Kanji Clinic #37, The Japan Times, May 15, 2003
“Four-kanji sayings pack an educated wallop”
My Japanese husband, pushed to the limit by our 8-year old, bellowed: “That’s
the third time this month you have forgotten your umbrella at school and
this time I'm not going to drive you there to get it. If it rains tomorrow
you’ll just have to get wet. 自業自得 (self-enterprise-self-profit, ji-gou-ji-toku,)!” Since ours is bilingual household, I--the native speaker of English--
might have said, “You made your bed, now lie in it!” Either way, our
son gets the idea.
Children in Japan and China are exposed from an early age to sayings such as these. Some of Japan’s four-character idioms (四字熟語, yo-ji-juku-go) depict personality types and human predicaments; others--like 自業自得 above--are wisdom-dispensing proverbs. The ability to effortlessly inject these zingers into spoken and written communications is one of the marks of a well-educated Japanese person. Students formally study four-character compounds beginning in junior high school, and later do battle with the more obscure ones on exams for university entrance and employment.
Many of Japan’s proverbs (e.g.: 猿も木から落ちる Saru mo ki kara ochiru ”Even monkeys fall from trees”) are written in sentence form, but the pithy four-kanji variety is comprised only of Chinese characters, with no kana interspersed. While some are homegrown, many four-kanji sayings used in Japan today-- like the kanji of which they are composed-- were imported from China, where they survive as part of the modern language there, as well.
Some four-kanji sayings are surprisingly similar to equivalent English expressions: For example, 一石二鳥 (one-stone-two birds, is-seki-ni-chou) is a dead ringer for “To kill two birds with one stone,” as is 我田引水 (one’s own-field-pull-water, ga-den-in-sui) for “To draw water to one’s own mill.”
Speakers of English may lessen the force of a statement by pulling out their cutlery in order to “mince words,” or, alternatively, to “cut to the quick.” Chinese and Japanese people also use a sharp instrument when they want to get straight to the heart of the matter: 単刀直入 (single-sword-straight-insertion, tan-tou-choku-nyu).
In contrast to “tooting her own horn,” a boastful Japanese or Chinese person is said to be “praising her own work of art" (自画自賛, one's own-picture-one's own-praise, ji-ga-ji-san). Instead of “making a mountain out of a molehill,” Japanese turn a needle into a pole when they exaggerate a bad situation: 針小棒大 (needle-small-pole-big, shin-shou-bou-dai). When they beg for something, they go beyond “getting down on their hands and knees,” prostrating themselves fully with 平身低頭 (flat-body-low-head, hei-shin-tei-tou). Not content to “bust their tails” on a project, hard workers in both China and Japan “turn their bones into powder and crush up their bodies (粉骨砕身, fun-kotsu-sai-shin).” Ouch!
Some of my favorite four-character sayings describe undesirable personality traits: 無芸大食 (no-skill-big-eat, mu-gei-tai-shoku) paints a vivid picture of an unaccomplished person. 八方美人(eight-directions-beautiful-person, hap-pou-bi-jin,) is someone who tries to be everyone’s friend and is thus untrustworthy. A person who is prone to embark eagerly on projects only to abandon them midway is deemed a 三日坊主 (three-day-monk, mik-ka-bouzu): Three days of austere Buddhist temple life have been known to cause aspiring monks to alter their life course.
On the positive side, 外柔内剛 (outside-soft-inside-hard, gai-juu-nai-gou) describes a person who is gentle in their day-to-day dealings with others, but tough when the situation demands it.
If you want to impress your Japanese or Chinese friends, students, or significant other, pop a few correctly used four-kanji sayings into your conversations. You will impress them even further if you can write the characters from memory on a scrap of paper as you speak. For starters, how about trying 十人十色 (ten-people-ten-colors, juu-nin-to-iro) the next time the topic turns to human diversity. As you may have guessed, 十人十色 is roughly equivalent to the English expression, “Different strokes for different folks.”
Spoken or written, these four-kanji gems can help you make your point succinctly and with style. They also provide a fascinating window into the cultural soul of East Asia.
