10 Useful Japanese Proverbs to Make You Sound Like a Pro

Proverbs are used a lot in Japanese conversations. There are approximately 43,000 Japanese proverbs, according to the Great Dictionary of Tradition and Proverbs. Many of them are deeply rooted in traditional Japanese culture. Using common Japanese proverbs in conversations will surprise your friends with your knowledge and make conversations effective and exciting. This article will teach you ten excellent Japanese proverbs. 

Japanese Proverbs About Life

The first five proverbs in this article are about life in general. 

1. 笑う門には福来る。(Warau Kado Niwa Fuku Kitaru)  –  Good Fortune and Happiness Will Come to the Home of Those Who Smile

This proverb means laughter and smiles are the keys to happiness and fortune. This proverb is a good reminder for anyone in any circumstance to stay positive. If someone is having a bad day, saying this proverb can help cheer up the person. 

Example:

John: 仕事に行く途中で事故にあって車が大破しちゃったよ。最近本当についてないな。
(Shigoto ni iku tochuu de jiko ni atte kuruma ga taiha shichatta yo.  Saikin hontou ni tsuite nai na.) 
I wrecked my car this morning on my way to work. I’ve been so unlucky lately.

Mike: それは大変だったね。保険でカバーされるといいね。でもほら、元気出して。”笑う門には福来る”だよ。
(Sore wa taihen datta ne.  Hoken de kabaa sareru to iine.  Demo hora, genki dashite. Warau kado ni wa fuku kitaru dayo.)
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope your insurance will cover the damage. Hey, cheer up!  Things will get better if you keep you head up.  

2. 命に過ぎたる宝なし。(Inochi ni Sugitaru Takara Nashi) – There Are No Treasures More Precious Than Life

The word 命 (inochi) means life, and 宝 (takara) means treasures. You can use this proverb to cheer someone up when they lose material things that are important to them. 

An example is when people lose their house and belongings in a fire, but everyone manages to escape the fire. Although it is undoubtedly tragic to lose a house in a fire, there is nothing more important than their lives.  

Example:

Hiro: 聞いてよ!昨日の夜、強盗にあったんだよ。そいつ俺のバッグ盗って逃げて行った。
(Kiite yo! Kinou no yoru, goutou ni attanda yo. Soitsu ore no baggu totte nigeteitta.)
You are not going to believe what happened to me last night! I got robbed by a guy. He took my bag and ran away.”

Ken: え?それは大変だったね。
(E? Sore wa taihen datta ne.)
What!? How unfortunate!

Hiro: うん。携帯と財布を盗られちゃったよ。
(Un. Keitai to saifu o torare chatta yo.)
I know! I lost my cell phone and wallet.

Ken: 信じられないな、そんな事がおこるなんて。でも、お前が無事で良かったよ。”命に過ぎたる宝なし”って言うだろ。
(Shinjirarenai na, sonna koto ga okoru nante.  Demo, omae ga buji de yokatta yo. Inochi ni sugitaru takara nashi tte iu daro.)
I can’t believe that happened to you, but I’m so relieved you are okay. The most important thing is you weren’t harmed.

3. 縁の下の力持ち (En No Shita No Chikara Mochi) – A Powerful Lifter in the Background

This is another common proverb Japanese people use daily. This proverb describes a nameless hero who does an unthankful job and is willing to work in the background. It means that the person works for a friend, family, co-worker, etc., without worrying about getting credit for the work. 

Have you ever seen actors receiving an award at the Academy Awards ceremony? During their acceptance speech, they often thank the people who supported them. Those who supported the actors are 縁の下の力持ち (En no shita no chikara mochi). 

It’s not always easy to notice when someone is doing a thankless job. Remembering this Japanese proverb might help you to be more aware of “nameless heroes” around you and thank them for what they do for you in the background. 

Example:  

Daichi: 秘書の山田さんが準備を手伝ってくれたお陰で、プレゼンテーションが上手くいったよ。
(Hisho no Yamada-san ga junbi o tetsudatte kureta okage de, purezenteishon ga umaku itta yo.) 
Thanks to help from our secretary, Yamada-san, my presentation went well.  

Miki: 山田さんは見えないところで一生懸命仕事をしてくれるよね。まさに”縁の下の力持ち”だね。
(Yamada-san wa mienai tokoro de isshoukenmei shigoto o shite kureru yone.  Masani “En no shita no chikara mochi” dane.)
Yamada-san always works hard without being recognized.  She is really the unsung hero of this company.  

4. 可愛い子には旅をさせよ。(Kawaii Ko Ni Wa Tabi O Saseyo) – If You Love Your Child, Send Him Out Into the World

This is a common proverb, especially among parents. Some might know the word 可愛い (kawaii) means cute. In this proverb, the term implies “adorable and precious.” 

