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Kolowaza, Part 2

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

If you read this blog regularly, as of course I hope that you do, you'll recognize at least one Japanese proverb (kotowaza) already from an earlier article: "A nail sticking out gets pounded down." It appears again here along with its friends. Many of the following proverbs convey cultural ideals, ideas and attitudes that are deeply ingrained in Japanese society, businesses and educational institutions. In this article, we'll explore some of the societal correlations and impacts as we look at observations, many of them about nature, as they apply to personal behavior advice and interpersonal relationships. Again, any interpretations that are offered are suggestions to get you thinking. You can take away what you want to from these proverbs.

Watch what you say

  • "Pulling water to my own rice paddy" means that a person is self-aggrandizing. Things that they say and do are targeted to improve their own position in life above other considerations. That sounds like a definition of selfish to me.
  • "The hawk with talent hides its talons," means that the most knowledgeable person often says the least. However, to the best of my knowledge, hawks don't have retractable talons, so it must take more of an effort to conceal them. The person that makes the effort to conceal his or her knowledge may take some coaxing to reveal what they know, but it probably is worth the effort. When I worked on a year-long project with a group of Japanese professors at the University of Ryukyu, it was intimidating to be the only female in a roomful of Japanese males. However, they were impressively skilled at putting me at ease, drawing me out and making me feel like a valuable member of the group.
  • "The inarticulate speak longest," is the flip side of the hawk with the talons. Those who know the least sometimes say the most, and can sound foolish. In the next article, we'll discuss more about fools.
  • "Not-speaking is the flower," is somewhat along the same lines. The English equivalent is "Silence is golden."
  • "The tongue is more to be feared than the sword," seems to serve as a warning both to those who would speak sharply and the people they're speaking to. There are some English sayings that suggest that, such as someone has "a sharp tongue," but that wouldn't be considered a proverb. Perhaps the closest that we have is "The tongue is mightier than the sword." As an aside, the sanseveria plant, with its extremely pointed leaves, is also known as "mother-in-law's tongue." I suspect that my daughter-in-law would agree with that, but I don't have a clue why. By the way, the plant is poisonous. Mothers-in-law get put down in this Japanese proverb, too: "Never rely on the glory of the morning or the smiles of your mother-in-law."
  • "The tongue is but three inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet high" is another take on the previous proverbs that makes an amazing visual in the head.
  • How things begin

  • Two Japanese proverbs, "While we consider when to begin, it becomes too late;" and "When you're thirsty it's too late to think about digging a well," might be similar to the English expression, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today." Get started, already!
  • However, starting actions also comes with this warning, "Vision without action is a daydream. Action with without vision is a nightmare."
  • "He who would go a hundred miles should consider ninety-nine as halfway." Although that doesn't add up, the spirit that this proverb is trying to convey is to "stay the course." Don't consider the work done until it is actually completed.
  • Be cautious

  • "The stake that sticks out gets hammered down." As with "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down," this proverb admonishes us not to make waves and asserts that conformity is better than sticking out from the group. The ideas of blending in and conformity have led to the extremely homogeneous Japanese society of today—or is it that the homogeneous group has led to these ideas of conformity. While conformity may be helpful for cohesion, it's a major drawback to creativity and innovation, as those skills develop from being willing to step away from the group and take risks. People have criticized Japanese for decades for their perceived re-engineering of existing products rather than developing new ones. What is considered re-engineering by some may well be considered improvements on existing technology, however. The Japanese, well aware of this criticism, have tried to institute educational changes that encourage creativity. Stay tuned for the next generation of robots in your life—they may have Japanese logos on them!
  • The inherent benefit of staying with the group is pointed out in this proverb: "A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle." Fish swim in large groups to improve their survival chances when a predator comes around. Likewise, armies swarm the enemy. "There's strength in numbers," according to the English expression.
  • Along the same lines and with a bow to nature, "Unless you enter the tiger's den you cannot take the cubs" is a proverb that means that you can't accomplish things without taking risks, but who would want to take a tiger's cub, anyway? Well, the tiger is an often-used symbol in Japanese society, as it denotes beauty, speed and sensuality, but is also known for its fierceness. Because of the link with sensuality, tigers are given to newlyweds. According to tradition, if you dream about a tiger, it means that you'll be getting new power. These two observations just may be linked, but let's keep this PG rated.
  • Photo credit [Dave Stokes](https://www.flickr.com/photos/33909700@N02/3159669562/)

    Anticipating tomorrow

  • This proverb is a fun and rather light-hearted one: "Talk about things of tomorrow and the mice inside the ceiling laugh," because nobody knows for sure what tomorrow could bring.
  • "Not knowing is Buddha." It may be that it's better to not know the truth. As the English saying goes, "Ignorance is bliss."
  • A similar observation is in this proverb: "Not seeing is a flower. " You can imagine how things will be all you want, but you'll never imagine them as they actually are. So, you're better off not seeing them and being disappointed in the reality that never matches that in the imagination.
  • Interpersonal relationships and understanding others

  • When trying to understand others, one theme seems to underlie Japanese proverbs that relate to interpersonal relationships, and that theme is summed up by this proverb: "Big similarity, small difference." Similarities among people outweigh any differences that we might have. An English equivalent might be, "We're all the same under the skin." Any differences that exist could be explained by environmental and cultural influences. So, let's take a look at the advice about getting along with others offered by some additional Japanese proverbs.
  • "Adversity is the foundation of virtue." Most people, if they live long enough, experience their share of adversity. There are health challenges, family deaths, financial reverses, and a multitude of other major issues. My mother always said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." She and ancestors before her are right. We also become more patient with others who are going through rough spots. After all, "Patience is a virtue."
  • How things end

  • "Dragon, head, snake, tail" could be talking about an anticlimax. The beginning is like a dragon's head, majestic and powerful, and the end is like a snake's tail, weak and powerless. Whether this refers to the entirety of life or just for an event is for you to decide.
  • "Luck exists in the leftovers" could mean that there is luck in eating what others have left, taking full advantage of what is being offered.
  • "One's Act; One's profit/advantage," means that you get what you deserve, your "just desserts." An English equivalent could be "You reap what you sow."
  • "After victory, tighten your helmet chord." You may have been victorious in the battle, but at what cost? Others will continue to battle you for the top position, so get ready.
  • "Chu songs on all sides" means that the situation is hopeless and defeat is imminent. There is an interesting backstory to this proverb; it is about the defeat of the Chu general. The Han army completely surrounds the Chinese Chu army, and the soon-to-be victors sing songs of Chu that are haunting, melancholy melodies. Some consider that act one of the earliest examples of psychological warfare.
  • Although we took a peek at proverbs about how things end, we're not ending the adventure just yet. We'll continue to look at Japanese proverbs next time. See you then!

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    Next: Japanese Perspectives About Getting Along
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