps with a humorous twist. Go for it! By the way, if you want the Kanji or Romaji Japanese phrases, you can use your computer's search engine to find it elsewhere on the Internet. Let's look at proverbs pertaining to work first, as the Japanese have a well-known and strong work ethic.

Work, work, work

A couple of things stand out on the subject of Japanese work. One is that work consumes a lot of time. In addition to typically long work hours, Japanese workers are expected to go out to bars after work hours to drink with the boss. Then they show up the next day and do it all over. Konpai is the traditional drink ceremony of the evening. I can see where it gets its name. Konpai means exhaustion or fatigue, and that's probably the case with most participants when the ceremony takes place.

Photo credit [twiy111](https://www.flickr.com/photos/53978850@N02/12269124464/)
  • Don't "sell oil." If you waste work time in idle chatter, it is like selling oil, which is nothing you can grab hold of; it just slips through your fingers.
  • "One stone, two birds" is similar to the English saying: "Killing two birds with one stone." In terms of work, you accomplish more if you can do two things with one action.
  • "One who chases after two hares won't catch even one." Despite killing two birds with one stone, this proverb warns that if you try to do two tasks at once, you'll not do well in either. No multitasking is tolerated in this piece of cultural wisdom. It may serve as a warning to those who try to keep too many balls in the air at once.
  • Persevere

    Beginning something is easy, but continuing is hard. Perhaps we can agree that perseverance is difficult, but there are those of us who also find it also tough to even begin a difficult task. You still need to write that theme or thesis, don't you? I found a million ways to postpone writing my dissertation. I could have used these words about perseverance and encouragement.

  • Don't be like the "3 day monk," who gives up easily or is averse to work.
  • Remember that "continuance is strength," so don't give up. If you hold on during difficulties, it will yield strength.
  • "Money grows on the tree of persistence." Those who persist in work will be financially rewarded.
  • "Life without endeavor is like entering a jewel-mine and coming out with empty hands." This saying is along the same lines as the "tree of persistence": work is the way to a earn money, and it provides great opportunities that should be taken advantage of.
  • Encouragement

    A number of proverbs are designed to help people persevere, to carry on when troubles or difficulties occur. The English expression, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" epitomizes this category. Wait, I've heard that put another way: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." I don't know which version you prefer, but I'm still here, keyboarding away. It's far more fun talking to you!

  • "To fall seven times, to rise eight times," is advice that may befuddle math majors, but the intent seems to be that no matter how many times you're knocked down, just get up again and keep going. You know, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. [li]"Even monkeys fall from trees." Everyone, even an expert, can make mistakes. So, we're implying that experts are monkeys here? Is that like the English joke that says that experts (X-spurts) are unknown drips without power—no, this proverb is intended to encourage you once again to pick yourself up after failure and try again and to forgive yourself.
  • "Adversity is the foundation of virtue." A virtue is what others consider a desirable quality in a person. This proverb is similar to the English saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
  • "Difficulties make you a jewel." My guess is that idea comes directly from nature. After all, diamonds, one of Earth's hardest materials, is formed by extreme terrestrial pressure on lowly lumps of coal.
  • "Wake from death and return to life" means to recover from a difficult situation and rise (like a Phoenix from the ashes) in a sudden recovery. Let's not get into the topic of why bells used to be put into coffins; being buried alive is just too horrible to imagine.
  • "If eating poison don't forget to lick the plate" presents a real conundrum. What if there's no way out of a desperate situation? Is it "Bite the bullet" time? Should we accept our fate in that situation and just move on with life?
  • Lessons from Nature

    Photo credit [Rene Cunningham](https://www.flickr.com/photos/renecunningham/5429956288/)

    If you recall, the most dominant set of beliefs or religion in Japan is Shintoism. The Shinto religion finds deities in many things of nature, including such things as trees, rivers and creatures of the Earth. It's logical that a culture that reveres nature takes lessons from it, and the following are some of the Japanese proverbs that likely have arisen from close observation of nature.

  • "Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon" points out that as we experience the beauties of nature, we also learn about ourselves. We are, after all, creatures of nature. Who has not sought solace from the rat race by seeking out a peaceful spot in nature to contemplate our own destinies? We live just off the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), which winds itself along the tops of mountains. In our town, Asheville, we have a popular bumper sticker: "Altitude Affects Attitude." So true! A walk or ride on the BRP always lifts our spirits and gives us a renewed perspective on what's really important. I hope that you, also, have a favorite retreat spot.
  • "Thunderclap from a clear sky" means a bolt from the blue, one that comes as a complete surprise, but why does that always seem to happen when we're camping or going to an outdoor concert? I suspect that a lot of people worry in advance about things that probably never happen. However, sometimes we get "hit out of left field," and whatever happens to us comes as quite a shock.
  • "Feed a dog for three days and it is grateful for three years. Feed a cat for three years and it forgets after three days." If you know pets, you know this observation is right on the money, but what does the proverb tell us? Maybe it's saying that some people are grateful for what you give them or do for them, but others have very short memories of those events. That's OK, because we didn't do it for the gratitude; we did it because it was the right thing to do, correct? Still, it might be nice to have some type of recognition for those of us who are externally motivated. Perhaps the point is that people should be internally motivated, as sometimes we can't depend on others to reinforce what we're doing. We need to "Just Do It," as Nike's famous tag line exhorts.
  • Well, enough for now, but we're not finished with Japanese proverbs yet. Next time we'll take a look at more about nature and also proverbs that impart advice to individuals about interpersonal relationships, including love and marriage. Some of those might surprise or shock you. Anyway, see you next time if "the good Lord's willin' ‘n' the crik don't rise," as they say in these parts.

    Previous: The Ginza District
    Next: Kolowaza, Part 2
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