No parents want to make their precious child go through difficult challenges. However, if parents truly love their child, they might have to let the child experience hardships on her/his own when they are old enough. Exploring the world on their own can help the child learn and grow as a person. 

Example:

Haru: 今度娘が1人でスペインへ留学に行くの。もう心配で。何か起きたらどうしよう。
(Kondo musume ga hitori de supein e ryuugaku ni ikuno. Mou shinpaide. Nanika okitara doushiyou.) 
My daughter is going to Spain on her own to study abroad. I can’t help worrying about her. What if something horrible happens to her?

Fumi: 分かるよ。私も息子が大学へ行くために家を出て行ったとき、”可愛い子には旅をさせよ”って自分に言い聞かせてたわ。
(Wakaru yo. Watashi mo musuko ga daigaku e ikutame ni ie o deteitta toki, Kawaii ko ni wa tabi o saseyo tte jibun ni ii kikasete tawa.)
I know how you feel. I felt the same way when my son started living independently in a new town for his college. I kept telling myself that the best thing I can do for my son is to let him live his own life.  

5. 親しき仲にも礼儀あり。(Shitashiki Naka Ni Mo Reigi Ari) – Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

This is an important reminder for anyone to keep their relationships healthy and long-lasting. The word 礼儀 (reigi) means manners. Japanese people often use this proverb to express the importance of maintaining good manners and being polite to each other no matter how close their relationships are. 

Example:

Jennifer: 今日リサがひどい事をしたせいで悲しい。
(Kyou Lisa ga hidoi koto o shita sei de kanashii.)
I’m feeling down about what Lisa did to me in class today.

April: どうしたの?リサとは仲が良かったじゃない。
(Doushita no? Lisa towa naka ga yokatta janai.)
What happened? I thought you two are best friends.

Jennifer: うん、そうだと思ってたんだけど。リサがみんなの前で私の体重の事をからかったんだよ。私が気にしてるのを知ってるのに。
(Un, souda to omottetandakedo.  Lisa ga minna no mae de watashi no taijyuu no koto o karakattanda yo. Watashi ga kini shiteru no o shitteru noni.) 
Yes, we are… or I thought we were. Lisa made fun of my weight in front of everyone, even though she knows that’s my biggest insecurity.

April: ひどいね。リサは”親しき中にも礼儀あり”だっていう事を知るべきね。
(Hidoi ne.  Lisa wa Shitashiki naka ni mo reigi ari datte iu koto o shiru beki ne.)
That’s terrible. I’m sorry to hear that. She needs to learn some manners.  

Japanese Proverbs Involving Animals

The following five proverbs involve animals. These might be easier to remember since animals can help visualize the information. 

6. 能ある鷹は爪を隠す。(Nou Aru Taka Wa Tsume O Kakusu) – A Skilled Hawk Hides Its Talons

This is another excellent proverb that Japanese people like to use. The word 鷹 (taka) means hawk. This explains that people with skill and knowledge don’t show off. They know the value of their skill and knowledge without getting recognition from others. 

Example: 

Dave: ジェイソンがあんなに速く走れるなんて知らなかったよ。体育の授業でめちゃくちゃ速く走ってたよ。
(Jason ga anna ni hayaku hashireru nante shiranakatta yo.  Taiiku no jugyou de mechakucha hayaku hashitteta yo.)
I had no idea how fast Jason could run! He ran like lightning in our last PE class!

Mark: ジェイソンは今年の夏、オリンピック候補選手のためのトレーニングキャンプに選ばれたって知らなかったの?
(Jason wa kotoshi no natsu, orinpikku kouhosenshu no tameno toreiningu kyanpu ni erabareta tte shiranakatta no?)
Don’t you know he was selected to go to the training camp for future Olympic candidates this summer?

Dave: 知らなかった。彼はそんな事言わないから。”能ある鷹は爪を隠す”なのね
(Shiranakatta.  Kare wa sonna koto iwanai kara.  Nou aru taka wa tsume o kakusu nano ne.)
I didn’t know that. He never talks about it.  I guess someone with great skills and confidence doesn’t need to show off).

7. 犬の遠吠え (Inu No Tooboe) – Barkings of a Dog in the Distance

The word 犬 (inu) means a dog. The literal translation of this proverb is “barkings of a dog in the distance.” It implies someone who only complains about everything, never taking action to improve themselves or the situation. A dog barks from a distance because it’s too afraid to get closer to an obstacle, rival, or challenge. 

It can describe someone who avoids confrontation and talks badly about the person behind his/her back. 

This saying is the complete opposite of the proverb above involving a hawk. A stoic “hawk” is like someone with true talent and knowledge, never shows off or talks much, whereas an endlessly barking “dog” is like someone with no skill or bravery and only knows how to talk. 

