Kanji Clinic #68, The Japan Times, March 24, 2005
"Befriending four-kanji sayings is as easy as 1, 2, 3"

One of the most frequently visited pages at KanjiClinic.com, the website I host for foreign adult kanji learners, is a column on four-kanji idiomatic compounds (yojijukugo, ln). The wide appeal of these linguistic gems is probably due in large measure to the punch they pack: Comprised of a succinct four characters, yojijukugo vividly describe complex human predicaments, often dispensing wisdom as applicable today as it was centuries ago.

Some four-kanji sayings, such as ꍏ (ikkoku senkin, one-moment-a thousand-gold, gTime is moneyh), are near-clones of English expressions, while others, like OX (temae miso, hand-in front of-soybean paste, gpraising self-made miso,h i.e., gtooting onefs own hornh), reflect unique aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture.

An excellent website cataloging over a thousand yojijukugo, including their English translations, is available here. For zeroing in on the most commonly used sayings, I recommend w󌱃N@lnQWW Chuugaku juken rankujun yojijukugo 288 (w 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 use.

Today letfs take a look at some of the many entries containing kanji for the numbers one to ten.

(ichi, one) is the most commonly used number-kanji in yojijukugo. H (ichijitsu senshuu, one-day-a thousand-autumns), for example, eloquently describes gwaiting for what seems like an eternity.h (ichigo ichie, one-period of time-one-meeting) translates into English as ga once-in-a-lifetime encounter,h and S (isshin doutai, one-heart-same-body) denotes gas one flesh.h In Japanese, gto take drastic measuresh means to cut something in half with one decisive swing of the sword: ꓁f (ittou ryoudan, one-sword-both-cut).

Two popular four-kanji sayings containing mean gto kill two birds with one stoneh: ꋓ (ikkyo ryoutoku, one-deed-both-gains), and the more direct translation from English, Γ (isseki nichou, one-stone-two-birds).

Several entries in Rakujun contain gtwoh (, ni), gthreeh (O, san), and gfourh (l, shi): 񑩎O (nisoku sanmon, two-bundles-three-mon, gworthless junkh) originally referred to bundles of firewood worth three mon, a pittance during the Edo Period, when this saying was born; Oqq (sanpai kyuuhai, three-bows-nine-bows)@translates as gkowtowingh; and the dreaded lꔪ (shiku hakku, four-suffering-eight-suffering) means gto be in dire distress.h

Another yojijukugo describing hardship is ]| (shichiten battou, seven-tumbles-eight-falls, gwrithing in agonyh), but donft confuse it with look-alike ]N (shichiten hakki, seven-tumbles-eight-risings), which is the rough equivalent of gpick yourself up and start over again.h

l (happou bijin, eight-directions-beautiful-person) is someone who tries to be all things to all people.@㎀ꐶ (kyuushi isshou, nine-deaths-one-life), meaning ga narrow escape from death,h is remarkably similar to the English gcat with nine lives.h Finally, it takes all sorts of people to make the world go eround, a sentiment summed up well in \l\F (juunin toiro, ten-people-ten-colors).

All of the yojijukugo in todayfs column, including the quiz below, are comprised of kanji learned by Japanese elementary school children. The kanji may be basic, but dropping these zingers at appropriate conversational junctures is guaranteed to give your Japanese a decidedly erudite quality.

Here is another column on yojijukugo.

Match the four-kanji sayings below, all containing the kanji for gone,h with their English equivalents. An English keyword has been provided for each kanji.

1. ꌾm (ichigen koji, one-say-reside-gentleman)
2. ꒷Z (icchou ittan, one-long-one-short)
3. Ss (isshin furan, one-heart-not-chaos)
4. ]痢@(ichibou senri, one-look afar-a thousand-villages)
5. ꌾ (ichigon hanku, one-say-half-phrase)
6. S@] (shinki itten, heart-function-one-turn over)

a. undivided attention
b. sweeping view
c. a ready critic
d. change of heart
e. plusses and minuses
f. not even a word

ANSWERS 1.c 2.e 3.a 4.b 5.f 6.d

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