Japanese proverbs and idioms are filled with ancient wisdom. And some of them you may have already heard and didn’t know they originated from Japan!
These Japanese proverbs are called ことわざ (kotowaza). They can come in straight-forward sayings or be as philosophical as one of Uncle Iroh’s from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
It makes sense that everyone’s favorite Pai Sho player likes to speak wisdom through old Japanese proverbs and Chinese sayings. In fact, Iroh and the Fire Nation are based on Chinese/Japanese traditions and history.
(Plus, he was voiced by Mako Iwamatsu, a brilliant Japanese-American actor.)
If you’d like to level up your wisdom with Japanese sayings, you’ve come to the right place.
Here you’ll find tons of Japanese proverbs with English translations, to help bring out your inner philosopher.
- Japanese Wisdom in Proverbs (The 3 Forms of Japanese Wisdom Sayings)
- Japanese Proverbs About Life
- Japanese Proverbs About Love
- Japanese Proverbs About Friendship
- Japanese Proverbs About Perseverance
- Japanese Proverbs About War and Anger
- Japanese Proverbs About Death
Japanese Wisdom in Proverbs (The 3 Forms of Japanese Wisdom Sayings)
There are many old Japanese sayings steeped in the country’s history, culture, and innate wisdom.
These Japanese proverbs come in three forms: 言い習わし (iinarawashi), 四字熟語 (yojijukugo), and 慣用句 (kan’youku).
Iinarawashi are short sayings and bits of wisdom.
Yojijukugo are four-character idioms. They consist of only four kanji characters to create the saying. These can be the hardest to grasp sometimes for learners.
Kan’youku are idiomatic phrases, but they’re longer than yojijukugo.
What’s the difference? I like to compare these styles of Japanese proverbs to other proverbial-styles you may know.
They’re all very similar, but with some nuanced differences.
Iinarawashi would be the proverbs most like something Iroh from Avatar would say.
Yojijukugo sound a bit more like Master Yoda from Star Wars.
And last, kan’youku are the ones that seem most like Confuscious’ style.
But really, it doesn’t matter much which style the proverbs are in. The important part is understanding their meaning, and learning from them!
Japanese Proverbs About Life
井の中の蛙大海を知らず (i no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu) English Translation: “A frog in a well knows nothing of the sea.”
This famous Japanese saying means someone sees the world through their limited perspective. They’re quick to judge and think very big of themselves. It’s used to remind someone that there are things bigger than them in the world.
水に流す (mizu ni nagasu) English Translation: “The water flows.”
This Japanese proverb is like the English expression “water under the bridge.” It means to forgive and forget, and let things go.
口は災いの元 (kuchi wa wazawai no moto) English translation: “The mouth is the source of disaster.”
Running our mouths tends to get us into trouble, doesn’t it? The saying is a reminder to, more or less, shut your trap. Because sometimes, it’s better to not say anything at all.
自業自得 (jigoujitoku) English Translation: “Self-work, self-profit.”
Depending on how this phrase is used, it could mean something more positive like “you get what you give” or “hard work pays off.”
But most of the time, it’s used negatively to mean “what goes around comes around”. Because karma.
知らぬが仏 (shiranu ga hotoke) English Translation: “Not knowing is Buddha” or “ignorance is bliss”
I love this Japanese idiom. It might seem confusing at first, but let me explain. Buddha here represents nirvana — the state of enlightenment. To be in a state of enlightenment, you have to give up earthly concerns and be at peace.
So, not knowing is peaceful. Ignorance is bliss.
出る杭は打たれる (derukui wa utareru) English Translation: “The nail that sticks out is struck.”
This one is so culturally unique to Japan.
Japanese society is a collectivist country, meaning people are expected to work together for the greater good of all. While that’s a good thing, it can also lead to a lot of conformity and resistance to change.
This saying means “When you stick out, you’re likely to get criticized.” Those who try to be different in Japan often meet with a lot of resistance. So, this phrase is quite common.
花より団子 (hana yori dango) English Translation: “Dumplings over flowers” or “substance over style”
This is the name of one of my FAVORITE Japanese dramas of all time, based on the manga. It’s named that because the whole premise centers on a character who doesn’t care at all about wealth and style.
Basically, it’s someone who would prefer a practical gift over a beautiful one. Someone who is more pragmatic than superficial.
Because you can eat a dumpling and not be hungry anymore. Flowers are only to look at.
案ずるより産むが易し (anzuru yori umu ga yasushi) English Translation: “It’s easier to give birth than to think about it.”
Basically, this means “don’t worry about it.” It’s easy to stress over the future, but often what we worry so much about is easier than we think it will be.
花鳥風月 (kachou fuugetsu) English Translation: “The beauties of nature.”
This one is really interesting. The kanji each represent one beautiful aspect of nature:
- 花: “Flower”
- 鳥: “Bird”
- 風: “Wind”
- 月: *Moon”
But together, it represents the beauty of everything around us. It serves as a reminder to enjoy the great outdoors.