For learning basic yojijukugo I recommend 中学受験ランク順 四字熟語２８８ Chuugaku juken rankujun yojijukugo 288 (学研Gakken, ISBN 4-05-300114-5), a pocket-sized volume designed to prepare Japanese sixth-graders for yojijukugo questions on junior high entrance exams. Using comic strips and easy-to-understand examples, it introduces 100 must-know yojijukugo in order of frequency of appearance on exams, and as of September, 2011 was available at amazon.co.jp.
Another column on yojijukugo is here.
New to KanjiClinic.com? Start reading archived columns here. (Column #1, "Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos")
25 Four-Kanji Sayings (Japanese and Chinese)
1. 和魂洋才 (Japan-spirit-Western-genius, wa-kon-you-sai)
To learn European civilization, but at the same time not to forget Japanese culture.
2. 蟷螂之斧 (praying mantis'-ax, tourou-no-ono)
(originally from Chinese) Pointless resistance. The small mantis, with its axe-shaped front legs, tries to oppose a chariot.
3. 尊王攘夷 (revere-emperor-expel-barbarian, son-nou-jou-i)
Revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians. (Meiji Era slogan)
4. 手前味噌 (hand-in front of-soybean paste, te-mae-miso)
Soybean paste made by one’s own hand. (Self-praise is no recommendation).
5. 適材適所 (right-lumber-right-place, teki-zai-teki-sho)
The right lumber in the right place. (The right person for the right task).
6. 他山之石 (another-mountain's-rock, ta-zan-no-ishi)
A rock from another mountain. (Good advice from an unnoticed quarter).
7. 大器晩成 (big-skill-late-develop, tai-ki-ban-sei)
(originally from Chinese) Great talents mature late. (Said of a late bloomer).
8. 酔生夢死 (drunk-life-dream-die, sui-sei-mu-shi)
Live drunk, die dreaming. (Live a debauched life).
9. 酒池肉林 (sake-pond-flesh-woods, shu-chi-niku-rin)
A pond filled with wine and a woods filled with flesh. (To have an orgy).
10. 士農工商 (samurai-agriculture-craft-business, shi-nou-kou-shou)
The four principal classes of pre-modern Japan (Samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants)
11. 晴耕雨読 (clear sky-plant-rain-read, sei-kou-u-doku))
Work the fields on a fine day, study on a rainy day.
12. 才子多病 (clever-person-many-sick sai-shi-tai-byou)
Too wise to live long.
13. 竜頭蛇尾 (dragon-head-snake-tail, ryuu-tou-da-bi)
The head of a dragon, the tail of a snake. (Something that turns out to be inconsequential).
14. 老少不定 (elderly-a few-not-determined, rou-shou-fu-jou)
Death keeps no calendar. (One might live to be elderly or only have a few years on earth).
15. 傍目八目 (outsider-eye-eight-eye, oka-me-hachi-moku)
The onlooker sees eight moves ahead. (Superior observation by an outsider).
16. 面従腹背 (face-follow-belly-back, men-juu-fuku-hai)
Obedience on one’s face but betrayal in one’s heart.
17. 明鏡止水 (bright-mirror-correct-water, mei-kyou-shi-sui)
To have a clear conscience.
18. 君子豹変 (wise man-leopard-change, kunshi-hyou-hen)
The wise man changes (suddenly) like the spots on a leopard.
19. 馬耳東風 (horse-ear-east-wind, ba-ji-tou-fu)
In one ear and out the other. (When spring winds begin to blow from the east, people are happy, but horses are totally unaffected).
20. 器用貧乏 (skillful-poor, kiyou-binbou)
Skillful, yet poor.
21. 人心難測 (person-heart-difficult-fathom)
The human heart is difficult to fathom.
22. 衣錦夜行 (clothing-brocade-night-go)
Dressed in the finest brocades to parade in the dark of night. (Not being able to show the people at home that one has made good).
23. 裏足不前 (behind-feet-no-forward)
Binding your feet to prevent your own progress.
24. 指鹿為馬 (point-deer-turn into-horse)
Pointing to a deer and calling it a horse.
25. 人心帰漢 (person-heart-return-China)
The hearts of the people belong to Han (China).
Taiji Takashima, Fountain of Japanese Proverbs, Hokuseido Press, 1981
Adeline Yen Mah, A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of China’s Past Through Its Proverbs, HarperCollins, 2002.
List submitted by Laurence Wiig
For more four-character compounds, visit here.