Japanese Perspectives About Getting Along

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

Ever since the Japanese have become more affluent, their desire to see the world has led some to the farthest reaches of the globe. A number of their proverbs speak to how to conduct oneself when in other territories. Here's a look at some Japanese proverbs that pass on generational attitudes and advice about getting along with others.


  • "Follow the villagers when you are in the new village" is very practical advice. When you attend a formal dinner and are confused by a plethora of forks and spoons, it's easier to avoid social pitfalls by watching which one others use for which course and then follow their lead. Likewise, in more primitive societies, literally following the villagers could mean that they know where the animal traps are, and you'll avoid them by following someone who's a native of that village.
  • Entering the village, obey the village" seems to be the equivalent of the English proverb, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." So, when we travel, according to this proverb, we should abide by the written and unwritten rules of the village.
  • "Even when our sleeves brush together, it is our karma." Karma is part of the Hinduism and Buddhism that is intertwined with the belief that we have had previous lives and that our actions in those decided our fate in this existence. It follows that our existence in this life will decide our fate in future lives. Oh, the pressure.
  • "Bad and good are intertwined like rope," suggests to me that life has its ups and downs. It also speaks to the complex make-up and behavior of humans that mingles the good and bad—and keeps us guessing what individuals and groups of people will do next.
  • "A frog in a well does not know the great sea." People who are limited in their experiences do not realize the diversity of what the world offers. If you've ever traveled afar and tried to share your experiences with someone who has not, you're likely to get the MEGO (my eyes glaze over) response if you say more than a sentence or two about your trip. No matter where you travel in the world, you're almost sure to encounter some Japanese tourists. When we went to Cairns, Australia, we were surprised that we were the only gaijin taking a dive boat out to the Great Barrier Reef; our fellow passengers were all Japanese, so we felt right at home, as though we were still in Japan. We later learned from some Australians who were not thrilled with the fact that astute Japanese business people have established a complete chain of services for their tourists, including tours, hotels and restaurants.
  • Interpersonal Disagreements

  • Let flow in the water" and "Let what is past flow away downstream" both mean to forgive and forget. That's similar to the English, "It's water under the bridge or over the dam." Or, as my Mr. Malaprop dad, a Yogi Berra type, says, "It's water under the dam" or "over the bridge." Remember one of Yogisms of that ball player, "Ninety percent of this game is half-mental." OK. Whatever. I'll let that water flow downstream and under the dam.
  • A proverb that observes something that everyone can relate to is "Even a sheet of paper has two sides," meaning that every argument has two sides. Making well-considered personal decisions involves looking at the pros and cons, both sides of the sheet of paper.
  • Perhaps the only way to settle some things is to agree to disagree. After all, "Ten men, ten colors" recognizes to each his or her own, as in the English: "Different strokes for different folks." Also, the very earthy Japanese, "Every worm to his taste" attests to that truth.
  • Speaking of lowly creatures, "There are even bugs that eat knotweed." Knotweed is an invasive grass. This proverb acknowledges that there's no accounting for taste, so to each his or her own. Besides, wouldn't a bug that eats an invasive grass be welcome? Maybe this proverb is recognizing the value of all creatures, too, which would be consistent with the Shinto focus on the sanctity of nature.
  • "A greeting is the local deity who turns up providentially." This proverb needs some explanation. It is "Aisatsu wa toki no ujigami" in Japanese. Aisatsu, which literally means greeting, is understood to mean arbitration. Thus, the meaning is probably something like it's a godsend to have arbitration in a quarrel.
  • The Japanese have much lower litigation rates than Western countries. My sense is that this probably is because of cultural preferences to work things out in mediation rather than the courts. However, there also are systemic barriers to lawsuits such as limited access to lawyers and courts.
  • "A good sword is the one left in its scabbard" clearly indicates the Japanese wisdom that avoiding conflict and confrontation is preferable.
  • For those who inclined to intervene in disputes, as this proverb observes, "The go-between wears out a thousand sandals." My best guess for the meaning of this one is that inserting oneself into the middle of an argument or feud is futile, as it the disagreement is likely to continue despite your best efforts. However, considering that most disagreements are settled out of rather than in court, arbitration is a widely accepted alternative, even though someone may have to wear out some sandals in the process.
  • "One cannot quarrel without an opponent." While that may be self-evident, probably we've all known persistent people who continue to argue anyway. Japanese have a concept of "face (mentsu)." Avoiding arguing with a superior in a group setting is helping him "save face." The person who provides this service, which is known as giving face (kao o tateru), is respected for doing so. Giving face is just one example of why Japanese are considered by others to be very polite. And, when you're an invited guest at a business meeting, you may feel as I have, like visiting royalty.
  • Do not suffer fools lightly

  • "It is foolish to deal with a fool"
  • "Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass (or a fool)."
  • "Even a fool has one talent." Even a fool may be good at something)
  • "Unless an idiot dies, he won't be cured" means that there is no cure for being stupid. A society that strives to be homogeneous may have difficulty accepting those who are different, whether physically challenged, retarded or different in other ways.
  • "We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance." This fun proverb recognizes that there's a bit of a fool in all of us, so we might as well relax and enjoy some frivolity.
  • "If you never climb Mt. Fuji, you're a fool, and if you climb it more than once, you're a crazy fool." Here's the skinny if your heart's set on climbing Mt. Fuji. The season is from early July to mid-September, with the least crowded time being weekdays in early July before schools have let out for vacation. The most congested time is during Oban week in mid-August.
  • Photo credit [hoge asdf](https://www.flickr.com/photos/9177053@N05/4124871182/)

    Enough foolishness for now. Next time, we'll take a look at marriage and families. See you then!

    Previous: Kolowaza, Part 2
    Next: Japanese Women: Family and Workforce Challenges
    © Numbat Logic Pty Ltd 2014 - 2021
    Privacy Policy