二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず。(nito wo oumono wa itto wo mo ezu.) English translation: “Those who chase two hares won’t even catch one.”
There’s an episode of Parks & Recreation (one of my favorite shows) where Ron Swanson gives some advice to Lesley Knope. He says, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
Great life advice from brilliant life philosopher, Swanson-sensei.
This proverb means the same thing. When your focus is divided, you’ll fail to succeed at either.
見ぬが花 (minu ga hana) English translation: “Not seeing is a flower,” “Reality is never as good as your imagination”
This is one of those Japanese proverbs that would be confusing to hear without context.
The idea is, you can picture how beautiful the flower will be when it blooms… But often your imagination builds up the beauty of this flower and the reality doesn’t compare.
猫に小判 (neko ni koban) English translation: “Gold coins to a cat.”**
This saying refers to giving something of value to someone who does not appreciate it. The English equivalent would be “casting pearls before swine.” I prefer the image of giving gold to a cat. No animal seems more indifferent than a cat.
Japanese Proverbs About Love
酒は本心を表す (sake wa honshin wo arawasu) English Translation: “Sake shows true feelings.”
The word 本心 (honshin) means “true heart” or “true feelings.” So this phrase means that what’s said while drinking is often how a person truly feels.
A mumbled 大好き (daisuki, “I love you”) while drinking isn’t just the sake talking!
異体同心 (itai doushin) English Translation: “Two bodies, same heart.”
When a couple gets married, it’s often said that “two become one.” That’s the same idea here!
It could be used to say someone is your soulmate or to describe the union of love.
以心伝心 (ishindenshin) English Translation: “Heart to heart.”
This yojijukugo phrase means “heart to heart” or to share your true heart’s emotions to connect with someone else.
磯 の アワビ (iso no awabi) English Translation: “An abalone on the shore” or “unrequited love”
Abalone is a type of marine snail, and they’re extremely rare. There’s a Japanese song about a man who dives in the sea looking for abalone is in a one-sided romance.
So, this phrase came to mean “unrequited love.”
恋とせきとは隠されぬ。(koi to seki to wa kakusarenu) English Translation: “Love and a cough cannot be hidden.”
Like when you’re sick and you can’t suppress a cough, love can’t be hidden. It’s always obvious when someone’s in love!
惚れた病に薬なし (horeta yamai ni kusuri nashi) English Translation: “There’s no medicine for falling in love.”
Horeta means “to fall in love”. Yamai means “disease.” And kusuri nashi means “there’s no medicine” or “there’s no cure.”
Together, it means there’s nothing that can fix love-sickness.
Japanese Proverbs About Friendship
鯛も一人はうまからず (taimo hitori wa umakarazu) English Translation: “Even a sea bream loses its flavor when eaten alone.”
Sea bream is considered to be one of the tastiest fish, and it’s often eaten whole with others as a shared family dish.
So even though sea bream is delicious, eating it alone isn’t good.
This saying shows Japan’s emphasis on shared meals with friends and family, and how it’s always better to eat food with those you care about.
八方美人 (happou bijin) English Translation: “Everybody’s friend.”
This isn’t a positive idiom, but rather, to describe someone who tries to please everyone. They try to be everyone’s friend, and so they’re not loyal to anyone.
Japanese Proverbs About Perseverance
継続は力なり。 (keizoku wa chikara nari) English Translation: “Continuing on is power,” or “don’t give up.”
Even when things get hard, pushing through leads to power and strength. That’s why this Japanese proverb means, “There’s strength in continuing on. Don’t give up.”
七転び八起き (nana korobi ya oki) English Translation: “Fall seven times, get up eight.”
This is definitely one of the most famous Japanese proverbs. You’ve probably heard the English version: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” It’s another phrase that means “don’t give up!”
猿も木から落ちる (saru mo ki kara ochiru) English Translation: “Even monkeys fall from trees.”
If monkeys can fall from trees, even the great can fail. This phrase means, “nobody’s perfect, but keep trying anyway.”
It’s perfect to tell a friend if they’re struggling with failure to encourage them to keep trying.
*明日は明日の風が吹く (ashita wa ashita no kaze ga fuku*) English translations: “Tomorrow’s winds will blow tomorrow.”
This Japanese saying means, “tomorrow’s another day” and to not worry about the future. I love this beautiful proverb — it’s so much more elegant than the English version!
三日坊主 (mikka bouzu) English Translation: “A monk for 3 days.”
This expression describes someone who’s an inconsistent worker or lacks the determination to see something through. They’re like the person who chooses to be a monk and gives up after only 3 days.
石の上にも三年 (ishi no ue nimo san’nen) English Translation: “3 years on a stone.”
If you stay consistent and stick with it through hard times, eventually things will change. That’s the meaning behind this Japanese proverb.
Think of the stone as your strength and perseverance foundation. If you continue to sit there and stick with it, things will slowly get better.
雨降って地固まる (ame futte chikatamaru) English Translation: “When it rains, earth hardens” or “Adversity builds character”
This one especially sounds like a proverb you’d find in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In English, we have a couple of similar proverbs: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “the calm after the storm.”