Example:

Situation:  Alex often goes to a bar after work with his friends. When he drinks, he always talks bad about his boss. His friends think it’s 犬の遠吠え (Inu no tooboe). 

Jeff: 仕事帰りによくアレックスと飲みに行くんだって?アレックスは酔うとどうなるの?
(Shigoto gaeri ni yoku Alex to nomi ni ikun datte?  Alex wa you to dou naru no?)
I heard you often go for a drink with Alex after work. How is he like when he gets drunk?

Chris: ああ。酔うといつも上司の悪口言ってるよ。あれじゃ”犬の遠吠え”だよ。
(Aa. Youto itsumo joushi no waruguchi itteru yo.  Are ja inu no tooboe dayo.) 
Yeah.  He always talks bad about his boss when he gets drunk.  That’s like a dog that only barks but it too scared to take action.  

8. 猿の尻笑い (Saru No Shiri Warai) – A Monkey Laughs at Another Monkey for Having Red Buttocks

Have you heard of the saying “The pot calling the kettle black.”? It means somebody comments on or accuses someone else of a fault which the accuser shares. 

This Japanese proverb involving monkeys represents the same concept. The word 猿 (saru) means monkey. Monkeys are known to have red-colored buttocks. This proverb says that a monkey laughs at another monkey for having red-colored buttocks. When this proverb is used in a conversation, it’s usually negative. 

Example:

Situation:  Sam made fun of Rachel for not receiving an A in math class even though he didn’t either.. It’s 猿の尻笑い (Saru no shiri warai). 

Shaun: レイチェルが数学でAを取れなかったって、サムがからかってたんだよ。サムだってAを取れなかったのに。
(Rachel ga suugaku de A o torenakattatte, Sam ga karakattetanda yo. Sam datte A o torenakatta noni
Sam made fun of Rachel for not receiving an A in math class, even though Sam didn’t get an A either.

Ryan: それじゃ”猿の尻笑い”だね。
(Sore a Saru no shiri warai dane.)
That’s like the pot calling the kettle black.

9. 雀の涙 (Suzume No Namida) – Sparrow’s Tears

雀 (suzume) means sparrow(s), small birds found in many areas worldwide. The word 涙 (namida) means tears. This proverb describes a smaller amount than what is needed, just like the idiom “a drop in the bucket.” 

Although Japanese people use this proverb to express a tiny amount of anything in general, they often use it to describe a small amount of money. 

Example:

Situation:  Buying a 75-inch television left me with only a small amount of money in my bank account. It’s 雀の涙 (Suzume no namida).” 

Arnold: 75インチのテレビ買ったんだって?すごいね。
Nanajuu-go inchi no terebi kattandatte?  Sugoi ne.)
I heard you bought a 75 inch TV.  That’s great.

Kevin: でもそのせいで貯金がほとんど無くなっちゃったよ。もう”雀の涙”くらいしか残ってないよ。
(Demo sono sei  de chokin ga hotondo nakunacchatta yo.  Mou suzume no namida kurai shika nokotte nai yo.)
Yeah, but because of that, most of my savings are gone.  I have next to jack-squat leftover.  

10. 河童の川流れ (Kappa No Kawa Nagare) – Kappa Carried Away by a Current

A 河童 (kappa) is described as a Japanese mythological creature that resembles a turtle and a young boy. Kappas are believed to live in rivers, and therefore, are thought to be pro swimmers. There are various viewpoints of how kappa came to be a mythological creature. This website does a good job investigating kappa and its characteristics if you are intrigued. 

This fascinating Japanese proverb implies that the best swimmers, like kappa, frequently drown if not careful. This proverb reminds people that when people become proficient at something, they tend to take it for granted, leading them to failure. No matter how experienced you might be, you need to maintain your skills and be at your best.

Example:

Jeremy: 田中さんがこの間スノボに行って、派手に転んで大ケガをしたらしいよ。
(Tanaka-san ga konoaida sunobo ni itte, hadeni koronde ookega o shita rashii yo.)
I heard Tanaka-san went snowboarding, took a bad fall, and got injured really badly.

Hitoshi: え!田中さん、スノボめちゃくちゃ上手なのに。”河童の川流れ”だね。
(E! Tanaka-san, sunobo mechakucha jouzu nanoni.  Kappa no kawa nagare da ne.)
What!  Tanaka-san is a really good snowboarder.  I guess even experts can have a bad fall too.)

Conclusion

This article revealed ten excellent Japanese proverbs. They can be used as valuable reminders in daily life for anyone to stay humble and thankful. The concept behind each proverb comes from Japanese culture. They are passed on from generation to generation, like many life lessons. 

Which Japanese proverb was your favorite? Are there any proverbs that you love but didn’t find on this list? Let us know in the comments. We would love to hear from you!

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