This has a similar vibe. When you weather the storm, you become stronger for it. The earth hardens after a rain, and so you will grow stronger through a difficult situation.
Japanese Proverbs About War and Anger
四面楚歌 (shimensoka) English Translation: “Surrounded by enemies.”
A yojijukugo phase, which can also have a nuance of “being betrayed by everyone around you.” Talk about being in enemy territory!
あほに取り合うばか (aho ni toriau naka) English Translation: “Only a fool deals with a fool.”
Have you heard the English saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”? Well, this Japanese saying has a bit of nuance like that.
The word aho in Japanese is stronger than the word for baka, but they both mean “idiot.” So it’s saying you’re a greater fool for trying to fight with a fool.
相手のない喧嘩はできない (aite no nai kenka wa dekinai) English Translation: “You can’t fight without an opponent.”
This proverb means basically the same thing as “it takes two to tango.” There can’t be a fight without both parties, so neither party is innocent.
悪戦苦闘 (akusenkutou) English Translation: “An uphill battle.”
This idiom can also mean “a hard fight” or “struggle” — anything where the odds are against you, and it’ll be difficult to overcome!
猪突猛進 (chototsumoushin) English Translation: “Charge headlong.”
It’s funny because this saying is calling someone a “wild boar”. But that’s how boars act, isn’t it? They’re stubborn and charge head-first.
You may hear this one, too: 猪突猛進ガール (chototsumoushin ga-ru), or “headstrong girl.”
因果応報 (inga ouhou) English Translation: “Bad causes, bad result”, “karma” or “what goes around comes around”
The meaning of this Japanese proverb is literally “cause and effect retribution.” So, when you do something bad, bad things will happen. You know what they say about karma.
負けるが勝ち (makeru ga kachi) English Translation: “To lose is to win.”
Ever feel like it’s a lose-lose situation? Well, that’s where this proverb comes in. The wisdom it shares says that it’s sometimes better to lose and avoid worse conflict than to continue foolishly fighting.
弱肉強食 (jakuniku kyoushoku) English Translation: “The weak are meat” or “survival of the fittest”
Hardcore! This one means the same as the English saying “survival of the fittest”, but it sounds way more diabolical.
Speaking of diabolical…
極悪非道 (gokuaku hidou) English Translation: “Villany” or “diabolical”
If you break down the kanji, it literally means “very evil and outrageous.” And so, you get… Diabolical! I can hear the evil laugh now. Mwahaha…
一刀両断 (ittouryoudan) English Translation: “One stroke, two halves.”
A more natural translation would be “cut in two with one stroke”. As an idiom, it’s used to describe someone who takes decisive action.
Japanese Proverbs About Death
馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない (baka wa shinanakya naoranai) English Translation: “An idiot can’t be cured of idiocy unless they die.”
Talk about harsh! This saying more or less means “you can’t fix stupid” but… more intense.
自ら墓穴を掘る (mizukara boketsu wo horu) English Translation: “Dig your own grave.”
There aren’t many idioms that both Japanese and English have that translate perfectly together. But I’m sure you know this one well. Like the English saying, “to put your foot in your mouth,” or to say something stupid that gets you in trouble. “Dig your own grave” is the same way and Japanese has an exact equivalent.
安心して死ねる (anshin shite shineru) English Translation: “Die in peace.”
This could be used to talk about someone who passed away at ease. Or it could describe a release of worry, like the English phrase. When a lifelong wish comes true or a big worry is solved and puts you at ease, you say “Well, now I can die in peace.”
死人に口なし (shinin ni kuchinashi) English Translation: “Dead men tell no tales.”
Someone who’s been killed can’t reveal big secrets, so that’s where this phrase comes in. Sounds like something the yakuza (Japanese mafia) might say, huh?
危機一髪 (kiki ippatsu) English Translation: “A close call” or “in the nick of time”
Almost got in an accident? Phew! “危機一髪!” That was a close call.
This has the nuance of “a close call with death” or “a close shave” but it’s also used like “just in the nick of time,” too.
疑心暗鬼 (gishin’angi) English Translation: “Suspicion will raise bogies.”
Feel like someone’s watching you? Are you “jumping at shadows”? That’s where this Japanese saying comes in. If you’re looking for demons in the dark, you’ll find them.
九死一生 (kyuushin iishou) English Translation: “Nine deaths, one life” or “near-death experience”
Like “a close call” above, this one is where you see your life flash before your eyes.
Beautiful Japanese Proverbs
I hope you’ve channeled your inner Iroh, Yoda, or other inner philosophical spirit now.
These Japanese proverbs and idioms will level up your Japanese and help you understand more nuanced parts of the language. But besides that, I hope you discovered some inspiring wisdom from these old Japanese sayings.
If you want to deep dive into the Japanese culture, read all the must-know cultural insights next. Or if you’re looking for more beauty and wisdom in the Japanese language, check out the most beautiful Japanese words every learner should know.
Which Japanese proverb was your favorite? Share it with me in the comments below!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.